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Aiming for the stars

Greek scientist Eleni Antoniadou talks exclusively to Neos Kosmos about her NASA experience, 'Transplants Without Donors' and her humanitarian work

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"Live in a constant reboot phase; don't stay idle in your successes or failures."
10 February 2016

Born in 1988, 27-year-old Greek scientist and women's rights activist Eleni Antoniadou is a well-grounded and determined futurist with a focused vision towards innovative technologies and life-changing discoveries. After studying computer science and biomedical informatics at the University of Thessaly in Greece, Eleni continued her studies at University College London and at the University of Illinois, where she earned graduate degrees in nanotechnology and regenerative medicine, and bioengineering and tissue engineering.

In 2012, she was selected (among 1,200 students) to participate in a course at the NASA Ames Academy for Space Exploration, where she remains a visiting researcher after receiving the NASA-ESA Outstanding Researcher Award for 2012 and the 50 for the Future Award from the Illinois Technology Foundation.

Antoniadou is also president of the European Health Parliament and chair of the Preventive Medicine and Self Care Committee.

Her impressive resume, however, doesn't end there. The determined scientist was named Woman of the Year at the annual British 2013 FDM Everywoman in Technology Awards and one of Forbes magazine's '30 under 30 in health care for 2015'. Eleni was also awarded the Cartier Women's Initiative Award (2014) for her research in bioengineering and was included in the list of 21st-century women scientists, sponsored by The New York Academy of Sciences.

Eleni Antoniadou spoke recently to Neos Kosmos about her NASA experience, the 'Transplants Without Donors' project and her humanitarian work.

At the age of 27 you have achieved a great deal of success. How did it all start and how easy was it for you to make the decision to leave Greece? What difficulties did you face along the way?
I take baby steps in the world of science, acknowledging that failure is part of the process. I find that in research the tendency to see the emptiness of every glass is pervasive due to the complexity of its nature, so I'm trying to be focused on my goals and hopeful that I will be able to make fruitful contributions. I left Greece in 2009, at a time when the financial crisis revealed its true magnitude, Greek society had lost its confidence in the political system, the banking sector teetered on the brink of collapse and there was a growing infantilised notion of victimhood. Much to my disdain, life abroad was not substantially different, since the economic recession was a global phenomenon; therefore, perseverance and adaptability were key elements to overcome the hurdles along the way.

Can you give us a brief rundown of your career to date and what you are working on at the moment?
I'm at the very beginning of my journey in the scientific world and I take a deep dive into research every day trying to disentangle the complex issues associated with the development of artificial organs for transplantations. My multidisciplinary academic background stems from my undergraduate studies in biomedical informatics and my graduate studies in nanotechnology and regenerative medicine, bioengineering, space medicine, stem cell research and my doctoral research in regenerative medicine.

I have gained professional experience in the public sector through my work in hospitals in Greece, UK and the US and in governmental agencies at NASA and ESA, and I have co-founded the startup 'Transplants Without Donors'. In addition, I am committed to the elimination of harmful and repugnant organ trade by organising medical mission trips to affected areas in Latin America.

Currently, I'm conducting research for the development of stem cell therapies and artificial organs based on amniotic fluid stem cells for neonates. In addition, I'm the president of the European Health Parliament where we aspire to bring the innovation agenda into the European Healthcare landscape.

"You can indoctrinate thousands of people with low self-esteem so as to effect radical transformations in the social fabric. And if you can cluster and label them, you can rob them of their individual humanity and emigrate into your own universe of submissive conformity."

What is your role in the European Parliament and what is your opinion on the relationship between Greece and Europe at the moment? How do you see Greece in the next few years?
I'm very honoured to serve as president of the European Health Parliament and the chair of the Preventive Medicine and Self Care Committee, where we aspire to introduce the innovation agenda into European health policies. Greece planted the seeds to cultivate the European idea and spirit. I believe that Greece has always been a very transformative place within the European landscape where nothing is guaranteed and everything is possible.

Acknowledging the historic connections of Greece with Europe in the past, I believe it's time to stop the current tendency of 'borrowing' from the future and instead focus on producing pioneering work to move forward. Greece is currently in a continuous political turbulence triggered by a series of financial and social crises internally, in an attempt to streamline the various sectors of the economy, implement long overdue reforms and boost production. I'm hopeful that Greece will become more transparent and less centralised, so that it can begin to contemplate its role in Europe as the bastion of civilisation, philosophical thought and scientific innovation.

'Transplants Without Donors' is one of your very important projects. One of your main issues seems to be tissue engineering. What does this mean in a medical, scientific and ethical context?
It is a startup, in the prototype phase, that aims to solve the huge problem of donor organ shortage in transplantations or at least make a significant dent on it by providing the research tools to make artificial organs based on stem cells an alternative therapeutic pathway.

We believe that artificial organs will challenge the status quo and the accepted wisdom in the clinical world, and also combat illegal organ trading that is rising in third world countries. Our strategy is to fill the technological gaps in existing donor transplants, while pushing the boundaries of scientific innovation a little further and introducing artificial organs into clinics. My motivation stems from our medical mission trips in Latin America where I have witnessed the brutality of illegal organ trafficking, an experience that has scarred me but also made me realise that it is of paramount importance for us to act in order to stop these atrocities from happening.

You have volunteered in Uganda, Peru, Costa Rica. What field are you volunteering in and how do you find the time to do this as well?
Since 2009, I have had the pleasure to take part in medical missions aiming at assisting victims of the illegal organ trade that is rising in third world countries. Where there might have been despair in the face of one person, to see that replaced with hope is a gift beyond words. Our activities involve raising awareness and funding throughout the year and organising month-long missions in high-risk areas where we provide pharmaceuticals and surgical rehabilitation, primarily to children, but also to adult patients in need. It is definitely hard to find the time to fulfil my obligations, but I find that serving as a volunteer had been the most worthy cause to pursue.

What have been your greatest achievements and personal highlights to date?
I am grateful for the opportunity to assist victims of the illegal organ trade in Latin America. I also find it encouraging that more people are supporting therapeutic pathways based on stem cell research and I hope that I have contributed in deconditioning the thinking of people about innovative technologies and artificial organ technology.

What has been the most rewarding and challenging moment respectively in your professional life to date?
I'm grateful to every person that has believed in me, because the trust of people from different walks of life was not only rewarding to me but also helped me to find the courage to move on. However, translating pieces of my research into the clinics towards the development of a new therapeutic pathway has been a very unique experience for me. Undoubtedly, I have faced more challenges than rewards since I'm at the very beginning of my scientific journey.

Lack of funding, gender-specific hurdles and inherent ethnicity bias have definitely deterred my progress, but did not stop me from moving forward.

How would you describe your experience as a member of the NASA academy and how did you manage to get to that? Is becoming an astronaut your ultimate dream?
I believe that NASA is a wonderland where opportunities are born. I had the privilege to be selected to join the NASA Academy and the Mars Exploration Lab where I conducted research on the effect of radiation on the central nervous system and I also worked at the ESA Astronaut Centre. I would be delighted to earn a coveted spot in the astronaut corps and to have the unique opportunity to conduct research in space. However, I don't have an ultimate dream; it is understandable that the chances of becoming an astronaut are in general very few and thus I'm trying to focus all of the scattered rays of my mind upon my research. I don't know what the future holds, but I do believe that desire beats facts.

Is there anything you haven't achieved yet in your professional life? What would you ultimately like to achieve?
Hopefully, I will have the opportunity to broaden my research experience and be able to contribute towards the development of an alternative therapeutic pathway for artificial organs in the clinics. I want to be on good terms with my failures and successes. I think that as the time goes by, life invites us into an interlude between our highs and lows just so we can see beyond the obvious, feel more deeply and re-evaluate our lives and where our priorities lie.

Thus, I hope that in 10 years my life journey brings me to a place where I don't lose faith in myself and have trust-worthy and loyal people by my side.

What about role models? Is there anyone you admire and aspire to work with and why?
I admire many people but I don't entertain the concept of role models, since I believe that knowledge and admirable feats are attainable if only we are sufficiently sceptical, curious and honest about our vast ignorance but also determined to keep learning. I find that Peter Diamandis is a very fascinating entrepreneur. I believe that his intellect, entrepreneurial spirit and most importantly his vision to bring disruptive technologies to life will transform our world.

You seem to write about the human condition in a deep scientific and psychological manner. How are we evolving?
I enjoy reading all kinds of literature to 'detoxify' from the specialised studying of scientific articles and books, but I also strongly believe that it is crucial to study philosophy to build critical thinking skills. I believe that the extreme destruction society is facing today - that is associated with terrorism, environmental pollution, incurable diseases, moral distress and social inequalities - has its roots in our selfish posturings, our imagined self-importance and the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe. I'm hoping that we will soon realise that we did not endure our current misfortunes in vain but only to come to the conclusion that our focus should not be in the accumulation of power and wealth, nor should our hopes be placed upon an extraterrestrial civilisation that will come to save us from ourselves; but instead we should invest in cultivating compassion, generosity of spirit and depth of character (in other words, our humanity).

Are you planning to return to Greece? What about Australia?
I think it's impossible for a Greek who lives abroad to live without the constant nostalgia of Greece and the secret hope of repatriation. I always try to build collaborative bridges with research institutes and academics in Greece and I hope that I will be feeling content and useful though my gained experiences when I return. Unfortunately, I haven't been to Australia yet, but I would absolutely love to visit. Since I got my scuba diving licence I have always dreamed of visiting the Coral Sea at the Great Barrier Reef.

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