Lessons in Perseverance from the Pandemic to a Ph.D.

Last year, in the spring of 2020, when countries across Europe were going into full lockdown, Ioakeim (Makis) Ampartzidis faced a decision: whether to stay in Cambridge, UK, to continue working on his master’s thesis or to fly home to Greece to be with his family during the pandemic. “To me, the latter option would mean a failure in my studies,” he says. Yet, after finishing his experiments and securely collecting his data, he made the difficult decision to go home. “Thinking of it now, I have no idea how I managed to pull this through,” he recalls. “Support from friends and family, as well as my lab peers and previous Amgen Scholars was valuable at that point.” 

Ampartzidis would return to Cambridge after three months of virtual lab meetings and journal clubs and finish his master’s degree, working under mentor Thorsten Boroviak, who was also his supervisor for the 2018 Amgen Scholars Program (ASP). “We coordinated weekly meetings while writing my thesis and stayed in touch,” he says. “He has been a great mentor for me ever since and we are still in contact.”

He was also able to apply for Ph.D. programs, securing a fully funded position by the National Institute for Health Research Great Ormond Street Hospital Biomedical Research Centre. Moving to London was a big adjustment, but Ampartzidis says that he has finally adapted well to the changing world. ASP caught up with Ampartzidis to learn more about his path since the Amgen Scholars Program. 

ASP: How did you become interested in science?

Ampartzidis: Looking back to when I was a high-school student, I had an inclination in STEM subjects, including physics, maths and biology, which caught my attention over the last years of high school. I still remember the introductory module of molecular biology when I was 16. We took a glimpse of the molecular machineries that constitute a cell. Until then, I had not realized how complex and in balance everything had to be. I can recollect the passion with which our teacher talked to us all about it, and I wanted to share the same excitement. Biology always made sense to me, but I realized its importance because it is an active field of research with fundamental unanswered questions. I wanted to be part of it and thus I studied molecular biology in Greece. A few years later I moved across the country for my undergraduate studies, where my interest became stronger. That was also when I did my Amgen Scholars summer at the University of Cambridge.

ASP: What is your favorite memory from or part of the Amgen Scholars Program?

I do not think I just have a single memorable moment. My favorite part was spending my everyday life with the rest of the Amgen Scholars. On the first day, we were total strangers and over a 2-month period we developed strong friendships, sharing the same agonies and excitements for the years to come. Ever since, we meet up quite often and most of us live and study in the UK. The program was an excellent opportunity to network and make memories to cherish for life. 

Ampartzidis with his University of Cambridge Amgen Scholars cohort at the Europe symposium.

ASP: Can you describe, in brief, your path from Amgen Scholars to where you are now?

Ampartzidis: After the completion of the Amgen Scholars Program, I wanted to continue in academia. I decided to apply at the same lab for an MPhil degree. This transition from my undergraduate studies to a familiar environment for my MPhil would give the opportunity to adapt more easily in the new environment. In addition, I was part of the laboratory for primate embryogenesis, working in a field that I was interested in and wanted to explore further. 

During my postgraduate studies in Cambridge, I decided to pursue this life more. Thus, I started applying for Ph.D. positions across the UK. The reason why I chose the same country was because I was already here for a year now and I thought that there were many more opportunities for me. Trying to balance experiments and applications was a full-time job. I decided to focus my attention not in fundamental research as before but in translational research: How can we apply our research to develop or improve medical therapies? Today, I am doing my Ph.D. at University College London under the supervision of Dr. Gabriel Galea and Professor Paolo De Coppi.

ASP: What are you working on for your Ph.D.?

Ampartzidis: My research project focuses on disease modelling and neuronal regeneration of spina bifida, using a stem-cell-based approach. Spina bifida is a condition in which the spinal cord does not form properly, during early stages of development. This condition affects 0.5 in 1,000 births globally. Today, gold-standard management of spina bifida involves surgery before birth. My project aims to develop stem cell treatments which will ameliorate the neurological outcomes of people who have spina bifida.

Perseverance is the main lesson I have taken over my journey so far. Despite the difficulty or delay of your success, at the end you will make it.

ASP: What do you think most prepared you from Amgen Scholars for your current work?

Ampartzidis: The Amgen Scholars Program was an amazing opportunity for me. I gained research experience in a world-leading research university, made long-lasting friendships, and networked with people across different disciplines.  The one thing that prepared me for today was the mentoring from previous Amgen Scholars.  In multiple occasions over the program, we had the chance to meet and informally chat with previous Scholars. They have been in our position and have now moved on to do their Ph.D.s. Thus, their advice was of great importance to me. For instance, they advised me to apply early for a Ph.D., as the application process starts early in the academic year. Additionally, they offered to help with practicing interview questions. We have managed to create a hub in Cambridge with the previous Scholars. The past curators of the program, Jen and Karl, managed to achieve that with great success. I continue to want to help Scholars who want to do a Ph.D. but do not know where to begin with it.

ASP: What lessons have you drawn from your journey?

Ampartzidis: Perseverance is the main lesson I have taken over my journey so far. Despite the difficulty or delay of your success, at the end you will make it.  For instance, I did not stop applying for Ph.D. positions over the pandemic; I would not put my dreams on hold for that. Embrace yourself for the unknown and have contingency plans. 

ASP: Is there anything else I did not ask you about that you would like to add?

Ampartzidis: I want to highlight the importance of helping people more. It is high time to engage ourselves with a spirit of unity. Earlier this year, I became a STEM ambassador, to support learning for young people, and I recently joined the Institute’s YouTube channel to participate in public engagement. Lastly, I volunteered to help at a London’s COVID-19 vaccination center. I believe that the current unexpected situation should make us all realize that we should be there for each other more than ever before.