Raman spectroscopy as a diagnostic tool – a stimulus for interdisciplinary collaboration
Efficient collaboration across disciplines is the foundation for successfully researching new ideas and paving the way for innovative technologies and processes. Dr. Anja Silge, Head of the Applied Biospectroscopy/Bio Assays Working Group at Leibniz IPHT, and Dr. Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer, specialist in microbiology and virology at Jena University Hospital, are working on joint research projects on how Raman spectroscopy can support modern diagnostics. In this interview, they explain how the medical perspective and expertise in biological imaging complement each other perfectly, what role interdisciplinarity plays for them and how progress can be made towards faster diagnostics.
Dr. Deinhardt-Emmer and Dr. Silge, please think back to your first meeting. Did you have any biases against each other’s discipline that you have been able to revise in the meantime?
Anja Silge: We quickly realized that the first hurdle is mutual understanding. Both sides must be willing to understand the underlying concepts and perspectives of each discipline. For example, the word sensitivity in the medical context means the ability of diagnostic tests to detect a certain disease. As a spectroscopist, sensitivity means how well you can detect and evaluate the small amount of Raman scattered light from a specific analytical target.
For instance, in a collaborative research project between medical doctors and spectroscopists, the medical team may request the spectroscopists to develop a highly sensitive Raman spectroscopy technique for early disease detection. However, without understanding the specific requirements and limitations of each discipline, the spectroscopists may overlook crucial aspects such as sample preparation techniques or biological variability that could affect the accuracy of disease diagnosis. By working together and writing a joint publication, we have dealt intensively with these topics and generated new synergy that we want to use for future projects.
Can you explain the topic of your joint project?
Anja Silge: Raman spectroscopy can be used to characterize intact immune cells without the use of markers or destruction. Our hypothesis is that the spectral fingerprint could be used in diagnostics in the future. Because of the complexity of Raman spectroscopy as well as the properties of biological samples, establishing innovations in smart diagnostics requires intensive support from disciplines such as microbiology, immunology, spectroscopy, and data science.
Why is interdisciplinarity important for your joint project?
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: Mainly the direct exchange with our colleagues from physics leads to the understanding of methods and technology. Potential applications are defined more on the clinical side while our colleagues show us the possibilities of the technology. Afterwards we find common solutions to achieve better patient care.
How can Raman spectroscopy make a difference compared to conventional diagnostic techniques, and how do you make it high-throughput?
Anja Silge: Raman spectroscopy allows for the non-invasive and rapid capture of the cell’s molecular fingerprint. Detecting changes in the cell chemistry of immune cells caused by an infection is one of the most essential diagnostic tools. Raman spectroscopic measurements with high throughput are made possible by specific sample preparation and sample management, along with automatic image recognition of the target particles and special illumination techniques.
What are the key findings until now, and how did they benefit from interdisciplinarity?
Anja Silge: Patients suffering from systemic infections could benefit from phenotypic characterization of innate immune cells. High throughput screening Raman spectroscopy (HTS-RS) represents an innovative strategy for direct and non-destructive detection of changes in the composition and phenotype of the white blood cells.
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: The findings of our study show that the stimulation of neutrophil granulocytes with SARS-CoV-2 leads to the expression of IP-10 and IL-6, relevant markers of a systemic infection.
Anja Silge: HTS Raman spectroscopy revealed a phenotypic modification of neutrophil granulocytes in response to pre-stimuli and SARS-CoV-2 infection. Raman spectroscopy is a powerful technique for assessing immune cell phenotypes since it highly correlates with proinflammatory cytokines. The interdisciplinary cooperation enabled the experiments to be arranged in a meaningful sequence with adequate positive controls and reference measurements to further develop Raman spectroscopic phenotyping.
Communication of interdisciplinary research and within interdisciplinary teams can be challenging. Can you share your experiences?
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: Finding a common language takes some time. For this, it’s particularly good to organize informal meetings and discuss the topics on a working level. We invite colleagues to our lab and show them how and what we are working on. In the same way, I like to go to colleagues and have the equipment explained to me. That way you understand what is needed and you learn what problems might occur.
Can you briefly address what can go wrong in interdisciplinary communication? Perhaps there is an example where you have learnt what should be avoided in order to keep the discourse constructive?
Anja Silge: Both parties must properly express their expectations. It is not sufficient to hand in a biological sample at the laboratory entrance and subsequently receive a spectrum. As Stefanie noted, it is critical that physicians visit our labs and see how the cells are studied under the Raman microscope, what buffers or fixations are utilized, and how long a measurement takes. In exchange, the physicians teach the technologists how to handle biological materials, which traits and structures are particularly significant, and which time frames must be observed. Furthermore, spectroscopists describe which parts of the spectrum are from the instrument and which are from the sample, as well as what expected information is reflected in the spectrum and what is not. This keeps the discourse constructive.
Were there factors in your education or background that particularly prepared you for interdisciplinarity?
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: I am a medical doctor and have been trained to work with patients. Maybe this helps me to interact with other people and find out what their interests and problems are.
Beyond your enthusiasm for the topic: Are you putting your scientific career at risk by working in an interdisciplinary project? What are relevant aspects?
Anja Silge: I don’t feel that I am risking my scientific career by working on an interdisciplinary project. Globalization, climate change, and the associated increase in the spread of infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance pose complex challenges. These can only be solved through an interdisciplinary approach, and I am excited to gain experience in developing valuable solutions for real-world problems. That’s the direction I want to take my career.
Is the scientific system in Germany prepared for interdisciplinary research?
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: I experienced the interdisciplinarity in other countries as better. In Germany, everyone enjoys cooking their own soup. Colleagues are afraid of losing data or influence. Perhaps special reward systems should be invented for interdisciplinary work. And maybe there should also be special application forms at the DFG.
Can you give (further) examples what these other countries do better?
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: Universities in the US offer interdisciplinary courses and programs that encourage students to explore topics that transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries. These programs often involve faculty from multiple departments.
In Germany, the academic system is traditionally more structured and departmentalized compared to the United States. Interdisciplinary research often requires navigating more rigid departmental boundaries.
Do you have a suggestion how communication and network building between postdocs can be fostered (by Leibniz)?
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: Arrange interdisciplinary workshops or seminars that bring together postdocs from various research areas. Encourage them to present their work and explore potential collaborations.
Apart from interdisciplinarity, what would you like to advocate for?
Anja Silge: Create a supportive environment for young parents in science.
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: Well, I am interested in improving the framework conditions for clinicians in research. For this purpose, I am co-founder of ClinSciNet, a networking program for clinician scientists in Germany. There is great potential here to attract young scientists for translational medicine and thus also to promote interdisciplinarity.
Who can participate in this program, and how are you fostering networking?
Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer: Clinician scientists typically hold medical degrees, such as the Doctor of Medicine (MD) or equivalent qualifications. They are licensed physicians and often have completed residency training in a medical specialty. Clinician scientists divide their time between patient care and research activities. They work in clinical settings, seeing patients, diagnosing illnesses, and providing medical treatment. Simultaneously, they engage in laboratory or clinical research, contributing to scientific advancements. Exactly at this point, connections to basic research have to be built up in order to establish common networks at an early stage.
We would like to express our sincere thanks to Dr. Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer and Dr. Anja Silge for the interview on interdisciplinarity with their participation.
To the full and original interview of the Leibniz PostDoc Network.
In the picture:
Dr. Stefanie Deinhardt-Emmer (left) from the Jena University Hospital and Dr. Anja Silge (right) from Leibniz IPHT
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