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From Poland to the UK and back again: an international BSI member’s perspective

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Dr Lilit Hovhannisyan, Prof Danuta Gutowska-Owsiak, Mr Adrian Kobiela and Dr Joanna Frackowiak at BSI Congress 2019 in Liverpool (L-R).

The British Society for Immunology represents over 4,000 members around the world from a wide range of sectors and career stages. Here, BSI member Professor Danuta Gutowska-Owsiak from University of Gdańsk shares her journey in immunology across two countries, from her undergraduate degree in Poland, her exciting career in the UK and her move back to Poland to start her own lab, and highlights the impact the BSI has had during this time.

Budding scientist

From an early age I was drawn to experiments, watering the plants grown in the allotment by my blissfully unaware dad with a variety of mixtures. Gradually as I developed more interest in humans, I decided to study medicine. I applied to the Medical University of Gdańsk to see what I could learn about human physiology and disease. After graduation in 2003, I left Poland – with a medical degree but almost no clinical practice – to work as a waitress in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. What I knew at this stage was that I found immunology fascinating and that I wanted to pursue my career in an experimental setting.

Discovering the BSI

To cut a long story short, I ended up at the University of Liverpool, first as an honorary research assistant, then as a PhD student, investigating NKT cells in rheumatoid arthritis patients. It was there that I came across the British Society for Immunology and attended my first BSI Congress. It was a completely different and rich world for me – having been stuck in a small lab with little help and no money for reagents, and not many people to talk to about immunology.

I was over the moon when I was offered the position of postdoctoral immunologist in Oxford, in the group of Professor Graham Ogg at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, MRC Human Immunology Unit. I got involved in researching the skin barrier and its regulation by inflammation, and had a continued interest in the lipid-specific immune responses. Oxford is such a terrific place and I was so excited being exposed to the great immunology brains all the time. The group was fantastic, and my boss was my mentor; I learned a lot during my eight years there.

New roots

But I knew that I wanted to start my own research group; at the same time family responsibilities were dragging me and my family back to Poland. To be fair, our initial idea was to come to the UK for one or two years; it was already 13 years and my family obligations in my home country started piling up. So, I started applying for homing grants. I was successful obtaining both a Marie Skłodowska-Curie-co-founded POLONEZ Fellowship from the Polish National Science Centre and a generous ‘First TEAM’ grant to start my own lab, from the Foundation for Polish Science. We made our return journey at the end of 2017, after 14 years in the UK, coming back as a family of four.

I ended up at the Intercollegiate Faculty of Biotechnology; a very unique formation set between the University of Gdańsk and the Medical University of Gdańsk. The lab’s main research theme is communication between cells during immune response in the skin and beyond. We are especially interested in small extracellular vesicles, such as exosomes secreted by keratinocytes upon exposure to allergens and pathogens and how they convey the message to the immune system.

At the time there was no immunology research carried out at the university, so it was really challenging to start an immunology research programme from scratch. Immunology is greatly underrepresented in Poland with the Polish Society for Experimental and Clinical Immunology having only roughly 200 members. I knew I would have to organise myself for some basic equipment, such as an ELISpot reader. The first year was especially challenging; at the end of the second year, things started looking a bit brighter but then the pandemic hit and we had to close down, losing precious expanded keratinocyte cultures and not being able to finalise the experiments we planned. We are finally back on track now with first papers out. The lab went into a logarithmic phase, and we expect to submit several papers describing our work in the coming year.

No regrets

I am lucky to have built a group of interested and passionate people who contribute their time and effort and for whom immunology is also captivating. I kept my collaborations, many from the UK, and have now expanded my research partner network outside the Isles, into Poland and beyond. Several grants later, new studies are coming up, new ideas develop; I am exploring avenues that I would never have imagined finding. Overall, changing my path into 100% experimental immunology was the best career decision I made; I have no regrets with personally not having any clinical involvement, since I have collaborations with clinicians to satisfy my craving in this area. I am drawn to experimental work. I realised early on that clinical involvement would be a major distraction for me. At the same time, there have been many challenges but also rewards for me being back in Poland, both from a research and personal perspective.

I kept my membership status active after my move to Poland and attended the BSI Congresses at all cost! The BSI is such a brilliant supportive environment and resource, and this is what I keep telling my team.

As far as the BSI is concerned, as my experiences were always fantastic, I kept my membership status active after my move to Poland and attended the BSI Congresses at all cost! The BSI is such a brilliant supportive environment and resource, and this is what I keep telling my team. As a PI I want the best for the members of my lab, so now my PhD students and postdocs have also become BSI members! We have attended the BSI Congress together and I do my best to send them to the BSI Summer Schools, so they can learn and talk about their research in a supportive and friendly environment. My personal experience as a BSI overseas member has been nothing short of excellent so far and I would encourage anyone from any country in the world to join and stay in touch!


Professor Danuta Gutowska-Owsiak,
University of Gdańsk


The BSI community

Being a member of the BSI means being part of one of the largest networks in the world for those interested in the immune system. We offer members unique opportunities to:

  • Build your skills and advance your professional development through our varied grant schemes
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  • Keep up to date with cutting-edge research through the BSI family of journals

And much more! Find out more about your benefits here.