Guest post: Umbreen at the ICTP second Nano-Bio-Med Conference, Miramare-Trieste Italy

There is a new rule in the lab: anyone going to a conference has to write a guest blog post for Rapha-z-lab. Elena Colangelo inaugurated the genre here. This post is by Umbreen Shaheen, post-doctoral researcher working on the functionalization of nanoparticles with proteins for single molecule imaging. She was a speaker at the conference and also chaired a session; well done! 

An introduction and history of the ICTP
ICTP is an international centre for theoretical physics founded in 1964 by Dr Abdus Salam who started it with his own Nobel prize money and the help of United Nations (updated 5/11, see comments). Now it is a UN territory and run through a tripartite agreement between UNESCO, IAEA and the Italian Government. The organisation buildings are named after renowned scientists and their life histories can be seen through photographs on building walls. The idea of building this organization was to give research/study opportunities to the scientists from developing countries and to provide them a  chance to interact with the scientists from developed countries. Any scientist from anywhere in the world can organise a conference in ICTP by sending a proposal. Once the proposal is accepted, a local organiser from ICTP will join to help.
The participants who joined us from developing countries were being offered travel and health insurance and dwelling allowance along with free accommodation at ICTP guest houses, which were not less than 4 star hotels. Invited speakers were also offered the same package along with travel cost.
Nano-Bio Med conference
It was the 2nd Nano- Bio-Med conference, organised by Samir Iqbal (USA), Sangeeta Kale (India) and Joseph Niemela (Italy).There was representation of 17 countries at this conference. I enjoyed a lot the scientific talks, the company of renowned scientist, the weather and the venue. The venue was well equipped with IT facility, free PCs and printers, low cost but high standard catering, TV lounges, conference rooms, a beautiful terrace and yes, a piano which can be played by anybody until 9.30 pm. The poster session was also organised in a very impressive way. The sessions were divided into three parts, so only few posters to go through per day. This enabled all students who were taking part in poster presentation to also see other student’s posters easily without being stressed by their own poster presentation. The organizers were easily approachable by all the participants which contributed to a friendly atmosphere.

The audience and speakers were an interesting mix of electrical/mechanical engineers, physicist, chemists and biologists from USA, UK, India, Pakistan, France, Italy, Spain, Russia, Iran, Tunasia Australia etc.

It seemed that mechanical and electrical engineers just realized the fascinating engineering going on inside the cells at the nano scale and they are now enthusiastic to harness it to build nano-sensors and nano-machines. Chemists were presenting their high throughput methods for synthesizing novel nano-materials and biologists were exploring some biological applications as well as evaluating effects of nanomaterials on biological samples. Most attendees were focused on the potential impact of nanotechnology on daily life issues e.g. low cost and high throughput disease detection methods & devices.

From Pakistan (Madeeha Chaudhry from COMSATS Pakistan, won the best presentation award for this project), a prototype portable electronic device  which can replace the heavy and time consuming PCR machine for Hepatitis diagnostic fascinated many scientists from across the globe (USA to Iran). It is cheap, easy to use, gives results in minutes, and needs only a tiny amount of sample. At the moment they are dealing with evaporation and pressure problems to improve its performance.

Gregory Damhorst (USA) presented a bionanosensor also based on microfluidic electronic device which can detect HIV infection using very small amount of blood. This device is already marketed. A potential limitation could be the ever changing HIV epitopes which may require the antibodies to be updated often (my opinion).

Darr Jawwad from UCL, UK was keen to collaborate with colleagues who could make use of his negatively charged monodispersed magnetite nanoparticles and some other nanoparticles having properties like Qdots but with no blinking or toxicity problem.

It was truly an interdisciplinary conference where the presenters were facing certain categories of questionss from the audience. The physicists were more curious to know the physical properties of nanomaterials, biologist inclined toward delivery and toxicity and chemist toward the preparation steps. The discussions at the end of the talks were interesting, sometime heated with frank and blunt questions and comments. Taking advantage of this forum, I did participate and asked questions some which may have been naive, some which I hope were pertinent.

My talk

If I summarise the points and feedback

  • People were aware of endocytosis but from my talk they better understood how the surface chemistry or simply the size of nanoparticles decides the type of endocytic route.
  • For some of the audience, endocytosis was a success as more endocytosis means more uptake of materials hence more bioavailability – this is a misconception as materials are sequestered in the endosomes.
  • Photothermal microscopy was not a generally known technique which is understandable as there are only a few photothermal microscopes in the world. Fluorescence, TEM, Raman and atomic force microscopy were the main imaging techniques reported by the other speakers.
  • A cartoon from a Science article which I quoted in my talk to show interaction of thiol with gold ignited a heated discussion in the audience. An attendee argued that it is a completely wrong interpretation as bond length and angles are very misleading. As it was not my own work, I did not engage in the discussion and kept going on smoothly with my talk but in my heart I decided “OK, no cartoon any more from other source” but according to my supervisor,” The problem is with using a cartoon that you cannot defend because your understanding of it is not deep enough”.
(Left) A view from ICTP main building, (Middle) with best presentation award winning students from Pakistan, (Right) with Galina, a physicist working in Russia and Spain

(Left) A view from the ICTP main building, (Middle) with best presentation award winning students from Pakistan, (Right) with Galina, a physicist working in Russia and Spain



  1. Umbreen, very interesting post, reminded me of growing up in Trieste and of many adventures at the ICTP and neighboring park when I was a teenager.
    Just one correction… the ICTP was launched (1964) well before Abdus Salam got his Nobel Prize (1979). He did not use his Nobel Prize money to start it.


  2. Thanks Federico Rosei for your comment. you are probabely right, “please accept my apologies”. My source of information was actually the poeple who had/have worked there and it is quite possible that this bit was miss quoted. I just checked the website of ICTP and it confirms the foundation of ICTP by Dr Abdus Salam in 1964.


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