Season 1

Episode 1 – Life of a Doctoral Researcher ft. Mohamed El Brolosy and Giulia Boezio – Part 1

Episode 1 Episodes list Episode 2

In this episode, Srinath Ramkumar interviews Mohamed El Brolosy and Giulia Boezio from the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research. They discuss various topics about their lives as Doctoral Researchers and get to know the humans behind and the work that goes into understanding the magical world of Biological Sciences.

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Srinath: Welcome, everybody, to the first episode of the Offspring Podcast! In this series of podcast episodes, we plan to explore new dimensions, which we’ve not covered before, in the directions of the life of a PhD student, alternative careers, the open science and open access awareness initiative, and many such topics. So stay tuned with us as we take you through this series of interviews and various interesting discussions with interesting people. Join us for the ride! I’m your host, Srinath, and I’m going to be conducting most of the interviews along with my co-host, Niko. And we’ll see you on the other side!

S: For this first episode we actually have 2 guests with us, Mohamed El Brolosy and Giulia Boezio from the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research. So, welcome, guys! How is it going?

Mohamed: It’s going well in these crazy days. Trying to stay healthy and safe, with the staying sane being more tough than staying healthy. 

Giulia: Exactly, yeah. And we are some of the ones who are still in the lab, at least partially, and it’s not the case for everyone.

S: That’s true. At least this is not shut down yet. Basically, the idea of this podcast would be to explore the boundaries of the life of a researcher since we’ve all sort of enrolled ourselves into this research life by starting a PhD. We try to get into the depths of what the PhD entails for each one of us. So let’s start with Giulia. Tell me about your PhD and the kind of work that you’re doing right now.

G: So now I’m a 4th year PhD student. It’s hard to realise that this is the last year for us. And for the past 3 years and a half I’ve been working on zebrafish development, in particular the development of the heart and the cardiovascular system. And I’ve been following different topics, different projects, but they are all more or less in the same big fields of the, I can call it, intercellular communication. so how different cell types and how different cells communicate with each other to build a particular organ or to maintain the homeostasis of a particular issue. Let’s say so. I focused a lot on imaging and image analysis and genetics, and these kind of tools.

S: Okay, that’s great to know. And what about you, Mohamed?

M: I am also at the end of my PhD. I’m actually going to be done with my fourth year in a week so it’s already a sign that I have to move on but, yeah. I was supposed to move on some time in fall but I’m not sure this will happen in time now. I study how organisms and cells adapt to mutations in a way that would prevent them from developing defects or disease. And my PhD was trying to understand a specific mechanism through which organisms and cells respond to mutations, which can have huge, or bad, effects on the development of an organism, on the biological functions, or vital biological functions of cells, by increasing the production or the expression of, we call it, compensating genes or genes that can take over the function of the gene that had the mutation. So, mainly my PhD was trying to understand how does this happen? How does a cell get to recognise that it has a mutation and has to increase expression of other compensating genes? Luckily, I already published my study so right now I am in the phase of writing up my thesis and hopefully moving in the future.

S: That’s great to hear that you’re almost at the end of your PhD cycle. But let’s take a trip down the memory lane and go back to the early beginnings. So, what sort of prompted you to start doing a PhD? What made you choose this path to do research?

G: So, I start? Then, the next question is for Mohamed. I think I have to go back a while to start with the dream I had for almost my entire life. I wanted to be a marine biologist since I was 6 years old for not very scientific reasons, mainly because I love animals and sea animals.

S: Fish are cute!

G: Yes, exactly. And I kept my dream until the university. So I enrolled in Biology for this main reason and then, during the Bachelor, actually when I enrolled in the Master in Marine Biology, after enrolling, I changed my mind. I decided that I actually wanted to move more towards Molecular Biology. But overall even if the topic changed the main aim didn’t. Because even when I wanted to be a marine biologist I always wanted to do a PhD. I think back then I really didn’t know why. Now, after doing part of my PhD, I can say that I’m a person that gets bored very easily so I wouldn’t be fit for a career in a job that requires me to do similar things on a day-to-day basis. Although now, for example, I just finished 3 days of image analysis that were not very different from each other. But that’s luckily not the case in every day of my PhD. So I think my main aim and my main drive was to learn something new every day. I love school, I love learning, although I didn’t love studying as much, but learning is always great. So the PhD, and research in general, is a convenient continuous learning curve.

S: A continuous learning curve that keeps changing day by day.

G: And you keep reading, and you keep doing new experiments, and learning new techniques, and also understanding what’s behind the mechanism of life in general. What was more exciting. And then the first thing that I really remember that made me sure about starting my PhD was at the beginning of my bachelor thesis. It was the first time that I saw a zebrafish heart beating under the microscope. I remember that day still, and I fell in love with zebrafish, and the love continued. Though now it’s more of a broad love for science and research. But that, I think, helped to push me towards these things. Mohamed, what about you?

M: Yeah, for me it also goes back to my childhood days. Like Julia, I was always very curious and always asking a lot of questions and thereby since I was a kid I liked this idea of trying to explore the unknown. And I think being a scientist or through doing a PhD is something that helped me or was for me the obvious way to proceed into how I wanna live. Since I was a kid, I really wanted to pursue something, which allows me to explore new stuff, but also I was raised in a family that has a medical background and I always had this will to help humanity somehow. Although not always doing translational research. And I am actually also trained as a pharmacist. So I always wanted to do something that can influence people’s life or help people at some point of their lives. So yes, it’s mainly curiosity, this continuous curiosity that I have and which made me take this career. And the other thing was, I come from Egypt, which is maybe not as scientifically developed as the first world countries, and I’ve always been interested in how countries develop that much. And it was always obvious to me that it was science. So one of the goals, which also made me want to become a scientist, is that I want to know more, I want to become a scientist, and hopefully, one day take this back or bring this back to my country and increase this desire to do science. Increase the curiosity to do science because for me this is the only way a nation can develop. So these are the two main reasons why I pursue the PhD.

S: Very profound reasons, I would say…

G: I would say this is not just a problem of Egypt. I come from a first world country, Italy, and still, the problem is, at least now, probably back then the idea that the population had for science was different. I think now we had especially a timeframe when people don’t really believe in science as much.

S: Given the way it was going with the pseudoscience.

G: And all the conspiracy theories. But in Germany, we are lucky.

M: Exactly. I also think that one part of the current crisis that we have is that people are starting to appreciate science more, appreciate scientists more. And I think I think this will have big effects in the world on how they view and appreciate scientists and science.

G: You mean the crisis now, COVID-19? Yeah, we hope so.

S: We hope so. So just going off on a tangent for a quick while. So you can already see that there is a clear demarcation between science and pseudoscience, and pseudoscience is somehow like a bigger voice so it gets picked up by news outlets more often. And you said you hear a lot of these fake stories, but when real science comes it doesn’t get enough traction because not all discoveries are huge and profound. Many of them are minuscule but they sort of add up on top of each other to build the overall picture.

G: But also, I think that’s one of the problems. Connecting also to like things what we are doing with the PhDnet. Pseudoscience is usually made by very good communicators, unfortunately, people who know very well how to attract people and how to speak. While sometimes scientists are not as good at communicating their science. And this is a big problem. You can be a great scientist but if you don’t know how to share it in a way that it’s attractive, it’s a problem. People will hear more to something they think they understand, and that’s pseudoscience and not real science. So we are also here for that, I think.

M: I couldn’t agree more.

S: Yeah. So important point raised there, which demands that requirement of spreading science through accurate information, and using proper communication tools to spread science around. So that’s one of the reasons why this podcast has been started by the PhDnet. Okay, so let’s move on. Let’s get back into the circle that we were talking about. About life doing research and doing PhD. So, because we all work in a laboratory environment, are there some specific challenging aspects to doing this sort of work? To working in a lab environment on a daily basis? What are the challenges that you face constantly?

M: I think for me one of the biggest challenges was dealing with frustration. Science is not like a highway, which is clear and you just get to have a fast right. But there appear a lot of obstacles, which you don’t expect, and these can cause a lot of frustration. But, actually, some of these frustrations are what can lead to a very big discovery as we know from a lot of history of scientific discoveries. So for me, when I have, for example, a failed experiment or when I have an experiment, which gives me negative results or results which I wasn’t expecting – dealing with this frustration and knowing how to adapt to it, in terms of the troubleshooting and in terms of trying to think in a different way than I initially thought of, and thereby develop the project in the direction where the results take me – I think this was the main issue. The other thing is, of course, pressure, which does not need to be there but in some situations, it can build up if you don’t really know how to get relieved from it. Either it is from peer pressure, from colleagues who are publishing faster, from your mental state Yeah, I was lucky to publish quite fast, on the other hand. I’m just talking in general about colleagues of mine who have different kinds of pressures. But for me, knowing, when I have this pressure, how to get relieved. I tried not to have my life based on the lab. A lot of people let me know this is a big mistake while doing a PhD. A lot of people when they start a PhD they only have their PhDs in mind and they would stay a lot in the lab, it doesn’t mean that I do not stay in the lab, but I don’t stay like crazy amounts. And I also have other things to do in my life. I still do sports.

S: Important activities that you have to engage in to keep yourself sane.

M: Exactly. And also being part of active working groups, like PhDnet, all of these things that can get you out of the PhD. And, of course, having good friends around you whom you can always talk to. And I think I was quite lucky to work in a lab where I made a lot of amazing friends, one of which is Guilia, and you, Srinath, who are in this podcast. 

G: So I think Mohammed stole a lot of my words. So what am I about to say now. I think that, yes, frustration was the main deal, the big deal of the PhD and I really think that whatever Mohamed said really applies to me too. But just to give another spin to it, also the problem with frustration and failure is that it might affect your self-esteem a lot. And this happened to me in the beginning so much because I was lucky enough to have very good record at school and in university. So I always was led to think that if you study, if you really put your maximum effort into something, you’re going to succeed. Because this is how it happened to me until I started the PhD. Starting the PhD, even actually already sometime during the Masters, I started to understand that sometimes effort is not enough to succeed. So even if I put my one hundred percent, that’s not going to lead necessarily to positive results. And at the beginning, this really affected my mood and my self-esteem and I am not ashamed to say that for the first 6 months I thought of leaving. And then you adapt and you start understanding that things, not all the things, depend on you. Of course, some do. Of course, we do fail and we do make mistakes but you learn how to accept that you do mistakes and then at some point you find the balance between things that fail and things that succeed. And, unfortunately, probably the amount of experiments that give you a very cool and positive result is fewer. But still, the joy and the satisfaction is so much bigger than all the frustration, and then you find your balance.

S: And I think there’s a huge shift in terms of the way we perceive science itself because, at least in university, we are sort of reading what is someone else’s research and we accept these as facts.

G: And maybe just the positive results.

S: Exactly, so we are reading these results we’re sort of understanding science but then, when you start doing research, you are discovering something, which is completely new. Nobody has seen this before, nobody has dreamt of this before, nobody knew that this is the way it’s happening, so making that shift creates a lot of impact on people, on the way we think, on the way you understand. You read and understand, or the way you potentially try to put a story together, all of these would play a role, you know, sort of like pieces of puzzles falling together to build an overall picture.

G: Yeah, and on top of that, as Mohamed said, there is pressure, and that is for everyone. And you have to find your way, your very personal way to deal with it. I think everyone has its own. But I think what Mohamed said is basically the case – having something else in your life to be able to consider. Because we all love and are passionate about this job, I think we couldn’t do this job without passion, it’s a job that demands passion. But sometimes you have to realize that it’s a job and it doesn’t have to be 100 percent of your life. 

M: If I actually may add something, which is something very obvious, but I think luck is also a factor in your PhD. You can spend a lot of timIf I actually may add something, which is something very obvious, but I think luck is also a factor in your PhD. You can spend a lot of time designing the perfect experiment and so on, but it doesn’t really work so. Although, I don’t mean to say that all of the successful scientists are just lucky, of course not. Most of them are smart. But in some cases, you would need luck. So if you do your best, and do your research, and come up with the results that can or cannot be ground-breaking, I think this puts sometimes a lot of pressure on someone while that is not really necessary. Because I think luck plays a factor. And if one accepts this, I think it would make the pressure much less, that as long as you do your best and take the time to design a perfect experiment, then one should be satisfied and not put extra pressure on themselves.

G: Yeah, definitely. But, unfortunately, working in a lab with other people around you, of course, as you said, creates also peer pressure. So if you are not being so lucky you might feel very bad. if some people around you are lucky. So, as everybody told me from the beginning, of course, you shouldn’t look at other people because each one is different and each project is different. Although, if we have to be 100 percent honest, it’s very difficult not to look around you and just focus on yourself and your project like nothing is happening.

S: Yeah, you can live in the local but…

G: Yeah, I wish I could not compare myself to other people. But well, I do. 

S: So, let’s move on to the next topic, which is, how did doing a PhD changed your daily life in terms of managing your time? Or, what sort of time management skills did you pick up when you started doing the PhD?.

M: Yeah, I think this is one of the best skills I’ve obtained, or that anyone can obtain from their PhD, which is time management. Especially at the beginning of your PhD, when you are not really focused on one specific project or one specific question and you’re exploring multiple questions or multiple ideas. So, for me, at the beginning, it required very strict time management. Because, essentially, I really wanted to investigate multiple hypotheses and then spend, let’s say my first 6 months or one year of PhD, experimenting with these different hypotheses and then choosing one later to continue working on. So this required a lot of time management and, of course, it was a lot of effort. Especially, if you want to keep up with other activities that you want to do in your life or, for example, you have family or a partner. So, of course, I had a stricter time management schedule and later on in my PhD as well I started developing a weekly schedule, which was very strict and not very enjoyable, I have to say. Where you not only plan experiments per day but you also plan, or I did try to plan, for example, when will I do sports and all of these things. And it’s not very easy and required a lot of discipline but, yeah, this is how a PhD changed my life. But, to be fair, it also made it more efficient. So, once you have good time management or once you have a good schedule, I think it allows you to be more productive.

S: But also, it’s not very specific, right? It’s very flexible.

M: No, it’s not like you have to do this between 7 and 8. 

S: Exactly. I was just saying, it changes throughout. Because, in the beginning, you might have to establish certain things, you probably spend more time in the lab, and later on, you know that certain things would take a certain amount of time.

M: Yeah, that’s why, like I said, I try to adapt the schedule every week because it depends on the kind of experiments you got to do, the kind of other life activities you have for this week, and so on. 

G: Yeah, that’s very true, PhD requires a lot of time management. Today, with another colleague, I was talking about the university times, when I used to finish around like 2:00 p.m. the classes, and then go home and, except the exam session, I was very free. And, I have to say, I probably wasted a lot of my afternoons. I don’t regret it, I am very happy and sometimes I miss it so much. But yes, as Mohamed said, now we learn to be more efficient. And I think also, as we said before, keeping something else in your life helps you to really become efficient and plan things. Because if you really want to do something else on the weekend, you are forced to plan tightly your week, in order to have the weekend free. So you cannot just do every day what happens and what comes up but you have to plan. Especially for me, working in vivo, having to deal with developmental stages of the fish crossing and so on, that requires a lot of planning. Because you have to plan, and sometimes not just a week but like 2 weeks or months, in advance. To see what you want to do in the next four weeks, at least roughly, in order to plan. So this is probably what really changed in my daily schedule. So, of course, compared to university, I spend much more time working than enjoying and reading or watching TV. One of the things I actually miss is that I have less time for reading.

M: Not reading papers, reading novels.

S: Reading for leisure.

G: Yeah, exactly. I think this is the biggest change. And then I think, in all of our cases, what changes also – we are not with our families anymore. So this changed a lot in our daily schedule. Because I live alone and so on, so this changed.

M: Yeah, there is definitely a lot of skills you develop in terms of, for example, keeping certain parts of your day for yourself and parts of your day for doing other non-lab-related stuff, and doing some lab-related stuff. And it’s, again, because time is limited per day you have to use it in a very judicious way. 

G: And I think you learn during the PhD because, at the beginning, I think in my first year, I used to be here almost every weekend, I would say. Like it was normal week. And then, at some point, I couldn’t bear it anymore because I needed a break and deciding, okay. I am not saying that now I never work on weekends but I definitely reduced it. Of course, the time of the PhD allows for that because I have less experiments on the bench. But, on the other hand, I also decided, like it was a real decision, to work less on the weekends. And this helped to plan. And I’m not less efficient than in my first year, I’m actually more, I’m more productive now than in my first year. But I work less hours per week, I think. 

S: I mean, I once heard Johann-Dietrich Wörner tell, he’s the head of the European Space Agency, and so he was telling in an interview, that, I usually use all 24 hours of a day and if I need more time I use the night. So I suppose that sort of logic is something that we can’t argue with. So, moving onto a little more positive topics, because I think we are bringing the listeners down by, you know, talking about things, which are depressing. So, what would you say is one of the highlights of your PhD currently? What do you think is the best part of your PhD till today? What made you feel like you were on top of the world, are there events like that?

G: Sure. Mine is 2nd of October 2018. It was a Monday. I remember, I don’t know why, but I think that was the best day of the PhD. So, during my PhD, I made mutants, and then I had a hypothesis, I’m not going into details, but that one particular approach could rescue the defects of this fish. This was a hypothesis I didn’t really believe in so much, so I postponed the experiment for so long, because I said, okay that’s never going to work. And then in the end, at some point, I decided to give it a try. And that Monday, I looked at the microscope and I saw that it worked. And It was a difficult year, I have to say, because many things didn’t work for a while.

S: And it was in October so that’s pretty much towards the end of the year. 

G: Yeah, that’s okay, that made my PhD. Honestly, after that… You need one, you need one day like this to forget 300 before. And I don’t even feel them, I don’t even remember how bad I felt in the 10 months before. It was not so bad, of course, but it was tough. And then that day made me forget everything because you realise that, in the end, even with many failures on the way, you arrive where you wanted. And that was like the closure. Then, of course, I had to do many more experiments and so on, but that was the thing that really twisted the story.

S: Basically, it was like a readout for you.

G: Yeah, and having a hypothesis, seeing it proven. It doesn’t matter where you are going to publish afterwards if it’s the lowest journal or the highest journal. Sometimes it doesn’t even depend on how good of a science you are doing. But at the end, you just need that, you just need to see that science works. 

S: That the concept of doing systematic research works.

G: Yeah, definitely. 

S: What about you, Mohamed?

M: I couldn’t agree more with that. I actually cite her words of, having a day with an experiment working can make you forget 300 Days of experiments not working, or hypotheses working. Yeah, I think this was one of the happiest moments in the PhD. I can also add coming up with new hypothesis or a new idea. So, for me, when things get stuck or at some moments where things got stuck, and you don’t have any other, it seems that your hypothesis is completely wrong. And then you just sit down and start reading and develop a new idea or a new way of approaching this question – I think this was also for me very enjoyable. Because it made me feel that I can now think. I mean, because when I was a kid, I was always like, how do these people come up with all of these great ideas?

G: During my Masters, I thought, but I would never be able to do this! I can maybe do my experiment, but how can you generate a new hypothesis?

M: Exactly. I think this comes with time. Because when you’re a Master student or a Bachelors student or a first-year PhD, when you are maybe supervised by a PostDoc or the PI, himself or herself, and you think, can I be a PI one day? Can I be a group leader? I mean, how can they come up with ideas? But then, over time, you see that you can do it. And I think these are happy moments, as well. And, one last thing I can add, I think the joy of having the first citation or having your paper, once you publish it, being cited is also very enjoyable. Because you see that people started benefiting from the science you did.

S: Or people agree with the work you did and their work sort of has your work as the basis.

M: Exactly. Yeah, these are the happiest moments. 

S: So that’s actually something great to hear. So when you start living a life in research, do you feel this sort of incumbent pressure to spread your work around so that everyone can see it? Or do you feel, if my work is curled up in a ball somewhere, doesn’t really matter. Like, it’s okay, I did my due diligence, I did all this work, but I don’t care if the world doesn’t get to know about it. Or do you have this feeling, that the world has to know what I’ve done? So I am spitting out a very tough question here but I want to hear your take on this.

G: I think you’re talking with two people who like to spread. So we might be biased towards that. We are both, I don’t know, Mohamed will say what he thinks afterwards, but if I know him enough, he will probably agree. I think that being able to communicate what you have done, it’s one of the best things in science. Being able to share, going to conferences and having a talk was one of the best experiences in the whole PhD. Having the possibility of staying there and having 50-100, doesn’t matter, people listening to you and asking questions and being interested in your work, it’s something that, yeah, it’s unique, I would say. And in general, not just about your project in particular, I love talking about science and sharing science. And maybe later we can go into that, about scientific communication more in particular. But I think that being able to make people excited about what you’re doing or science in general is one of the best feelings.

M: Yeah I couldn’t agree more. Yeah, I’m also kind of person who likes to spread and to answer your exact question, I think…

S: Hopefully, not viruses, but yeah. 

M: Yeah, that’s true. No, but I think, going back to what Julia said about pseudo-science being spread because real scientists do not really do the communication as well as them, so I think it’s also very important. Besides, it’s very enjoyable. It’s also very important to spread the science and I feel that science should be available for everyone and knowledge should be available to everyone. I think this can bring us to another topic of openness and so on. But, for me, when I had my papers published, for example, I really did all I can to make it viewable for everyone or to advertise it as much as I can. Not only for the sake of having my research known and citable and so on, which counts in the end for a scientific success, according to current metrics, but also just for the sake of knowledge. And, on the other hand, it can be a nice motive or a positive motive for people who are willing to pursue a career in science in the future or people who are currently finalising a manuscript, for example, or getting it published. So all of these things, I think, were drivers to try and better make your research visible now. 

S: I think we will end the first episode of the podcast here. Thanks for joining us, guys.

G: Thank you. 

M: Thank you. Looking forward to the next time!

S: Stay tuned and we’ll have them back on for the next episode where we will discuss more details.

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