Career Portfolio - Roman Stilling

by Maria Eichel

October 10, 2017

Considering career portfolios, we interviewed Roman Stilling from “Tierversuche verstehen” (TVV; translates to "Understanding animal experiments") about his transition from academia to Scientific Officer. Roman, who just turned 33-years-old and lives in Münster with his family, is a former member of the IMPRS Neuroscience Program in Göttingen.

During his PhD, Roman focused on the epigenetic regulation of gene expression during aging, before moving to Ireland for a Postdoc where he studied microbiome-brain communication. Roman left academia in 2016, but is still focusing on science communication. However, it is not about microbiomes anymore, but rather about bridging the gap between science and society.

In the interview below Roman speaks about his daily work life at TVV, his fascination about science and why his PhD is useful for his current position. He also has a brave message to young scientists struggling with career decisions: “If I had problems to choose between two very good alternatives, given one alternative was to “go on like before”, my decision making has often worked like this: I will apply, and if I succeed, I will take it.”

Tell us something about yourself: who you are and what is your scientific background. What did you do in the past and where did you end up now?

Roman: I just turned 33, I live in Münster with my family and I like science in all its wonderful facettes. I studied bioscience in Münster, and then joined the IMPRS Neuroscience in Göttingen where I did my PhD in André Fischer’s group on epigenetic regulation of gene expression in aging. After that, I did approximately 3 PostDoc years in Cork, Ireland, in John Cryan’s lab, studying microbiome-brain communication. Since September 2016, I have been working for the initiative “Tierversuche verstehen” because I am convinced that there is a deep gap between science and society when it comes to this delicate topic and I want to help bridge this gap.

What fascinates you about science and research?

Roman: The scientific method is the only way of acquiring something like knowledge or truth. And I feel it is most interesting to see how these truths change over time. I like to see how new dogmata arise, and then fall apart again, only because we now know something we didn’t know before. Nature’s complexity has something beautiful to it and having a look at the inner works only makes it more fascinating. Personally, I really love that moment when you know that for a short time you are the only person in the world with that particular, tiny piece of new knowledge that nobody else knows about (but that you are about to share soon, hopefully).

What does your daily job look like? What kind of challenges do you face? Do you have a routine?

Roman: I don’t really have a routine since my daily job is extremely versatile. From researching new topics for our website to engaging in public discussions and organising public events that we take part in. Most of my work is spent on the phone or writing emails, but I also travel a lot to meet with scientists, press officers, and science administrators.

How do you benefit from your gained skills/knowledge during your PhD? Do you miss something about your job in academia?

Roman: For my job, it is key that I know the mechanisms of the academic system and know first hand what it is like to work with lab animals. Also, I need to be able to understand a lot about the biomedical science that we cover and talk about - at least in basic terms. So, I do benefit a lot from my education up to the PostDoc phase. What I do miss, if anything at all, is to really be at the forefront of my favorite topic and contribute to generate new knowledge about a specific question and discuss this with other researchers in the field. I always really enjoyed scientific conferences, and I am still going to some, but in a different role obviously.  

Did you struggle with your decision to leave academia?

Roman: I think one always has to struggle with major life decisions and it is important to do so. I might as well have had a promising career with my own research. However, here I saw a great opportunity that I needed to seize.

How did you find out what you want to do? Any advice for young scientists on how to proceed with their own career decisions?

Roman: If you want to stay in academia doing your own research then this is exactly what you need to do: do your own research. For instance, find a topic you are really interested in, one that motivates you. Ideally, this is also a niche that is not too overpopulated with other researchers who you need to compete with. Also, finding a mentor (ideally your supervisor in the early stages) at every step is extremely helpful. If I had to choose between two very good alternatives, given one alternative was to “go on like before”, my decision making has often worked like this: I will apply, and if I succeed, I will take it. It’s also good to listen to friends and family. For me, private developments factored into my decisions as well.

Last but not least: Would you do it all over again?

Roman: Absolutely. No regrets (yet).

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