A Global Conversation with Dr. Gardini of The Wistar Institute

By Will Becker

The Wistar Institute and the University of Bologna (Unibo) in Italy have recently established the Wistar-Unibo Ph.D. Exchange Program in Cell and Molecular Biology to bring Unibo graduate students to Wistar for their three-year Ph.D. training. The program fosters scientific and intellectual exchange in research and education between Italy and the United States and is aligned with Wistar’s commitment to expand and strengthen its network of collaborations for the research and training of junior scientists in the U.S. and beyond. We spoke with Dr. Alessandro Gardini about this new program and what it means for international collaboration in Philadelphia’s health and sciences sector.

Will Becker: Thank you for providing this opportunity. Right off the bat. What issues would you hope that this current incarnation of the exchange program hopes to address and prioritize?

Dr. Gardini: We started thinking about this back in 2019, and our first year of recruitment was during the pandemic. We want to have a solid program of scientific exchange whereby we have talented trainees coming here, getting trained, and then being able to go back and continue their career, further spreading and enhancing whatever areas they have researched at Wistar. Because of the pandemic, there is a dramatic shortage of trainees in labs because it has become increasingly difficult for people to make plans. 

This is what the U.S. scientific world has always thrived in attracting people from the rest of the world to spend at least part of their training. I think our duty is to be able to facilitate this and at the same time really try to attract the best talents. 

WB: That's great. You started the program in the middle of COVID, so how has navigating the pandemic changed the program for you when it comes to an exchange?

Dr. Gardini: To be honest, I think good things can come out of frustration. I was so frustrated because we had worked so hard to kickstart this program up until February of 2020, and now we had the threat of having to postpone it. We had some applications from potential students and potential trainees, and I felt I couldn't tell them, ‘well, sorry guys, you know, we tried but what can we do.’ I set my foot down at some point and said, ‘you know what, I'm going to do this, and if two months from now we're not even able to physically get these people here, then we'll adjust.’ 

That turned out to be a good philosophy because we were able to still see things through, and I'm also honestly very impressed by these first recruits who decided that in spite of everything that was going on they were certainly looking for something positive like this program to look forward to. But I can even say up until they actually came here at the beginning of November, I was like, ‘I'm really not sure that this is real!’

WB: What benefits have you found from the first incarnation of the exchange program that you've translated into this new one, or do you feel like it's an entirely different type of exchange program?

Dr. Gardini: Things are ever-changing like human beings, and even in these kinds of programs things continuously morph and become something different every year. We're a small institution so we can immediately adapt to what response we get and how many students the program supports. We gauge what their skills are and we try to make the best matches for them. We want to make sure that the right people with the right skillset end up in the right lab with the right mentor.

WB: Do you or Wistar have any aspirations for any further international collaboration?

Dr. Gardini: I would say very much so, I think this is going to be a great test for us, and if we're able to do this with a big university like the University of Bologna, well, what's going to stop us at this point?

All we need is to find other good institutional partners. I honestly see this model applicable to many other places so I would say that's definitely the aspiration for us – to grow and try this model with other countries and institutions. It's great that with technology, you can attend conferences in a virtual format, but anyone would tell you it's really not the same. The best kind of collaborations, be it a scientific collaboration or institutional collaboration like what we're talking about, only comes out when you're sitting together somewhere.

WB: It looks to me like a lot of your current and past research has been medical biotechnology, molecular medicine. You’re also a scholar of the Leukemia Research Foundation and American Cancer Society. Would you say that a lot of the exchanges are focusing on cancer research at the moment?

Dr. Gardini: Yes, definitely. But the beauty of Wistar is that you really have so much under the umbrella of cancer research these days – entire sub-domains and entire scientific disciplines that are even relatively far apart from one another. By striving for the greater good – which is increasing our knowledge of how cancer originates and disseminates – we can embrace trainees that have interest in virtually any domain. In the end, all kinds of training are offered while working towards the ultimate goal of understanding more about how cancer develops and spreads.

WB: Do you feel that the cultural differences that you get from working with scientists from another country that might be studying the exact same topic changes the way that you view that same issue?

Dr. Gardini: It does, absolutely. It's something that sometimes you don't even process. We always look at the same figure on one paper that was published yesterday – it's me, you, and a third person –and we see three different things in that figure. This is true in science and this is why we always need to have a conversation. Broadly speaking, confronting one another is what really keeps science alive. Anyone who's trained in a different country will have a slightly different vision and will bring in something different because of the way they were trained or because of the resources they have. Sometimes having a different set of resources is what propels science in such a great way, and elicits a different way of trying to tackle a problem. Your brain is constantly looking for alternatives and different approaches. This is really the core of science – always thinking about a different way of approaching things, and this is what makes the good discoveries come alive in the end.

This interview was edited for clarity.