Researcher spotlight : Ruben Riosa

Published: 30 September 2019

This week, Elle has put Ruben Riosa under the spotlight. Originally from Italy, Ruben is now completing a PhD within IBAHCM, as part of a collaboration with University of Bonn and Evonik Industries...

Elle has put Ruben Riosa under the spotlight. Originally from Italy, Ruben is now completing a PhD within IBAHCM, as part of a collaboration with University of Bonn and Evonik Industries!

Tell us about your current roles...
I was born in Trieste, a small but charming city in the North-East of Italy overlooking the sea. Currently, I am one of the eleven Early Stage Researchers involved in the European Joint Doctorate in Molecular Animal Nutrition (MANNA). I am working on project number 5, which focuses on the nutrition and physiology of dairy cows. My PhD project sees a collaboration between the University of Bonn, the University of Glasgow and the company Evonik. Moreover, being the scientific copywriter of the MANNA project, I’m involved in the communication and dissemination of information within the network. I’m also collaborating as a news editor within the Marie Curie Alumni Association, which is an association that unites all researchers who have worked or are currently working on a Marie-Curie funded project.

And your journey to arrive at BAHCM?
I did my bachelor’s degree in Breeding and Animal Health at the University of Udine, Italy, where I learnt the basics of the animal sciences. Following my undergraduate, I became more interested in animal nutrition and physiology, so I decided to move to the University of Milan for my master’s degree in Science and Technology of Animal Production. During my master’s I won an Erasmus Plus scholarship which allowed me to work at one of INRA’s (National Institute Agricultural Research) research centres (UMR Pegase of Saint Gilles, France) for 3 months – I completed research on dairy cows, which also became the topic of my master’s thesis.
Once I had finished my studies in 2018, I was selected as one of the Early Stage Researchers of the European Joint Doctorate in Molecular Animal Nutrition (MANNA).

Can you tell us more about your PhD and MANNA?
MANNA ESR's at GhentThe PhD project in which I’m involved is probably the best programme focusing on animal nutrition that can be found. The MANNA project comprises 18 leading research groups from 8 different EU countries. The network and the expertise of our team is something that you don’t often find. My project consists of  a team of eleven Early Stage Researchers, each of whom is supervised by 3 people (both academics and not). Together, we are working toward a common objective: applying OMICs techniques at various levels in order to answer to multiple biological questions relevant to different species (ranging from dairy cows and swine, to chickens).
I couldn’t be happier to be able to work on dairy cows’ nutrition, trying to understand how different diets can alter the metabolism of the animals. Moreover, having a strong supervisory team made up of professors with different academic backgrounds is really helpful and permits me to deepen my understanding about various aspects of animal sciences and biotechnologies. Another important feature I can’t forget to mention is my extra duty as a scientific copywriter! Being the coordinator of part of MANNA’s communication gives me lots of responsibility; however, I truly believe that practicing science without disseminating it to a wider public is a huge mistake, thus, I’m really proud of this aspect.

What is the focus of your research?
The focus of my research is to evaluate the effects of an increased intake of the amino acid Methionine on the metabolism and fertility in dairy cows during early pregnancy and first weeks of lactation in dairy cows. The research occurs during this transition period via characterisation of the metabolome and the proteome in blood serum. My project started with a large dataset comprising roughly 2000 cows divided in two feeding groups: one receiving a standard control diet and one receiving the same diet with an extra supplementation of Methionine. From this dataset, I had to select a reduced number of cows (using Machine Learning techniques) who were representative of the whole population by considering the already available results (such as clinical evaluations, fertility evaluations and production results). From these cows, I will use OMICs techniques to give me an overview of the metabolic differences of the animals and I hope to find biomarkers that can then be targeted at the population-level to understand the differences between the two diet treatments and/or between cows with a different clinical situations.   

What do you find most interesting about your work?
From a truly scientific point of view, the most interesting part of my work is probably the use of Machine Learning, but in general the use of biostatistics. Working with a large dataset and with OMICs data (which are numerous and very complex) will require a strong knowledge of biostatistics and a good inclination to spend lot of time in front of a computer screen. It might sound boring to many readers; however, this is the moment where you truly discover, hopefully, the differences in the animals you tested and you’re able to really understand if a treatment was effective or not… It’s exciting!
From a dissemination point of view, communicating science is not as easy as it seems. An important company (SPRIM Group) helps the MANNA project with communication, so having the possibility to collaborate with them is something that fascinates me – it gives me further insight into a difficult facet of science which can no longer be ignored.

What has been the most positive aspect so far?
Undoubtedly the possibility to frequently travel in different Universities and centres of research. This has given me the chance to meet an incredible number of valuable researchers who are always keen to support me and give me the best advice possible. Collaboration in science is very important, and one of the pillars of the MANNA project is focussed on the importance of connecting researchers with different backgrounds under the same umbrella, in order to work on common objectives.

What has been the most challenging aspect so far?
I can’t tell you what the most challenging aspect has been so far. When I’m doing my job, my only focus is to complete the task in the best and most efficient way possible. Moreover, once I’ve succeeded in doing a task, I’m ready to focus onto the next one. I usually don’t stop thinking about how hard my job is or how hard it was to complete a task, I simply go on; hoping to meet another challenge soon, because a life without challenges is pointless. 

What advice would you give to anyone doing or considering PhD?
Doing a PhD is something that you need to feel. I would not suggest doing a PhD as a replacement of something else, as it would probably become an agony. However, if you would like to deepen your knowledge on a specific topic, or if you are keen to pursue an academic career then you should definitely do a PhD. Be prepared to read a lot of scientific papers, be flexible, and I would suggest that you study/research abroad for a period of time. This last point is particularly important not only from a scientific point of view, but also for a personal growth: overall, don’t be scared by the people who are telling you all the negative aspects of doing a PhD… If you truly want it, you’ll never regret it.

Tell us about your plans for the future...
My short-term plan is to learn as much as I can and complete my PhD project to the best of my ability. Speaking of long-term plans, though I’ve already had a couple of ideas in mind, a major one of them is to keep improving my science communication skills, particularly in relation to public engagement. I truly believe that “science itself” is not enough. Publishing a paper in an important scientific journal is certainly the main goal of a researcher and it is a great achievement; however, the hardest part is to reach the general public and convince them that what you’re doing is important. Nowadays, people are keen to learn and want to be exposed to science: we need to permit them to understand it. A better connection between the “research world” and the “common world” is needed.

Don’t miss Ruben’s talk entitled ‘Insights into my first year of PhD – from machine learning to OMICs analyses’ at 16:00 on the 04/10/19!

First published: 30 September 2019