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EAVI2020 Students in Focus: Dominik Damm (Department of Virology, Friedrich-Alexander-University (FAU), Erlangen, Germany)

Bookshelves with an old door in the middle and overlaid text: eavi2020 students in focus

Time to meet: Dominik Damm

Where I started

I wished to work in the field of HIV vaccine research since I was 13 years old. When I started my study of biology at the University of Regensburg, I tried to get into all immunology- and virology-related classes and seminars available and managed to do both my Bachelor and Master thesis on HIV-related topics. Finally, Prof. Klaus Überla gave me a PhD position in his group at the Department of Virology, which is part of the University Hospital in Erlangen, Germany. The group develops and tests nanoparticles as HIV vaccine candidates that present trimers of the HIV envelope protein (Env) on the surface and encapsulate heterologous T helper epitopes inside (T helper nanoparticles). We hope to recruit pre-existing T helper cells from childhood vaccinations in the vaccines that give intrastructural help to the Env-specific B cells, thereby modulating and improving the HIV humoral immune response. So, basically, I am currently doing what I always wanted to do and this gives me motivation every day I go to work.

photo of Dominik Damm

Dominik is in his 6th year of study and his research focusses on T helper nanoparticles as HIV vaccine candidates

Luckily, the EAVI2020 program kicked off in the same year my PhD position started, so I got to experience this great consortium from the very beginning to now. Over the years I attended several PhD training courses and presented my research progress at the annual meetings.

Where I am

In principle, the training courses were reflections of the different EAVI2020 work packages with each course laying the focus on another aspect of the wide range of HIV vaccine research. Thus, we covered everything from antigen design, B and T cell vaccines as well as therapeutic approaches to animal models and ethical guidelines, industrial large-scale GMP production, etc. The courses were accompanied by workshops about grant writing and good scientific writing, which now helps me a lot during the final phase of my PhD.

A wonderful fact of the EAVI2020 meetings was the ability to discuss hurdles, problems and prospects of your own research with other PhD students or leading HIV researchers without the bitter taste of rivalry, because everyone acts in concert and there is huge respect towards each other’s work. Also, the PIs always seemed to set great store on encountering PhD students at eye level in discussions or during presentations, which improved their self-esteem as young researchers.

Since I did not have the chance to travel a lot as a child or teenager, it was refreshing to be among so many people from different countries and to actually visit these countries for the first time for meetings and training courses. Thus, the EAVI2020 program also enriched my cultural knowledge in many ways. My personal favourite was a one-week visit in Marit van Gils’ and Rogier Sanders’ labs (Academic Medical Center (AMC), The Netherlands) as part of the EAVI2020 student exchange program. Being there, I learned new lab techniques, had plenty of discussions with all the lab members that helped to modify my own project, and I could watch the famous SOSIP trimer production site.

Where I am going

As a student, I was always admiring the big international or US-based HIV vaccine consortia such as IAVI or CHAVD, where many scientists are working synergistically together, thereby producing and publishing high-impact research progress very efficiently and in a short amount of time. Now having the exact same thing among European and Australian HIV research groups is a fantastic opportunity and highly promotes competitive, creative strategies to end the HIV pandemic. I dearly hope that the EU will continue with similar or follow-up programs beyond Horizon2020.

Currently, I perform some last experiments for my PhD project and write the resulting publications. After my PhD, I will try to receive a grant or fellowship for a Postdoc position and hopefully be able to kick off some kind of junior research group.

Outside the lab

Outside the lab, I like to clear my mind by going for a walk, while listening to music and catching some Pokémon. I also love to play the guitar and go to concerts, but mainly I spend quality time with my two little children.

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