The Irish scientist examining ‘hearts in dishes’ in Milan

Aoife Gowran leads a stem cell project at Europe's only dedicated cardiovascular research hospital

Aoife Gowran from Templeogue working in the lab in Milan

Aoife Gowran from Templeogue working in the lab in Milan

 

Aoife Gowran is originally from Templeogue in Dublin. She lives in Milan and is a group leader and research scientist at Centro Cardiologico Monzino, a private cardiac hospital dedicated to cardiovascular research.

Tell us what you did in Ireland, and why you left.

Before I went to Italy in 2014, I was a researcher and temporary lecturer at the Department of Physiology in Trinity College Dublin. Eight years ago, I met my soon-to-be wife Trudy when she studied as Erasmus student at UCD. She is from Austria, and the first conversation we had was not about Mozart or Arnold Schwarzenegger, but about Vienna’s amazingly beautiful incinerator since I remembered it from an RTE report by Duncan Stuart ( see Fernwärme Wien designed by Friedensreich Hunderwasser). Obviously it didn’t scare Trudy too much, as we are getting married in February next year in Dublin. We moved to Milan in June 2014, where I started my new position as a research scientist and now group leader at Centro Cardiologico Monzino.

Tell us about your career there. 

Monzino is a private cardiac hospital and home to Europe’s only centre dedicated to cardiovascular research. I head up the induced pluripotent stem cell group, and I particularly enjoy that the research lab is so close to the clinical setting and that my work is centred on personalised medicine. Induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) are derived from blood samples donated by patients. iPSCs are self-renewing adult stem cells, which can develop into specialised cells such as cardiomyocytes. Since iPSCs are patient specific, and cardiomyocytes can be made from them, they can be thought of as having the patient’s heart “in a dish”. These “hearts in dishes” may be utilised in many ways, for example as a laboratory tool  to model diseases, as a means to screen novel therapeutic drugs or - possibly one day - as a cell therapy product.

The hospital invests a lot in staff training and development. In my four years here, I’ve completed six training courses (national and international) on various research-relevant topics and have presented my research findings at international conferences at least twice per year, which is fantastic.

Thankfully, the costs of socialising are far lower here

What does your day-to-day work involve? 

Generally at this time of the year, to avoid the extreme heat, I arrive early in the lab. As more people arrive, we get a coffee. When I first arrived in Italy I took one coffee per day, now I drink three to four. In the lab the working language is English and I am still working on my Italian. When I first started working in the hospital, I did long days at the lab bench doing experiments, but now as a manager, I spend more time applying for grants. Research funding is available here in much larger quantities than in Ireland.

What is it like living in Milan? What are the costs like? Do the Irish fit in well there?

Milan is a very surprising city. Before living here, I categorised all large northern Italian cities as ugly and industrial. But Milan is a great urban environment and in parts very green. I live five minutes from the Navigli (canals) district, which is very scenic and picturesque. During fashion weeks, the whole of Milan goes a bit crazy with people-spotting all over the city.

The one thing about Milan that I would love to change is the cost of accommodation, it is similar to Dublin. Thankfully, the costs of socialising are far lower here. The public transport system is efficient and fares are very low. I think the Irish and Italian cultures fit well together and share many similarities such as making the best of very little, and having a strong sense of family and regional belonging.

Have you any plans?

Since I thrive in my job and Trudy and I enjoy living in this cosmopolitan city, we have no plans to move again at the moment.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career abroad?

Take the chance, keep an open mind, manage your expectations and have patience with everyone including yourself.

Is there anything you miss about living and working in Ireland?

The things I miss most about Ireland are of course family and friends. Everything else can be brought over in such amounts that it all lasts until the next visitor arrives; I am especially thinking of tea that must be in stock at all times. In the work context, I miss the email communication for the small things. In Italy a large part of this type of communication is done in person or over the phone, which is something I am still adjusting to.

Where do you see your future?

I can imagine still working in Italy, but maybe moving to another country and exploring another culture and work environment. Trudy is a historian and her post-doc life will involve lots of travelling in the next years. Overall, I have a fluid approach to the future.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience, please email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about yourself and what you do. 

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