Toxicology alumna Jessica climbs to great heights for her PhD
Name: Jessica De Loma Olson
Degrees: Master's in Toxicology (2016)
Current role: PhD student, Institute of Environmental Medicine, KI
Based: Stockholm, Sweden
What is your educational background?
I’m originally from Valencia, Spain. I received a Bachelor of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences from the University of Valencia. The programme was very demanding, but built a strong learning foundation for my scientific career.
After my bachelor's, I knew really wanted to continue in academia, but I didn’t know exactly which direction I wanted to go. Two things were clear however - 1) I wanted to go abroad and 2) I wanted an international master’s degree.
I chose KI for the reputation and programme, but the strongest skill I achieved was the capacity to work and establish relationships across cultures.
Why did you choose KI?
The summer before my final bachelor year, I participated in iGEM, a synthetic biology competition. One of the participants from the team was headed to Sweden to attend KI. I learned then that the Toxicology Master's Programme at KI is one of the oldest in Europe, with a broad and complete program including lab toxicity, a human epidemiological perspective, and more. I was convinced it was something for me!
Describe your experience as master's student at KI.
The most important thing I learned was to communicate in a multicultural environment. The 28 students in my class represented more than 20 different countries.
I chose KI for the reputation and program, but the strongest skill I achieved was the capacity to work and establish relationships across cultures – To all students, I say “practice and master that early in your career; you cannot learn this from books!”
Another thing I learned was the importance of finding a balance between work and personal time. The KI programmes fit in study time within a given schedule. This allows you as a student to explore other career paths and interests in parallel to your studies. Being a student at KI also exposes you to fascinating and inspiring professionals. For example, you get the chance to attend the Nobel lectures and meet scientists driven by passion and curiosity. It’s contagious!
After you graduated from KI, what was your next step?
Ha ha – There's something that happens to many of the master’s students. When you first arrive and suddenly face the cold and dark winters, you spend months comparing your own country with Sweden. Then, after two years of experiencing a Swedish summer, everyone falls in love with Stockholm. Several of my classmates during the master’s got “Stockholm Syndrome” from Stockholm itself and decided to stay!
Following graduation, I wanted to continue in academia. My mind was set on an academic career, with a strong interest in teaching – I am really passionate to eventually pass on knowledge to the next generation. I applied to PhD positions at KI and found one in the same department, within a different research unit than where I did my master thesis. To my surprise, when I wrote the motivation letter to the lab, I learned they were looking for a Spanish speaker! You never know what skills will come in handy.
What is your current role?
I am a final-year PhD student at the Institute of Environmental Medicine at KI, preparing to defend my thesis.
What is your PhD research project?
My research project meets at the intersection between molecular epidemiology and population genetics. I evaluate how indigenous human populations living in the Bolivian Andes are chronically exposed to arsenic, what effect this toxic element has at a molecular level in their bodies, and if their genetics allows these populations to eliminate arsenic better.
Native populations from the Andes have adapted genetically to eliminate arsenic more efficiently from their bodies. This means that certain genetic variants linked to a better arsenic elimination appear at higher frequencies in these populations. However, no data was available for the Bolivian Andes, whose native populations we recently showed to be highly exposed to arsenic.
Genetic adaptation of this type is the consequence of centuries living in extreme harsh environments with very strong selective pressures modeling human evolution. My PhD project involves field work in remote villages from the Andes at more than 3500 meters of elevation to recruit study participants. Then, I evaluate their arsenic exposure in the lab, measure molecular markers related to toxicity, and explore the population genetics of these populations.
What are your future aspirations?
My main interests are communication, teaching and management. During my PhD, I realized I love managing and leading my own projects as well as teams. I thrive with establishing personal relationships and motivating people. So, I hope to enjoy academia for a while longer, then switch to more project leading and management. Or why not dive into science communication or marketing!
What is your advice to current students?
Find your driving passion! While you are a master's student, explore the things you like. Don’t just focus on being the BEST at what you are currently doing, invest in extracurricular activities. As a scientist, you don’t just have to do science.
And don’t forget to make friends and network along the way!
Editor’s note: During her master’s, Jessica was very active in student-driven activities. She was on the staff of Medicor, the student magazine, and was a student digital ambassador. She even joined the KI international student recruitment team on a trip to London to represent KI.
Now as a PhD student, she has written blog posts about new ways of communicating science as part of Crastina: https://crastina.se/. She was also the marketing manager for Create Squared 2020, a student-run innovation hackathon that promotes the entrepreneurial spirit among students.