Be brave and try out: Outstanding MPS's young scientists share their experiences

by Julia Dürschlag, Merle Ücker & Srinath Ramkumar

Named after a German chemist and the first president of the Max Planck Society, the Otto Hahn Medal is a prestigious award for early career researchers who just finished their PhD at one of the Max Planck Institutes.

We conducted interviews with two of the winners from 2018 and asked them about their career path and research, their motivation and their advice for younger researchers. Doing a PhD opens many unique opportunities, e.g. going to conferences and on fieldtrips, exchanging with an international community, acquiring new knowledge and growing as a person.However, during the interviews, we realized that no matter how successful you are, pursuing a PhD also comes with challenges. Claudia Gerri described how frustrating it can be to do science: “Sometimes, or better often, things do not work and do not make sense and it feels like you have hit a brick wall.” Also Greta Reintjes has experienced pitfalls during her PhD years and knows about the doubts that come with it. But as she says, “questioning is the basis of science so as a good scientist you obviously also question your life choices.” However, “it is important to say that failing is part of the learning process and without it there is no actual progress”, as Claudia Gerri pointed out. Greta Reintjes’ strategy to deal with frustration is to take a step back and to look at everything what she has accomplished so far: “Usually, you have achieved much more than you thought”.

So here comes their advice to early career researchers:

Do not get discouraged if experiments do not work or if the results do not fit to your hypothesis. It is essential to talk to people and to be open-minded. You need luck, patience, perseverance and the willingness to put in the hours but also to wait for a good result. Keep on thinking, reading, observing and discussing your ideas. Be brave to try something out!

Claudia Gerri

Claudia GerriClaudia Gerri grew up in a small town in Italy where she used to spend a lot of my time at her uncle’s farm. Being surrounded by nature and animals, she developed an interest in observing the life and living organisms around her. This is when her passion in biology started. During high school, she discovered that studying science was not a burden but it was actually fun for her. This is when she decided to study Biological Sciences for her Bachelor and Molecular Biology for her Master, both at the University of Milan in Italy.

After her studies, she pursued a PhD in Developmental Genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research in Bad Nauheim, Germany. Moving to Germany was no obstacle for her as most people, e.g. at the bank or at the doctor, could help her in English. However, she definitely missed the Italian food.

Her PhD project focused on understanding the role of HIF (hypoxia inducible factor) pathway in the cardiovascular development of zebrafish embryos. She and her colleagues found that this pathway plays an unexpected role in modulating the activity of macrophages associated with blood vessels. Gene knockouts led to reduced macrophage-endothelial cell interaction, which resulted in defects in blood vessel formation. The pathway is also involved in the formation of blood stem cells.

What made you pursue a PhD in science?

If I look back at my time at university, I vividly remember the developmental biology course. I was really fascinated to learn about the historical works on various model organisms, like the famous Drosophila mutants in the Hox genes or the inspiring work of Spemann-Mangold on the amphibian organizer. Also, as a Master student, I spent one year working with zebrafish embryos. I remember looking at an embryo under the microscope for the first time, and I was extremely excited. I really loved what I was doing, therefore I decided to pursue a PhD in developmental biology and genetics. I was sure that a PhD would have given me the skills and experience to continue my career in science.

What was the best part about pursuing a PhD?

My PhD supervisor gave me a perfect balance of freedom and guidance. I was able to develop my ideas and seeing my projects turning into nice stories with interesting results was really the best part for me.

What was the funniest moment in the lab/during your PhD?

I really enjoyed the PhD student retreats. During the day, we were discussing science with other students, postdocs and the invited professors. But we also had fun activities, like hiking or games. In the evenings, we had music and I remember many professors staying up to dance with us! We had a lot of fun!

What are you doing now?

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the Francis Crick Institute in London. I study the molecular mechanisms underlying the first lineage specification in mammalian embryos. Specifically, I am investigating how trophectoderm cells, which form the placenta, and the inner cell mass, which are the pluripotent cells of the embryo, diverge in their fate to allow implantation and formation of the fetus. I am studying this process in human, mouse and bovine embryos – I really like to compare and contrast different animals with an evolutionary perspective. I wish I could widen my work on other mammals, for example marsupial embryos are morphologically very different from eutherians, suggesting that the process regulating lineage specification may be completely different.

What would you be working on if you weren't a scientist?

I am great in organizing stuff, so maybe I could be an event planner. I was part of the PhD committee and I helped organizing several PhD student retreats and many activities for the PhD students to get together outside the lab.

What would you take to a deserted island?

My pillow, tons of cookies and a good book.

If you could choose, what kind of animal would you be and why?

I would be a cat. I am friendly and playful but sometimes I am also grumpy and I like being on my own.

Greta Reintjes

Greta ReinjtesAlready as a child, Greta was very inquisitive. She liked to take things apart and find out how they work. But back then, she had no idea that she wanted to be a scientist. What got her really excited about science was an inspiring biology teacher at high school. Doing experiments, giving presentations about different topics and always questioning what was going on, made her realize that she would like to be a scientist. She followed her teacher’s path and went to Plymouth in the United Kingdom to study a Bachelor in Marine Biology. During her studies, she got to know and to love the field of marine microbiology which led her pursue a master’s degree and finally a PhD at the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen, Germany.

What started as a naïve idea of a master student turned out to be a promising PhD project. She investigated the uptake of polysaccharides by microbes using fluorescently labelled substrates. Thus, she was able to visualize this uptake under the microscope and learned more about how marine microbes impact the whole carbon cycle.

What was the best part about pursuing a PhD?

A Cruise to the South Pacific Gyre was definitely a life-highlight! To go somewhere where nobody has ever been and to sample there was an incredible experience. Otherwise, the whole PhD itself, including conferences and meeting people and the little success moments in the lab were the most fun. You need to celebrate the little joys.

What was one of the most difficult challenges that you had during your PhD?

Scientifically the most challenging, was changing the paradigm that large sugars are taken up by cells in a degraded form. People believed that extracellular digestion was the only way that large sugar molecules can be taken up because they are too large to just pass the cell membrane. Trying to prove and convince the scientific community of our discovery of an alternative uptake of sugar molecules was really difficult. Once people formed their opinion, even scientists, it is a challenge to change their mind-set.

What are you doing now?

I work as a postdoc at the Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Alberta. Here, I study sugar degradation in cow rumen, which is a completely different system. But I still use fluorescently labelled substrates, so the same methods as in my PhD and my first post-doc. Many of these substrates are pre-biotics and we try to track them and to analyse their influence on the rumen microbiome and its metabolism, e.g. methane formation.

Do you see a difference in the working atmosphere between Canada and Germany?

Yes, the working hours are very different, most people here work from 8 am to 4:30 pm. My group is really small which enables lots of communication. What I like a lot is that people with very different background work on the same project but from different angles. The institute is more in an agricultural environment, surrounded by greenhouses, cow and sheep barns. The research that we do is application-based, so it is aimed to be usable for mankind. This is very different to my previous work where we get ground-breaking results but do not follow up on their application. Here, we go a step further.

What would you be working on if you weren't a scientist?

I am not sure. I just followed the path and never really thought about something else. Maybe I would do design or some artsy stuff as I have always liked to create things.

What was the funniest moment in the lab during your PhD?

Oh, there were so many! Trying to count cells under the microscope during a storm on a cruise when the cells move all the time was one of the funniest. It is not the most pleasant but definitely funny to watch other people do it.

What is the greatest method that has not yet been developed?

To stay in my field: Microscopes with an even better resolution would be amazing. Then, we could fluorescently visualise individual cell organelles like membranes. This would be great because a picture speaks a thousand words.

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