Dual-degree student triumphs with French research:

Patent expected soon for neurological treatment

Dean Thierry Burnouf met Prof. David Devos, a neurologist specializing in Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease clinical research, as a neighbor in France.

But a Taiwanese student recently received not one but two doctorates there — thanks to that chance link growing into a dual degree program between TMU and a Nobel Prize-winning university.

After they chatted about the TMU dean’s pioneering research into growth factor platelets, Burnouf presented his work at Lille 2 Hospital, the largest in France.

The dual degree program recently yielded its first doctoral graduate, Natalie (Ming-Li) Chou. With a combination of weekly Skype meetings and travel between the two institutions, she conducted research that was roughly two-thirds at TMU, and spent a third of her study time in France.

Link grew across a garden fence

Dean Burnouf recalls: “The beginning is a bit funny, because in Lille my neighbor used to be Prof. David Devos, who is a neuroscientist and a clinician following patients with neurodegenerative disorders, Parkinson’s and amyotropic lateral sclerosis ALS, the “ice bucket challenge” disease. And once when he was in his garden and I was in my garden, we started to chat over the fence.

“And I explained what I was doing in Taipei, working with growth factors, in particular with platelets … looking for those having a protective role with neurons, probably as part of the repair mechanism provided by platelets when you injure yourself. … And then we started to think about using these platelet growth factors for the treatment of people with neurodegenerative disorders about five years ago.

“So since we had the idea of collaboration on this topic, we thought ‘Why not make a more formal official link between TMU and Lille? So first we had a Skype meeting with the vice president for international affairs in Lille, and President Yen here. So that is how the MOU memorandum of understanding for the partnership started.

“Then we worked on a dual PhD degree program for Natalie, and decided David Devos would be the co-PI [principal investigator] in Lille and I would be one of the co-PIs for TMU on this side, as well as Prof Lin Liang Tzung from Graduate Institute of Medical Sciences.” A TMU second student, Yao-Ting Hsieh, pursued a dual master’s degree (see TMU News) and a visiting professor exchange has brought Lille faculty member Dr. David Blum here.

Learning different lab routines

Language differences were an issue, so Natalie started two weekly French classes in 2014 once she got to Lille. But despite the difficulties, she said, “This dual degree really opened a view of the field for me. So I know how they [European researchers] proceed with their experiments.”

Which turns out to be quite different from Taiwan’s laboratory norms.

Natalie explained: “I learned that the French collaborate very well! We would have weekly meetings, so people are talking about their results to each other. And if they would have problems or questions, they can answer to each other.

“So I think this is very good teamwork in France, which I think is different from Taiwan. They are working with several supervisors and relying on each other — where Taiwanese would tend to work independently in the laboratory. In France you share the results with each other and if you have questions, people can help you. So this is a really good aspect of what I learned there.”

Besides closer teamwork on projects, Natalie also saw differences in individuals’ working routines and styles.

“Lab life is different there; they plan their work pretty much in advance. It’s a more efficient lab life there, where shorter working hours mean you’re more focused. You come in knowing what you’re going to be doing, instead of gearing up or having less-productive but longer hours.”

How she was selected

Natalie had been a stellar master’s degree student in TMU’s College of Medical Science researching candida albicans yeast. Then she worked as Research Assistant in Dean Burnouf’s laboratory, and says that’s where she “started to learn more about blood, especially growth factors in blood.”

When Prof. Devos and Dean Burnouf discussed using blood growth factors to heal Parkinson’s disease damage, Natalie was a logical candidate to pursue this research.

“Natalie had a good background in biological science when she started this degree program; she understood cell culture and she was already very well trained. The Parkinson’s cell line to be used was in Lille, so she went there to learn how to work with that,” Dean Burnouf said.

He had already helped her to take a year to learn from a working visa in Germany. Since she had already worked three months in a biotech company and six months in a blood center there, the prospect of crossing the planet alone didn’t faze her – or her family.

She pursued this research first using cells, then administering toxins to cause Parkinson’s-like damage in animals. The payoff was identifying a mixture of growth factors that showed healing effects.

“Since we mentioned about the patent, this is where Natalie has been very important, very instrumental. Platelet mixtures are used for different types of things. But our goal has been to develop a particular platelet growth factor preparation which can be nontoxic when you start to infuse it in the brain, which can be standardized, which can be well-controlled, and which can be subjected to viral inactivation treatment.

“And Natalie has found that one particular treatment that could enhance the neuroprotective effect of this platelet growth factor combination.”

Patent, publication and Paris postdoc

So the partnership took off – with stellar results.

“We got the patent report from the European patent office which is extremely favorable, so we are very optimistic that the patent will be granted … we will start publishing after March.

As a next step after her dual PhD, Natalie will research immunity and neurodegeneration when she moves to Paris 6 University in March – this is the hallowed institution where Pierre and Marie Curie did their world-changing research into radioactivity. She will focus on Alzheimer’s disease in a postdoctoral fellowship with two years of funding from Medical Research Foundation. Meanwhile Lille and TMU will carry forward their collaboration in pre-clinical and clinical work to treat ALS.

Twice as nice in half the time?

Given the enormous demands of working in an unfamiliar language, one might expect this dual degree took longer than most doctorates. However, the opposite is the case because the French system rigorously limits doctoral studies to intensive three years research work – and because most French researchers are pretty good in English too.

Natalie recalls: “Initially I didn’t speak any French, and after I visited the first time in 2014, I realized there was a need to speak French to integrate well in their laboratory … so now I can have some conversations in French.”

But Dean Burnouf said language study is optional at PhD level: “As Natalie said, language fluency is a matter of integration in the lab. Still, if you can’t speak French, you can still get by using English.”

The two systems differ greatly in how degree studies are organized. Natalie said French master’s students are expected to take 18 months of classes and then an exam – leaving them only six months in the lab as an internship that focuses on their chosen research topic. Then if interested in PhD they have to defend their research proposal before a challenging board of examiners.

So students starting their Ph.D. programs are very focused – and the research must start immediately because time is limited, but without additional coursework. Students must present yearly progress reports, and requirements on publications and international presentations are the same.

In contrast, Taiwan Ph.D. students are expected to take two years of coursework: 18 credits of coursework and 12 thesis credits, a pattern she called “really heavy loading in the first two years.”

Weekly updates and a six-screen defense

GIBMTE now also requires PhD progress reports every year, which Dean Burnouf called “not a place where the professor should have their gun to shoot at the student and fail them, but to give advice, recommendations, perhaps suggest the student talk with other professors, in order to help the student to finish and publish. It’s a committee that’s supposed to help the student, not destroy the student. Students and Professors should feel being on the same boat towards achievements and novelties!”

Natalie concurred, saying “This helped me a lot to finish my Ph.D. in a short time.”

They travelled to Lille in December for her defense, while three TMU committee members, including Dean Huang Chao-Ching of College of Medicine, participated by video link – “three cameras and six screens” including the slides and speaker. But then the champagne was opened (this was in France, after all!)

Paying for this pioneering arrangement was complex. She received NT10,000 from TMU’s International Office (IO) for the defense trip, and Lille paid for six months of dormitory and one previous trip. Dean Burnouf said European studies are helped by a culture of benefits for students that extends far beyond the low tuition.

“I think it’s really beneficial to students: they can learn more, open their mind – and this does not involve a great deal more financial expense. They can get support from IO. Yao-Ting [the dual master’s degree student] got support from the Lille University (CABRI grant) as well as the French embassy, and did not need to pay tuition fees in Lille.” This student was paying only 250 Euros per month for dorm fees, and he had his own kitchen and shower in his room, plus half of this dorm cost was reimbursed by French social welfare system that is opened to all, French and Foreigners.

Natalie said multiple student discounts in Europe helped too, whether for local transport, student meals or movies: “I think France is the best for the student!”

Advice and rave reviews

“Taiwanese students are a bit shy about starting a dual degree program – which is a big mistake,” Dean Burnouf said.
Natalie encouraged students to pursue dual degrees, noting that “Language ability is pretty important,” as is flexibility to deal with different freedoms and restrictions.

She faced a thesis defense and an oral defense, and in France she needed two external reviewers’ approval before she could defend – not committee members from other institutions, but experts entirely unrelated to her research.

“I stayed there when there was a need, so I was traveling frequently back and forth,” she said. “But there was also a weekly meeting thru Skype, so Prof. Devos and Thierry could follow my work.

“I’m very happy to have this dual degree, so I can learn all these advantages from both sides.”

There is now another TMU MS student, Ouada Nebie from Burkina Faso, continuing the work on traumatic brain injury and platelet growth factors. Dr. David Blum of Lille University, now a visiting professor at TMU, is on his MS committee, so the partnership that started over a garden fence will continue to bear fruit.

For interviews or a copy of the paper, contact Office of Global Engagement via global.initiatives@tmu.edu.tw.