Maternal and fetal diseases, carrying the risk of life-long disability, are closely associated with complications during pregnancy. From implantation to the birth of the newborn and even beyond, the immune system and inflammation play significant roles during normal pregnancy. However, inflammation needs to be tightly controlled since aberrant inflammatory reactions may induce tissue malfunction and metabolic derangements, leading to pregnancy disorders. Similarly, neonatal complications, such as lung and brain injury, but also obesity, diabetes and vascular disease in later life, result from a ´fetal inflammatory response´ to factors underlying, or resulting from, pathologic pregnancies. DP-iDP bundles already existing networks of research to establish a long-term center of educational excellence aimed at exploring inflammatory and metabolic diseases in pregnancy. DP-iDP builds on the well-founded international PhD-program ´Molecular Medicine` (MOLMED) launched in 2006 at the Medical University of Graz. With this program our university offers in-depth training for students, cutting-edge methodology and intense interdisciplinary supervision among a selected consortium of researchers. The ORPPHEUS award- a European network for best practice within PhD programs and the ‘HR Excellence in Research’ label for MOLMED illustrates international recognition of highest standards in working conditions. Given the high prevalence and ample impact of pregnancy complications on the health care system, inflammation and the underlying mechanisms in gestation deserve further exploration. Thus it needs specialized training for a new generation of PhDs, in order to pioneer novel therapeutic interventions. The major topics of DP-iDP include the human placenta as the life-sustaining interface for the unborn to the mother, and its changes of morphology and function at sites of inflammation in early and late pregnancy. Innovative approaches to the clinical classification of `inflamed pregnancies´, the maternal microbiome, but also the impact of preventative actions will be considered in our research. Our faculty consists of 12 internationally renowned researchers, 3 having a medical, and 9 a life-science background, with 4 of us being based at the Department of Obstetrics warranting constant access to patients samples. This specific base and our joint expertise in obstetrics, immunology, cell biology, biochemistry, and microbiology put us in an unprecedented position to address pregnancy-related pathologies in a comprehensive, interdisciplinary manner. A strength and unique feature of DP-iDP is the close proximity between clinical research infrastructure, clinical centers, and basic research laboratories which facilitates intellectual and technological exchange between students and faculty. In the long run, this privileged intramural position will provide a setting where students can be trained in a highly specific, but yet interdisciplinary manner, by which delivery of promising research results to patients is significantly accelerated.
Fig. 1: Immunofluorescent staining of a third-trimester placental villus. The cross section of the villus is bordered by the trophoblast (TB) layer (CK7, green, green arrowhead). Inside the villus, feto-placental endothelial cells (fpEC) line the feto-placental vessels (CD34, white, white arrowhead). Hofbauer cells (HBC) are evenly distributed, but often close to feto-placental vessels (CD163, red, red arrowhead). A representative image of images taken from three individual placentas is shown. Original magnification: 200×, scale bar = 50 µm. The upper insert shows cultured primary fpEC that have a polygonal shape, grow in loose arrangements and exhibit the classical cobblestone-like appearance. The lower insert shows cultured HBC which exhibit a pleiomorphic phenotype with many vacuoles. Original magnification of the inserts: 200×, scale bar = 100 µm.
The faculty was founded as a focus of excellence to promote scientific studies of the human placenta and maternal–fetal interactions during pregnancy. It brings together 11 supervisors, who are recognized international experts in their fields, based in different departments within the Medical University of Graz in Austria (Med Uni Graz). Their range of multidisciplinary expertise extends from biochemistry, through genetics and epigenetics, physiology, pharmacology and metabolism, to clinical studies and epidemiology. This unique depth and breadth of expertise allows members to adopt an integrated and comprehensive scientific approach to understanding the complexity of placental biology. It is further strengthened by several young researchers holding externally funded research fellowships, e. g. Marie Curie grants. The ultimate aim is to explore placental biology in inflammation with modern biomedical tools and translate new findings into approaches to alleviate placenta derived complications of pregnancy, which may be caused by diabetes, growth restriction and pre/eclampsia which all still remain a major cause of maternal and infant morbidity and mortality worldwide.
The selection of the most motivated and capable ESRs for DP-iDP needs a fair, transparent and fast process which will be installed in line with the European charter for researchers and the code of conduct for recruitment. Following an international call, PhD researchers of DP-iDP will be a three-step selection procedure. In the first step, written applications will be ranked. In a second step, selected candidates may be contacted by skype interviews if one or more supervisors have further questions. In a third step, the top candidates will be invited for a personal hearing to Graz, Austria. The International Selection Committee consists of the External Advisory Board and the DP-iDP Faculty of Supervisors which together conduct and control this process. At the end after the first year and two independent calls 15 ESRs will be affiliated by the DP-iDP Faculty.
In the first year, students will complete coursework and select three different research groups for lab rotations. After the first year students will single out a thesis supervisor and select a research topic for their thesis. An individual career development plan will be drawn up including training in teaching and other transferable skills, attendance of international conferences. The interdisciplinary DP-iDP core courses are designed to encourage the exchange of knowledge between ESRs from highly diverse backgrounds and promote the conditions which allow for multidisciplinary approaches in research. A broad variety of topics is offered to PhD candidates to encourage them to think beyond the boundaries of their primary research focus. In addition, the courses fulfil a community-building function in terms of fostering exchange between students from different laboratories. In addition to the interdisciplinary core courses, researchers also take specialized and advanced courses, both thematic and methodologic, as part of the PhD programme. At the Med Uni Graz, DP-iDP ESRs are required to act as teaching assistants for at least one course.
After the successful admission of the aplicants, PhD candidates perform three rotations with three different research groups. A rotation is a period of roughly two months in which students perform research in a laboratory on a research project. It is on the basis of this experience that students can choose to affiliate with a research group. It is also an excellent opportunity for students to learn to think across disciplines and build up first collaborations and cross-disciplinary skillsets.
In the qualifying exam, applicants’ knowledge within their proposed research area, their ability to identify important research problems, and their capability to come up with ways to tackle these problems, are assessed by the thesis committee. The qualifying exam takes the form of a presentation and oral exam. Applicants must pass the qualifying exam within the first year to continue on the DP-iDP program and perform thesis research. Re-examination after negative evaluation is possible within one month.
Upon passing the qualifying exam, DP-iDP researchers conduct a hypothesis-driven research project supervised by one DP-iDP faculty member. DP-iDP research groups are deliberately kept small to ensure close supervision, and all PhD candidates are mentored by several DP-iDP faculty members and renowed international scientists in the field, who make up the thesis committee. There are annual reviews which evaluate the students’ progress, and ensure that they stay on track towards completion of the PhD. ESRs are also encouraged to present their results at scientific conferences, and within the Institute.
DP-iDP faculty is committed to providing its students with the skills for a successful career since it is no longer enough to simply be good researchers; to a certain degree ESRs also need to be teamleaders, mangers and experienced in marketing. DP-iDP researchers can participate in seminars and workshops on topics including scientific presentation, career planning, time and self-management, interpersonal and intercultural skills, and science communication.
All our PhD researchers are fully funded and employed by the university, at internationally competitive salary levels, and receive full social security coverage. There is also financial support for students for attending scientific conferences and workshops. All materials and facilities are provided by the program to students to ensure rapid progression of their research project.
The duration of the PhD programme is typically 3 to 4 years, depending on whether a student will take a skill training abroad or not. Before the final exam and the permit to defend the thesis is given, the PhD candidate needs to demonstrate at least one first-authorship in a Science Citation Index (SCI)-ranked top-20 % journal as a direct outcome of the thesis research project.
Potential employers from both the private and the public sectors want researchers with a wider set of skills and competencies than just specialized knowledge in a given topic. A DP-iDP doctoral degree will give the ESRs cutting edge skills within a broad very significant research field of “Inflammation in pregnancy disorders” and opens up a wide range of career opportunities. After graduating with a PhD degree, DP-iDP researchers can continue to pursue an academic career at a research institute or in industry, as a researcher / teacher at a university, as a research-competent leader in the commercial or healthcare sector, as a science journalist or consultant. Consequently, our doctoral education provides students with a broad grounding in the subject and prepares them for their scientific and professional futures beyond the scope of the study plan for an individual project.