PhD students

Doing a PhD at the CIG

Interview with two PhD students

Olivier Michaud and Kaan Mika (from left to right)
So, there you are, having obtained your Master’s degree in the Biological Sciences, allowing you to authenticate yourself as “Biologist” whenever that turns out to be necessary or simply seems advantageous, given the situation. What next? Doing a PhD as a first step towards a magnificent career in science? It is tempting: you’ll do research that no one has ever done before – making a unique contribution to the sum of human knowledge – and be rewarded with the prestigious qualification of Philosophiae Doctor, authorizing you as a specialist in the field of the natural sciences and philosophy, mind you. But if you decide to start a PhD, better prepare yourself for a stage in your life where overwhelming enthusiasm and merciless disillusion can be dangerously close to one another. Not a few beginning PhD students – following their first experimental success at the bench – have pictured themselves at some podium in Stockholm in close proximity of the Swedish king…only to find out, a few days later, that another research team has already published the same stuff. What does it mean to do a PhD at the CIG? Let’s ask Kaan Mika and Olivier Michaud.

Embarking on a PhD: not exactly an overnight decision

 – The name “Kaan Mika” sounds rather un-Swiss. Am I right?

Kaan: I am Turkish, born and raised in Istanbul. I received my bachelor degree in molecular biology and genetics from the Istanbul Technical University, and did my master studies at the Boğaziçi University, which stands for “Bosporus University”, also located in Istanbul.

What did you do afterwards?

Kaan: After finishing my studies, I was not sure about doing a PhD. I started looking around to see what was “out there in the Big World”, keeping all available options open. In those days, I could have imagined doing something completely different, moving away from science.

– So, there you were: a young man in Istanbul with a Biology diploma in his pocket, enthusiastically exploring the options life has to offer. Which alternatives were you considering, apart from science?

Kaan: Actually, my ideas were rather vague, but I gave myself the necessary time to let them crystallize. Let me first state that – as I had been a University student in Biology – I did not know the non-scientific world very well. Nevertheless, I could see myself entering the pharmaceutical world, for example, be it in a research position or not. So, I did the sensible thing and talked to a great many people involved in diverse jobs at different companies or doing scientific research in the academic world. I’ve learned a lot during that period and this helped me to make the right decisions. Eventually, I was determined to stay in science.

– So, the next obvious question was at which laboratory to do a PhD?

Kaan: Exactly.

– What was your argument to come to the CIG?

Kaan: As a matter of fact, besides the purely scientific and professional arguments, there were also matters of a more personal nature; that is to say, my girlfriend and me wanted to study in the same country, thereby limiting our options to the UK or Switzerland – which is where she could have started her Master’s. As such, we visited the University of Glasgow and several Universities in London, as well as the CIG in Lausanne, where I had an interview with Prof. Richard Benton.

– Which went well, I may assume?

Kaan: Indeed, I told Richard that I was particularly interested in chemosensation, trying to understand how fruit flies detect odours and acting upon the received information accordingly. So, we had a long discussion and finally I asked him if I could do some sort of training period in his lab, before making a final decision.

– And?

Kaan: Richard agreed and offered me a six months temporary employment, an internship let’s say. So, I signed a contract for six months, which afterwards I extended for another six months. And now I am a PhD student in the Benton group, being presently in my third year.

– What about you Olivier, what’s your story?

Olivier: I am Swiss and spend most of my youth in the canton of Valais. It is there that I went to school and did my gymnasium and Matura. After that I came to the University of Lausanne.

– Which for you was somewhat of a logical step, no? The UNIL being amongst the best Universities of Switzerland.

Olivier: Exactly.

– What did you study?

Olivier: I received my bachelor degree in Biology and did my master studies in Molecular Life Sciences, being especially interested in the field of Molecular Plant Biology and Bioinformatics.

– Were you also interested in classical plant biology?

Olivier: Yes indeed, besides the molecular biology and genetics, I am also attracted by more classical aspects of plant biology, such as systematics and anatomy. Don’t ask me where that passion comes from; maybe because, when I was a child, I was growing Venus flytrap (Dionaea muscipula), a carnivorous plant, in my room. I remember vividly how captivated I was by the way it trapped insects.

– And then you decided to come to the CIG.

Olivier: Yes, I finished my master studies in Molecular Life Sciences with special emphasis on Bioinformatics and Molecular Plant Biology in the laboratory of Prof. Christian Fankhauser, who had proposed me an interesting project about how plants are growing in competitive environments.

– The next step would then be to start a PhD training at his group, right?

Olivier: That would indeed be a straightforward continuation of my studies, but at that time, I also wanted to explore other options; doing a PhD thesis – whether at the Fankhauser lab or not – was one amongst several possibilities. So, like Kaan. I also started to look around and talk to people. Mind you, I found the topic I had been working on – a combination of Plant Molecular Biology and Bioinformatics – very interesting, no question about that. But I was not absolutely sure yet of the next professional moves I had to make. As you know, a PhD is a very big commitment and I wanted to be absolutely sure about it…

– … or a sure as one can be.

Olivier: (laughs) Yes, that´s probably somewhat closer to reality. As a matter of fact, I had performed my master studies under supervision of two co-mentors: Christian Fankhauser and Ioannis Xenarios, director of Vital-IT. Eventually, I asked them whether I could start my PhD thesis as a continuation of the project I had been working on, and under the same supervising conditions. And they both agreed, which was decisive in my decision to start a PhD.

– Applying Bioinformatics to Plant Biology.

Olivier: Correct. In those days, I spent most of my time within the team of Christian, working on plant experimental biology, whilst using the bioinformatics tools developed at the SIB. So, I worked in a collaborative setting between both the Fankhauser and the Xenarios groups. Presently, Christian and Ioannis are still director and co-director of my PhD project.

– How far are you with your PhD project?

Olivier: Presently, I am in my 5th year. And I really love what I do, although at the beginning, when I was setting up a new project, it was far from easy. You keep yourself constantly under pressure to produce high quality results. But towards the middle of my PhD, the efforts I had put in the project started to pay off. And now I can see it all coming together.

The daily life of a PhD student at the CIG

– Kaan, could you briefly explain what it means “doing a PhD at the CIG”?

Kaan: It means that you can spend plenty of time at the bench, working on your project, as it does not require taking a lot of courses.

– But you still follow some courses?

Kaan: Sure. For example, this week Olivier and I are following the course on “Introduction to Statistics” by Frédéric Schütz. This course lasts for four days, from nine o´clock till five in the afternoon.

– Have you been taking other courses?

Kaan: Yes. Actually, we can choose our courses depending on which topics we would like to gain expertise at. For example, I have chosen to follow the practical course on “Introduction to R” – about a computer language, designed for statistical computing and graphics – besides a lecture series on “Genomics & Evolution”. I am really happy with the balance between lab work and lectures: I have plenty of time to focus on my experiments.

Olivier, you are also following this statistics course from nine till five.  I would say “that’s a whole lot o´ statistics goin´on” for one day, no?

Olivier: Yes indeed. It is intense and very helpful to a great many of us. Statistics cannot be neglected anymore when working with large, complex data sets. I can only recommend the course.

– And are you happy with the balance between lectures and lab work?

Olivier: Absolutely, the courses do not require too much of our lab time. We also have a lot of freedom in choosing lectures and practical courses.

– Which other lecture series have you been following?

Olivier: I am training my skills in Bioinformatics and Computational Sciences. As a matter of fact, I also took the different course on “R programing”. Needless to say that this is very important for my PhD work: how to create and manage your data and – of no lesser importance – how to publish them in a satisfactory manner.

– Are you involved in journal clubs?

Kaan & Olivier: Yes, we are.

Kaan: And keep in mind that there are a great many lectures and symposia organized at the CIG, where speakers from all over the world are invited. So, there is a constant flow of high quality scientific information at our institute.

– Do you have to present your research progress on a regular basis?   

Kaan: Yes, it is very important to learn how to present your scientific data.

Olivier: In our lab, we give research reports twice a year during informal lab meetings. In addition, we present our work once a year in front of our colleagues at the floor. And once a year, I present my research project at the Department of Plant Molecular Biology. Since our lab is the only one involved in plant research at the CIG, it is important to be able to present our work in front of other plant biologists.

– Apparently the CIG offers special programs for PhD students, such as the “Mentoring Program”, the “StarOmics Doctoral Program” and the “IECB Doctoral Program”. Are you aware of these programs?

Kaan: Yes. Actually, I have been enrolled in the “Integrated Experimental and Computational Biology”- or IECB Doctoral Program, organized by the Genomic Technologies Facility. This Program allows me to develop my skills in computational sciences and analyzing the complex data obtained through my experimental work.

Olivier: I have also been enrolled in this IECB Doctoral Program. It is nice because we have to get a certain number of credits in different areas of computational biology. One big domain is programming, statistics, and so on.

The social life of a PhD student

– What do you guys do, when you are not at the bench?

Kaan: I am living quite in the center of Lausanne, in an area where there are a lot of young people and students residing. I feel pretty happy there. There are many activities going on, and there is always something happening. I have also friends outside of the CIG, with whom I meet and hang about. In this way, I can put my head off work when I need it and reload the batteries. During summer time, for example, we often go to the lake and have a barbecue, whereas in winter we regularly go skiing in the Alps, over the week-end.

Olivier: For me it is important that I have a social life outside of the CIG. Lausanne offers indeed a lot of social and cultural possibilities and there is plenty of nature for outdoors activities. During the week, I go back on a daily basis to the canton of Valais, where I live with my wife and daughter. Over the week-end, we take the opportunity to visit our friends and families and doing excursions. I also love motorbiking with my friends. This is a healthy break from the intense science-dominated life at the CIG. I am very happy with this balance.

– Surely, you both give me the impression of being happy with what you do.

Olivier: It is a fantastic life, both at the CIG and at home. I deeply thank the people who are contributing to this.

Kaan: I realize that we are privileged, and I want to thank my colleagues in the lab and friends for making this a unique period in my life.

What next?

– In the not too distant future, you both can put “Dr.” in front of your name. What is going to happen thereafter?

Kaan: I could certainly imagine pursuing a scientific career and I am more than willing to invest into this dream. But it is getting harder and harder for people of our generation to stay in academia and find a group leader position at a university or a research center.

– But science is certainly an option for you and you consider doing a postdoc?

Kaan: Definitely.

– Would you like to stay in the Drosophila and/or chemosensory field?

Kaan: I want to explore other model organisms, allowing me to broaden my scientific horizon. But I would like to stay within the field of experimental neurobiology.

 – What about you, Olivier?

Olivier: Presently, I really love being here at the CIG and doing my research. But as Kaan just mentioned, it is difficult to find a permanent position in a high-quality science environment – giving you financial security, just to name but one thing. So, I could imagine moving away from academic research and start working in an agronomical company, for example, allowing me to be involved in more applied research. I realize that over the past years this has become more important for me: doing applied science and seeing the immediate impact of your work. This being said, fundamental research allows you to be in contact with the frontiers of knowledge, which is of course very stimulating. It remains a difficult choice.

– Having talked to you guys, I do not doubt for a minute that you will be successful in whatever you plan to do after your PhD and I wish you both all success on your endeavors.

Kaan: Thank you

Olivier: Merci beaucoup.

Ronny Leemans