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A biomedicine nerd

She is a fan of formulas and molecules, and she likes to get to the bottom of things. She has been appointed ‘nerd of the week’ by her research group on a few occasions in the past, and this will most likely happen again. However, it is not only her great attention to detail but also her ability to see the full picture that makes Anna Zetterqvist stand out.

"I chose biomedicine because I like natural science but also because we have the opportunity to make a difference in our field. We can help improve medical treatments", says Anna Zetterqvist.

Diabetes-related vascular complications

Anna Zetterqvist is a PhD student at the Lund University Diabetes Centre (LUDC) and works in the group led by Maria Gomez. The focus of this research group is to identify new ways of treating damage to the walls of blood vessel that are caused by high glucose levels. This damage causes patients with diabetes to be at high risk of suffering heart attacks and strokes as well as incurring damage to the kidneys and eyes.

"Our group has discovered a completely new signalling pathway which can explain why high glucose levels damage blood vessels. We have also recently published an article where we used animal data to show that the complex chain of molecular processes that lead to vessel damage can be broken", says Anna Zetterqvist.

Instant appeal

When Anna Zetterqvist was at the end of her biomedical training she contacted members of the research group, amongst others Maria Gomez. She says "There was no hesitation in my mind. This is where I wanted to work." She goes on to explain that this notion was verified when she flicked through the scientific journal Nature on her first day at work. "The very first article I came across was written by Leif Groop, and not just anyone gets published in Nature."

Tough choises

It is evident LUDC is the right place for Anna but the road there was long and far from straight. She elaborates "I like everything I do and this sometimes creates dilemmas. It makes it difficult to choose." After finishing a scientific programme at a Swedish ‘high school’ she had plenty of alternatives. She had deliberately chosen the Natural Science Programme because it maximises the options after graduation.

When asked why she chose biomedical training, which in principle forms the base for PhD studies and a research career, she says "I found chemistry and physics easy at school and I guess you like what you’re good at." That is probably true, but in Anna’s case it is not a very good explanation as she left school with top marks in all subjects.

Stacks of books

"I suppose I was a ‘good girl’ at school. But I liked school. This has always been the case", she says and explains that she is crazy about acquiring knowledge. "Yes, if I go to the library, I end up leaving with way too many books", she says and uses her hands to indicate just how high the stack sometimes is.

It was most probably at her family home in Furulund outside of Lund that this thirst for knowledge came about. Anna’s father Nils-Ingvar showed her how to do the multiplication table using a Commodore 64 computer, and her mother Lena pinned the alphabet to the wall – A for Ape, B for Boat and so on.

High school emergency services

During her time at high school, Anna Zetterqvist organised "Gymnasieakuten" which was an ‘emergency service’ that offered to help other students prepare for exams in science subjects. "My first moonlighting experience", she comments.

One of the options after high school was medical training. She says "Yes, but my mum advised against it. She thought I would become too emotionally involved."

Samba in Rio

Instead she tried her hand at a variety of short-term jobs, a term doing chemistry at Lund University, and travelling. In 2003 she joined the Pink Bus tours in South America, and travelled from Rio in Brazil to the Land of Fire in Chile. "A fantastic experience", she sums up, and paints a picture of the Pampas from horseback, of sliding down the sides of a snow-covered volcano, of hikes high up in the Andes in consistent rainfall but with a warm cabin and three-course meal waiting in the evening, and of samba dancing in Rio. She concludes "A black lady who was there with her entire family showed me the moves. She was a real Big Mama, everything rocked, but she was a fantastic dancer. She was incredibly happy and beautiful."

Chemistry and formulas

After several trips to faraway places like Australia, New Zealand, and Thailand, it was time to deal with the issue of choosing an education. Anna went about this systematically; she collected a bunch of information materials, went through them, and decided on biochemistry. She says "I felt like this is where I belonged. Chemistry and formulas, focused questions with clear answers …"

Techniques and thoughts

The initial period of a PhD focuses on learning different laboratory techniques. "Our group is not very big so we all have to know several different techniques and it takes a long time to set up a new technique", Anna explains and goes on to say that a normal working week for her means 50 or 60 hours. Her work is made up of two parts, one lab based and the other in front of the computer.

"At the beginning, the lab techniques scared me a bit, not to mention the experiments on animals. The first time I had to put a mouse down was dreadful. Afterwards I went to my mum for consolation and asked if she still liked me, which she did of course. I consider animal testing necessary", Anna says. She continues to explain that it’s the other part of her work, the one which consists of thinking, writing, and looking to answer scientific questions, that is the most interesting to her.

Pride, prejudice and food

Anna Zetterqvist explains "Research is about asking the right questions and developing methods that will enable you to answer them. This process fascinates me." Despite the long working week and being drawn to natural sciences, Anna has other interests. About this she says "Culture, books, and films are important to me. They feed your soul."

Among her favourite authors are the Finn Arto Paasilinna, the American Paul Auster, and the Brit Jane Austin. About Austin, Anna Zetterqvist says "Her ’Pride and Prejudice’ has followed me since I was 13 and my whole family gathered round the TV to watch. My dad recorded all the episodes on video. I pretty much know them by heart and to this day I will watch scenes from certain episodes when I’m feeling low. This always makes me feel better. I like the historic perspective and it’s so romantic."

Another pleasure is food. A perfect Saturday for Anna Zetterqvist begins with planning a meal with good friends, going out to buy the ingredients, cooking the food with care, and then eating it slowly. Her speciality is baking bread and cakes.

First great love

That her research career began at LUDC has a lot to do with the instant appeal of Maria Gomez’s work but also with her first great love. "Yes, he was diabetic and I borrowed a thick book and learned a great deal about the disease. He sometimes asks me when we meet if I’m going to help him now, and that’s what I’m trying to do. Not only him, but all people with diabetes of course, which is why LUDC feels so right for me", Anna Zetterqvist explains.

Something big going on

She runs two parallel research projects. One is on damage to the large blood vessels in the body that increases the risk of heart attack and stroke. The other concerns damage to the fine blood vessels in the eye that can adversely affect eyesight. To date, she has co-authored two published scientific articles. She is first author of the next one, which is almost done, and it may be of great significance. "We have developed a completely new way of showing how diabetes-related vascular damage can be treated", Anna Zetterqvist says, and goes on to describe the thrill she felt the first time she saw the results of her experiments.

Hair-raising results

The code that hid which of the laboratory animals had received active treatment was broken. Anna fed the information into her computer. She was soon to find out if and how successful the experiment had been. Then she stopped dead in her tracks. She recalls, "The hairs on my arms stood on end and I felt warm inside. It had worked! In fact, it worked very well! Maria was sitting in the same room and she noticed how quiet I was and sensed that something had happened. Then I told her."

That was one of the times she was elected nerd of the week. Hopefully it wasn’t the last. 

Text: Tord Ajanki/Cecilia Franks
Photo: Tord Ajanki

Published 2010-02-16


anna zetterqvist

Anna Zetterqvist