Semhar Ghirmai in the lab

Blood scientist gets double attention

​She has demonstrated great scientific skills in a complex degree project, she masters many techniques and has been published in a journal of high scientific impact. These are some of the reasons that Semhar Ghirmai, now a PhD student at the Department of Biology and Biological Engineering, has been awarded the Karl-Erik Sahlberg's donation of SEK 50,000.
​​Congratulations Semhar! You receive this scholarship for your master’s degree in Chemistry at Lund University, where you studied blood substitutes. What is that?
– I spent six months in Japan at Nara Medical University where they develop artificial blood substitutes from donated blood that has become too old to use in hospitals. Some of the benefits of blood substitutes are that there’s no risk of bloodborne diseases, it can be used by all blood types and it can last for several years, in comparison to today's blood bags that must be discarded after 42 days. One of the difficulties has got to do with the protein hemoglobin. Hemoglobin is found in red blood cells and is needed to carry oxygen throughout the body, but the hemoglobin can quickly oxidize and change shape into methemoglobin, which gives problems with oxygenating the body's tissues. This is where I got the opportunity to make an effort in research by studying various organic substances that we could add to reduce the methemoglobin and thus prolong the life of the artificial blood substitute.

How did you proceed in your work?
– We used data from previous experiments and then tested the substances we selected in vitro, i.e. in test tubes before we continued to evaluate them on rats.

Now you are a PhD student here at Chalmers working with fish. Tell us – what problem do you look at, and what can be the solution?
– One of the biggest challenges for many who work with blood is how hemoglobin oxidizes and changes. I have a project with Professor Ingrid Undeland, where we look at the problem from a food and nutrition perspective. As the hemoglobin in the fish blood comes in contact with the fish meat, it starts to break down the valuable omega-3 fatty acids of the meat, which quickly deteriorates the quality of the fish. Right now, we are investigating different strategies to be able to remove as much blood as possible from the fish without the hemoglobin coming in contact with the muscle tissue. The goal is to reduce food waste and to achieve as sustainable a fishing industry as possible in the future.

Your degree project has been published as an article in the scientific journal "Artificial Cells, Nanomedicine and Biotechnology". What were your thoughts when you got it accepted?
– It's my first article so it was an incredible feeling! I had my mind set on publishing my degree project before I started it, but I still could not really understand that it was true until I saw the article in final format.

At the end of May, you received the Karl-Erik Sahlberg scholarship at a ceremony at Lund University. How was it?
– Yes, it was very nice. The award ceremony for the scholarship was included in the university's graduation ceremony and it was fun to be celebrated together with the graduation students. Two of Karl-Erik Sahlberg's grandchildren handed me the prize, and it was really an honor to meet them and express my gratitude to the family.

How will you use the money?
– Karl-Erik Sahlberg's purpose with the scholarship was to support a good chemistry student in her first year as newly graduated, so I’ll make sure that the money is going to be of good use. But I haven’t decided on the details, just yet.

Text: Helena Österling af Wåhlberg
Photo: Johan Bodell

Published: Wed 13 Jun 2018.