Doing a postdoc at the CIG
Interview with two postdocs
So, there you are, having successfully finished your PhD training in the Biological Sciences and nobody can prevent you from certifying yourself as a qualified scientist and putting “Dr.” in front of your name whenever you deem fit. And it smells of more. The darn sad moments at the bench when nothing seemed to work and your negative control experiment did not exactly come out as negative as you had anticipated – or to be more exact: as you’ve hoped for – have been completely wiped out of your memory and are replaced by joyful recollections of an endless row of scientific successes. So, the next step to eternal fame is to go for a postdoc. But what does it mean to do a postdoc at the CIG? Let’s ask Shilpi Minocha and Laura Steinbusch.
Ontogenesis of two postdocs at the CIG
– Shilpi Minocha, now that sounds like a typical solid swiss name, you surely come from Luzern or Interlaken, no?
Shilpi: (laughs) I was born and raised in Delhi. I went to school there and studied Plant Molecular Biology and Biotechnology at the University of Delhi.
– Following your studies, you went for a PhD, I assume.
Shilpi: Yes. I came to Switzerland about 12 years ago and did my PhD work on Drosophila neurogenetics at the University of Zürich, in the laboratory of Professor Markus Noll.
– What made you come to Zürich?
Shilpi: Actually, I came to Switzerland through an international Molecular Life Sciences program enabling students to start a PhD training abroad. I had been given the opportunity of coming for five days to Zürich in 2005 – as a matter of fact, I already knew some people there – and have interviews with 12 Professors, with the option of doing a PhD in their lab. I was sure about one thing: I wanted to do genetics. I had a discussion with Prof. Markus Noll and I was fascinated by his research and so, I decided to join his team. The fruit fly is among the best model systems for doing genetics, and for a PhD project it is very advantageous because the animal has a short life cycle, allowing you to obtain results fast.
– When did you finish your PhD?
Shilpi: That was in 2010.
– What happened next?
Shilpi: I went for a postdoc at the University of Lausanne, in the laboratory of Professor Cecile Lebrand, switching from flies to mice, but staying in the field of neurobiology. And at the end of 2012, I joined the group of Professor Winship Herr at the CIG for a second postdoc. Presently, I am working on the role of cell proliferation and differentiation in liver regeneration and repair, using the mouse as a model organism.
– What’s your story, Laura?
Laura: My name is Laura Steinbuchs and I am Dutch. I was born and raised in Molenhoek – a village near Nijmegen, in the South-East of the Netherlands.
– You went to school there?
Laura: At the beginning, but later I went to high-school in Nijmegen. After that, I started to study Architectural Engineering at the Eindhoven University of Technology, also in the Netherlands.
– Did I understand you correctly? You studied Architecture?
Laura: I studied the engineering aspects of architecture – the science of constructing buildings, so to speak – but after about a year and a half, I came to the conclusion that it was not for me: there is a lot of physics, mathematics and computer programming involved, which I had of course anticipated but somehow the studies were not exactly as I had imagined they would be. So, I changed plans and went to study Molecular Life Sciences, a new education that was made available at Maastricht University.
– That’s certainly a big move: from architectural engineering to molecular biology. What happened next?
Laura: I finished my master thesis at the University of Lyon, after which I returned to the Netherlands for doing a PhD at Maastricht University. I was attracted by metabolism and I found an interesting project on the changes in cardiac function during type 2 diabetes. It was a collaborative effort, under supervision of Prof. Jan Glatz at Maastricht University and Prof. Michaela Diamant at the Free University of Amsterdam.
– Very clinically oriented research.
Laura: There was obviously a clinical touch to the project but allow me to emphasize that it was purely academic research, where I was using mouse and rat models. I never worked with patients.
Laura: After that, I came to the CIG for doing a postdoc with Prof. Bernard Thorens. I am still working in the diabetes field, trying to understand the involvement of the brain in the control of blood glucose values.
A whole lotta reasons for doing a postdoc at the CIG
– Shilpi, why did you decide to do a postdoc at the CIG?
Shilpi: Actually, a postdoc position came available in Winship’s group around the time my previous lab in Lausanne was closing down, that being the reason why I terminated my first postdoc. Moreover, my husband was working at the CIG, and as such I had a lot of inside information concerning the CIG in general and Winship’s team in particular. It sounded all very positive, I must say. So, I decided to apply for this postdoc position. I had very interesting discussions with Winship, and he basically asked me “What do you want to do?” I was somewhat surprised because I had been doing job interviews before and nearly always the group leader offers you to choose amongst the running projects in his lab. So, I came up with several research proposals I found interesting and Winship was very supportive.
– So, you could basically do what you wanted…
Shilpi: … within in the scope of his research, yes.
– You were privileged.
Shilpi: I realized that, believe me.
– This was certainly an opportunity but also a challenge no?
Shilpi: Definitively. I’ve learned a lot but sometimes it was also tough, as starting up a project – not necessarily from the theoretical point of view but from a purely practical and logistic angle – can be very demanding. But things turned out for the better: I already published three papers and I am working on a fourth publication, right now. One could say that it has been really a productive period.
– What brought you to the CIG, Laura?
Laura: My partner is also a scientist. We lived in Maastricht together and finished our PhD studies around the same time. After that, we both wanted to do a post-doctoral training abroad and it was more or less obvious that we would try “to go together”, so to speak.
– Probably easier said than done, no?
Laura: Yes, indeed. We started to search for a place where we could see us living together, enabling to pursue our scientific dreams. Finally, we found our common spot here in the Geneva & Lausanne area, offering us professional opportunities and fantastic mountains, which we both love.
– Do you speak French?
Laura: I had learned some French during my time in Lyon, but I had to invest. And now I speak French, not fluently though.
– Do you speak French, Shilpi?
Shilpi: Not very good. I can manage, let’s say (laughs).
Pursuing a scientific career or not?
– Do you participate in journal clubs and research reports?
Laura: Yes, of course. We all have journal clubs and research reports, both during lab sessions and floor meetings. And once a year, we present our work in front of our colleagues at the CIG. And then there are of course the CIG symposia and the CIG annual retreat, where postdocs can also represent their work.
– Do you have the feeling that you have been well prepared at the CIG for the next step in your career?
Laura: I am definitively working on it. As a matter of fact, I have recently taken some courses that prepare you for a job out of academia.
Shilpi: Actually, I am looking for a position right now and the talks I gave so far have been very well received. As a matter of fact, in our lab, we get prepared on how to present our research work: detailed talks for an in-crowd audience or broader, somewhat review-oriented presentations for a more diverse public. I am realizing now how much this helped me. Another issue is that a great many speakers are regularly invited at the CIG or at the EPFL. So, I´ve had plenty of opportunities for interactions with colleagues in my field and exchange data or set up collaborations. Over the past years, I have really managed to broaden my professional network and I realize now how important it is to know people in person when searching for a job.
– I know what you mean: one can write tons of mails and letters and what not, but if you went for a coffee with that particular colleague, he will remember you and in not a few cases that can make all the difference.
– How would you like your career to evolve?
Shilpi: I am applying for a job both in academia, which would be plan A, and in industry.
– Would going back to India be an option?
Shilpi: Yes. It would be nice to go back to Delhi, as I would be close to my family. Actually, my husband, who is also finishing up his postdoc, and me are both looking for a job. On the other hand, there are of course other considerations, such as the infrastructure of the institute, financial opportunities, funding and grants, not to mention the quality of the science. It is not easy to find a good position with solid professional opportunities at a nice place. I also want to have a life outside of the lab, you know.
– And you Laura, what do you want?
Laura: As I have a four-year-old son, we would like to go back to the Netherlands and be closer to the family. Professionally, I would like to move away from purely fundamental research and do something where I can see the immediate benefit of my efforts, in clinical practice for example.
– But a lot of applications came out of academic research, no?
Laura: Sure, I am not arguing about that, but I would like to have a stronger connection with daily practice. For example, I could see myself working for patient organizations or function as a contact person between academia, industry and clinical practice. Communication between the science and the patients, so to speak.
– … not necessarily doing research anymore.
Laura: Right, although I could imagine becoming a clinical chemist or clinical geneticist. Presently, I am following up job offers in the Netherlands, and I have been talking to people, but there are not that many opportunities.
About being a postdoc representative
– Talking about being a contact person, you have certainly gained experience at the CIG. Could you comment on that?
Laura: For two years, I have been postdoc representative at the advisory committee of the CIG: postdocs could contact me if they had specific questions or issues and I would be their voice at the meetings, attended by the PIs and other representatives.
Laura: A recurring topic was how to stimulate interaction between people working on different floors. I brought it up, and a weekly CIG seminar series was set up, where PhD students and postdocs could present their research work, as to stimulate interaction. Another issue was that the annual CIG retreat – interesting as it was from a purely scientific point of view – left little space for social interaction. So, I planted the idea that something might be changed and I received a listening ear: nowadays, we have our annual retreat somewhere in the mountains, where all colleagues have dinner together and stay overnight.
– Something else?
Laura: I discussed with the Dean and Winship Herr – who was involved in PhD courses and postdoc life – the possibility of a postdoc association, and they were both really enthusiastic. So, we teamed-up and launched an association for people doing postdocs in the field of the natural sciences from the University of Lausanne. For example, we have organized some career events, together with the EPFL association, on topics such as how to work in an NGO, starting up your own lab, in academia or non-academia. We organized a course in project management for postdocs. And what else… oh yes, sometimes, we just go ice skating.
What do you do when not doing science?
– Do you live in Lausanne, Shilpi?
Shilpi: Yes, and I like it, because I grew up in an area without any mountains. The view of the lake and the mountains from my seat in the lab is simply stunning. And when I have a bad day at the lab, I say to myself “OK, leave it for a while and take a walk”. I could not ask for a better place to live.
– Do you also live in Lausanne, Laura?
Laura: I live in Renens, a suburb of Lausanne, which is a very multiethnic town. It’s a very agreeable place to live. And nature here is of course fantastic. I like the outdoors very much and I often go climbing or mountain running.
– What do you do Shilpi, when not doing science?
Shilpi: I like painting, oil on canvas, and I play the piano. I also like to go for walks here in the area. It’s important to regularly take a break off science.
Laura: I sometimes go running during lunch time, just to clear my head.
– Whatever may cross your path, I wish you both all the best for the future.
Shilpi & Laura: Many thanks.
In the meantime, Laura has moved back with the family to the Netherlands – where her husband got recently promoted to assistant professor at Maastricht University–, living close to her family and friends. Her little son is doing well at the day-care.
Laura: I am working as a laboratory specialist in biochemical genetics, focusing on inborn errors of metabolism, thereby discussing with clinicians which metabolic analyses would be beneficial for their patient. My task is to assure that these analyses are performed in the lab and write a report for the clinicians. In addition, I need to ensure that our lab has the newest techniques: for example, at present we are developing metabolomics strategies that enable diagnosis of metabolic pathologies. I am really happy that we have quickly re-integrated in the Netherlands, but the Lausanne area with the French language, the nice people and the beautiful nature will always stay close to my heart. We will for sure come back for the holidays.