Institut Curie has many Alumni who have done their master, PhD or post-doc at the institute, and who have afterwards proceeded to follow a range of career paths. We would like to introduce you to some of them.
Could you please share with us a description of your academic training and current position?
I started my scientific career as an undergraduate student working in a Cell Biology lab at the University of Wisconsin. From there, I had a good idea that I wanted to do Cell Biology and Biophysics. I applied to different places, and one of them was at the Max Planck Institute in Dresden, Germany. I was fortunate enough to get a PhD position and I spent four years there. Then, I did a short postdoc with my PhD advisor in London because she had just gotten a new position there as I was finishing my PhD. At that point, I had the opportunity to go and help set up the new lab, which was super useful for my position now. From there, I went to Institut Curie, where I stayed for about 6 years as a postdoc. Now, I'm in Stuttgart as a junior research group leader. I have a joint position between Stuttgart and the University of Tubingen. The idea of this position is to bring together these two universities by building new collaborations between them.
How hard was it to get your current position? Did you apply for many positions? And how different is your work now from before, as a postdoc?
I had about four interviews and one offer in the end. I had started applying relatively early, probably two years before I had an offer. I had spent some time on that before I was really ready to leave. I was on the lookout for any offers that might be interesting or might fit well. At some point, I started looking at what were the different offers, focusing mainly on Germany.
I find my time at work a lot different now. When I was a postdoc, I had a clear list of things to do. Now, my time is split between training and teaching. I also have a lot more meetings to go to and, of course, a lot of administrative things. In this position, my time is much less my own than when I was a postdoc, whereas before I could go in with a plan for the day. Now, very often I have to reschedule my calendar. I also do a lot of things that I never really had to do before. For example, I spend a good amount of time, or did at the beginning, talking to different companies about what we need, what kind of deals we can get from what company and deciding where it's better to order from. Also managing a budget is something that's brand new for me. And it always takes time to be installed at a new institute, to figure it out who is in charge of what, and slowly build your network. It takes time to make these new connections.
Could you give some advice to postdocs on how to be a group leader? Or how to start preparing for this?
There was a group at Institut Curie that put together a preparation for this process, and it was really helpful to get feedback on the proposal and interview talk. I also did some lab meetings where I gave these interviews just to practice the talks. You just need to talk to a lot of people, like young PIs that have recently gone through this process, and get a lot of different opinions. You have to show off what you've done in the past and present your research plan for the future, and that takes a really long time to get succinctly together.
How do you divide your time between teaching and doing research?
To be perfectly honest, I didn't have any people in the lab yet when I was teaching, so I didn't really have to balance this very much. So far, I gave two lectures for a general cell biology course for undergraduate students, and this semester I'm going to be also involved in the same group of students. For the lab practical’s, a lot of it is scripted. For the lectures, I had to do a lot more because they were new lectures that I was adding to the course and I had to plan them out. I also had to do them in German, which was also a lot of work. But I think that the first couple of years are probably the most challenging because this is when you really have to take the time to establish the lectures. Once you've been teaching the same lectures for a few years, there's not as much workload. You can go over your notes and then you're prepared for the lecture. I think it will get easier and easier to balance.
Have you always known you wanted to be a researcher? Did you consider other career options during your PhD/postdoc?
I have to say I had different phases in my PhD and in my post doc where I considered different options, and towards the end I was really excited about the projects that I was working on. I thought there was a lot that could be done in the future. I really enjoy teaching and training people, and I knew that was going to be a big part of this job. And I really like doing science, writing and reading. This job combines all these things and still lets me do fun things and ask questions about interesting aspects of biology. I'm just really happy that it worked out. But of course, I think everyone has phases where they're not sure, and I think it's always important to consider options.
What did you learn at Institut Curie that helped you not only to define your career path but also to achieve your professional goals?
As a Postdoc, I got a fair amount of practice being involved in grant applications, and that's something that was throughout my postdoc, even since I started. Another thing that was helpful is that during my PhD, and then in the beginning of my postdoc, I was co-reviewing papers with my advisors. At some point, and because they always said that I'm part of the review process, I started also getting contacted by journals directly to be a reviewer and then, towards the end, even some granting agencies. I think you learn a lot by seeing what people do well and what and where other people could improve. It helps you to develop your own style of how you write proposals. And reviewing is also an important job in science that takes practice doing it.
From your point of view, what differentiates Institut Curie from other research Institutes?
There's just a long history of very good science at Institut Curie and its very rich atmosphere that brings people from different disciplines together. Having worked at different institutes, I think what's really special is that there's a lot of collaboration between different departments. It's something that really felt kind of enriching as a scientist. And since my PhD I worked at this interface between biology and physics, I think Curie is for sure one of the best institutes in Europe and the world for biophysics. For me, coming to Institut Curie was an obvious choice and I think I got a lot out of this by being able to have discussions with people from different backgrounds.
How would you describe your experience at Institut Curie? Is there any memorable experience you would like to share?
Overall, it was a really good experience. I had a chance to work on a lot of different projects with different people in the lab. In the end, I was only able to go once, I think, to the retreat for our department and then the LabEx* joint retreat with the Physics department. This was really, really nice. I think these things are great for meeting a lot of people and figuring out who's doing what. We also had really great seminars that brought together people from a lot of different departments in Institut Curie, but also different institutes in Paris as well, and this was always really nice for getting feedback and having good discussions. I think that's one of the great things about doing science in Paris, especially at Institut Curie, because there are a lot of really great groups to collaborate and discuss with.
*Laboratory of Excellence
Do you have anything else you would like to add? Perhaps some advice to give to Institut Curie’s PhD students and postdocs?
I think that the best thing is to really try to talk to as many people as you can. You need to spend some amount of time kind of sitting down by yourself and thinking your proposal through. But being in a place like Institut Curie, there're many people that can give you really good feedback that it's really worth it to go out of your way to contact people and just sit down with them and give them a 5-minute version of your proposal. You come up with a lot of nice ideas that maybe you didn't think about before that. You can then go back and spend some time developing them on your own.
Interview conducted by Ana Luisa Dian, PhD student