Zahraa, would you like to tell us a little bit about what you did during your PhD at Institut Curie?
I am part of the first batch of the IC3i program. My PhD was co-supervised by Ana Maria Lennon-Duménil (U932) and Matthieu Piel (UMR144). It was a 4-year PhD during which I studied the mechanical responses in dendritic cells, which are immune cells, focusing on their phenotypical and migratory behavior after mechanical stress. We could say that I did an interdisciplinary project in the interface of biology and physics.
What were you doing before joining the Institut?
I come from Syria. I graduated as a pharmacist in 2011. After that, I worked in two different pharmaceutical laboratories for about three years and I opened my own pharmacy as well before coming to Paris. Here, I did my Master degree in Biomedical Engineering at Université Paris Descartes. During my Master I did my first internship doing research in a laboratory and I discovered how that world was. Finally, the opportunity of doing the PhD came up, I read the project, I became interested and after applying I got the fellowship.
How was it?
At the beginning, it was hard since I needed to set up the techniques to be used. It took me a while but with the years it got smoother and, in the end, I really enjoyed what I did. The project needed an important background on both areas but doing it allowed me to discuss with people of both areas and benefiting from it pleased me a lot. I would also add that my third year was the climax of stress and frustration. I learned then one thing that is very important and which is to communicate with the supervisors when you feel frustrated or when experiments don’t go out as you expected. I learned how to express myself to them, something that may not be very easy for everybody but in my case, it really helped me to progress in my project. I recommend to every student to just go and say to them: “look I am trying my best but I can’t deal with this or that, I need your advice”. That really helped me to progress.
Regarding the fact that you had two supervisors: how did you manage to deal with them when they had opposite ideas knowing that the duration of a PhD is limited and one cannot do everything?
As I said, I had two supervisors and each of them had a different background and perspective. Talking to them was always interesting because they were full of ideas and suggestions. But to be honest, in the end, I prioritized things - following of course their advices and what I wanted since at the end it was my project.
But that is good, right? I mean, doing a PhD involves taking decisions?
Yes, totally. We are, sort of speaking, allowed to take our decisions and make our own mistakes, it is a learning process. That is what I learned from the research process because in industry you generally have to follow a procedure. In research, your own opinion also matters.
What are you currently doing?
I am currently doing a postdoc in the same laboratory. I am finishing some experiments to submit an article that is linked to my PhD Thesis.
Do you have any plans after that?
(She laughs) It is a difficult question. I would like to go back to the private sector because research gives you freedom on what you think and what you do but at the same time it is very stressful (money, funding, publications). So ideally, I would like to back to industry or a start-up. I am looking for something related to my pharmaceutical background.
Do you have any advice for new students that are starting their PhD? Do’s and don’ts?
I would tell them to organize their time as much as they can. I would recommend to take a time management course. It helped me prioritizing things and enjoying family, friends and work time. I would also recommend not to put too much expectations in the short term. It will take time to get results, data and answers. I will also say to them not to make the satisfaction of their supervisors their main goal. They should focus on themselves…on their project and on their own ideas. They should not hesitate to discuss with them, even if sometimes they do not have the knowledge or tools to do it. It is important to remind that during a PhD we are still students, so even if we make mistakes they should be able to discuss or propose things. There are no silly ideas.