Season 1

Episode 2 – Life of a Doctoral Researcher ft. Mohamed El Brolosy and Giulia Boezio – Part 2

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In this episode, Srinath continues his conversation with Mohamed El Brolosy and Giulia Boezio from the Max Planck Institute for Heart and Lung Research. They discuss life in Germany as an expat, and how they came to adapt to the new environment as they started their research careers here. They also have a few words of wisdom for everyone, being researchers in the senior years of doctoral work.

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Srinath: What’s up everyone! Welcome back to the second episode of the Offspring magazine the Podcast. I’m your host Srinath Ramkumar. In the second episode, I continue my discussion with Mohamed and Giulia about their life as researchers in Germany, and how they adapted to the competitive research environment, as well as the country and the city where they are currently working at. We also discuss more about their careers, their plans for their future, and many other interesting things, which are relevant for most doctoral researchers in these phases of our lives. So stay tuned to the very end and I hope to see you back for every episode, which we’ll be publishing more or less every week.

S: Hey, guys! Good to see you again. Welcome back for the second episode!

Giulia: Thank you. We’re happy to be back.

S: We’re all from different countries and we’re all doing research in Germany. What would you say was one of the biggest difficulties or challenges you faced settling into Germany or in the city, for example? But Bad Nauheim is not a big city, so what are the biggest challenges you face and how did you overcome these?

Mohamed: I can start. So I come from Egypt, which is a sunny land, and the biggest challenge when I moved to Germany was not the cold winters but the dark winter. I think in the first year in Germany, some german person told me that there’s no bad weather there is bad clothing. Which I agree, too. Because if it’s cold you can just put on proper clothing and feel warm. But the darkness… I mean for me, in Egypt, even in winter, the sun is always there. But over here, I studied in Göttingen before moving to Bad Nauheim, it was always very cloudy. And this always brought me, they call it, the winter blues. And with time, I started to learn how to adapt to it, either by taking vitamin pills or even getting one of these lamps, I don’t really know how they are properly called, but one of these ones, which emit this kind of wavelength that you require. Which helped. So this was the main challenge. And, of course, I come from a completely different culture, which was another different or tough thing to adapt to. I mean, I wouldn’t say I had a culture shock but it was a big change of culture. It’s not like, for example, you are from another western country and you’re moving to Germany. For me, what helped me adapt or what helped me overcome this culture change or shock, if you wish, is the will to adapt. And the will to also get to be known, and get introduced to this other culture, and blend into it, and like make friends from there, and also try what they do, and do what they do. Of course, keeping some of my values, but this helped me settle in Germany better. But if you want to speak about Bad Nauheim, this is a different story. Because it’s a very small town. I have to be honest, that I didn’t really enjoy living here. But I had a lot of activities in Frankfurt. As I said, I was doing sports and so on so I always used to go out of the town. And, of course, the good side about being in Bad Nauheim is that in the lab, since many of us don’t have a lot of circles outside of the lab, we became more as a family, you know. So for me this was an advantage – that you go to the lab every day and it’s a nice thing because you’re going to meet your, I mean we actually call each other in the lab brother and sister, so…

S: Brother-in-law or sister in law.

G: It’s okay, the concept is there anyway.

M: Yeah, so that’s a positive side. So, in total, I would say my experience here was very enjoyable and I enjoyed my PhD.

G: So, coming back to Bad Nauheim? I think that was one of the most difficult parts to accept for me. And, actually, I made a pros and cons list before coming here. I’m an organised person, I overthink.

S: You made a little list with all the positives in there?

G: Yeah, I did but it doesn’t help. If I can share a secret, absolutely no help. Because, at the end, the cons list was much longer than the pros and I’m still here, so…

S: Maybe you should weigh the pros and the cons, not the number?

G: Yeah, definitely. And Bad Nauheim was definitely at the top of my cons list and it stayed there up to now. So, I come from a big city and I used to have a very active life in terms of going out. I really enjoy going to restaurants, bars, movies and theatres, and so on. We are lucky that we have Frankfurt close by. At the beginning, I thought I would go more often but I realised that it’s not so much the case. Although it’s my fault, mine and many other people’s in the lab, but I could go more if I wanted to. So I shouldn’t complain too much about it. But yes, living in a small city changes a lot. I don’t know, the good thing is that here people in the restaurants close to my house say hi to me when they see me. In Milano, they don’t even know me because it’s too big. But except for that, I think the biggest challenge at the beginning was living far from my family. Because I’m very attached to them so living alone, now I enjoy it a lot, but in the first two months was tough. But, as Mohamed said, having people in the lab, really, here I found my second family and I found people I would never think I would find. Although we are very different, from different backgrounds, different countries, and different ideas, I think that coming to lab and seeing people that are not just colleagues but friends made the whole experience very different. Because I know many people who had to move out from the country and go to another country and they found themselves in labs in big cities, for example, where all the locals had already their own circles of friends. So it was much tougher to integrate and to adapt to a different life.

S: Okay, that’s two very different approaches there. But somehow we adapted – you’re still here.

G: Yeah, and I enjoy it.

S: So moving along. Is there a particular activity that you really enjoy doing, which helps you relax? Need not be something you need to do daily. Or, is there an activity, which you do a lot to relax, and helps you get through a day or get through the week, get through certain times? Is there something like that?

M: Yeah, for me, I do karate since I was five, and I am 27 now, so…

S: 22 years of karate. Yeah, it’s something.

M: And I still keep it. And not just in practicing but also competing. So this was one of the main things that helped me relax, if you wish. So, I mean since I was also competing in it, I always had on my mind that it’s not only the science, which is in my head, but this other competition that’s coming or this other blah-blah-blah or this other training. So for me, doing karate was one of the things that helped me relax. Other than that, I mean one of the other things that sometimes helped me relax is just sit down at home with a cup of tea or something and watch a movie.

S: Netflix.

M: Or Netflix, these days. But, yeah. But I was mainly doing sports. I guess everyone has a different thing.

G: Yeah, I don’t think sport was my main thing that helped me to relax. Although, recently I forced, well, before they closed the gym, I swear I went for six months straight. Now, I don’t have the proof. But no, I force myself to do sports because I also think it really helps you get through also bad daysю Because I also realise, when I do one hour of sport, after that I’m much more relaxed, less stressed, and less tense. Just for like, chemical things that are going on in the body, also. So I think that that is very important. But I think that the thing that made me more relaxed is cooking. I love, well I love eating also, but I love cooking. And I really I like taking care of myself from that side. This is something I think I learned from my mom. Not the cooking, she’s not very good. I hope she doesn’t listen.

S: We’ll make sure to send it to her.

G: Well, she’s not great as many other Italian moms but she’s great in many other things. For example, she always taught me to take care of myself in a way that, for example, I still, every time I eat, I put the proper things on the table – the tablecloth and everything, so like…

S: Keeping a system.

G: Yeah, you’re keeping a system. And, for example, she would never spend a Saturday all in pyjamas. She would always keep her routine, even if she’s sick, even if she is at home, she would always make sure that everything goes.

S: Isn’t that typical Milanese?

G: Yes, I think it is, but it helps, I have to say. I didn’t understand at the beginning but this kind of level of self-care keeps you alive somehow. Because if you, especially when you feel bad, both physically and mentally, like staying and, I don’t know, not really changing, putting on new clothes, and going out, and forcing yourself to do things, it just gets worse. And I realised over time that, although I love watching movies and there are days where I do nothing else and there are evenings when just ice cream and the movie can really heal a bad day, there are other moments when you need to force yourself and go out. If friends ask me to go out, I’m someone who never said no, even when I really didn’t feel like going out. But then you realise that you go out and you feel better. And I think it helps. So I would say cooking and taking care of myself and also planning the time to travel. I’m a big fan of travelling, I think seeing new cultures and new places – it’s one of the best things and the thing I love the most. So making sure to keep some of my days off to travel and go out from here kept me and gave me something also to look forward to. And that’s important because when you are in a very stressful time, at least for me, I need something else that comes afterwards, that I go to bed in the evening and I think, okay, one month and then I’m whatever. So now it’s a very difficult time because I don’t know when I can travel again. Yeah, but let’s not go there.

S: Yeah, let’s not. I mean, I kind of feel, the entire world is experiencing these phenomena. We are actually lucky because to an extent…

G: We were used to it before.

S: Yeah. Okay, so I have a question here to both of you. In the sense that, so let’s say, in the beginning, if this sort of scientific approach to life or scientific career didn’t work out in the beginning, what would you have done otherwise? Not what you’re going to do after, but what would you have done if, let’s say, somehow the science didn’t speak to you? What would you have done?

M: An alternative career I would have taken… That’s a really, yeah, that’s a tough question. Because I could answer you, what kind of other science I would have wished to do. But if I think about it now, I actually never thought about this, but I’ve been always interested in politics. And I think if I weren’t to pursue a scientist’s career, an academic career, I would have loved to engage in politics. Whether it’s science policy or something else. But I guess, mainly politics. And yeah, I think for me it would have been politics.

G: Yeah, I have a hard time answering to that. I thought about it already when I had to register for the university, for Biology at the beginning. And during that summer I was really trying to find a plan B because all of my friends were undecided, and what should I do, what is my dream, and so on. I knew very well what was my dream and I was scared about not having a plan B. So, what would I do? So I went through all these big books that the universities give, with all the faculties and the courses, and I had a very hard time finding one that I liked as much. So, at the end, I didn’t. But now, thinking back, I didn’t know back then, but thinking back now, I think one option would be Psychology. Or something related to people and talking to people, understanding and trying to help them with any kind of issues.

M: She’s good at that!

G: I don’t know if I am but I enjoy talking to people a lot. But I think it’s a part of a skill I developed over time, also during the PhD. I don’t know how or why the PhD helped me in that sense, but I really think I improved in that matter. Or, I don’t know, when I was younger I was in the high school of classical studies and I loved like Greek and Latin, so I would have probably taken that path. I think it’s even harder than science so I don’t know if it was a good idea. And now, but it’s too much related to science, I would probably be in scientific communication. But yeah, still science.

S: Speaking of doing what next, so what do you, guys, have planned for whatever is coming up after the PhD?

M: I already have a position in Boston in the US, which I was, as I mentioned earlier, supposed to start by fall. So, for me, I still, or I wish to stay in academia, and, hopefully, one day lead my own group where I can pursue my own ideas in terms of, currently, genetics and genetic diseases. But let’s see what the days will show.

G: Yeah, I think there is no person more suited to academia than you.

M: I am blushing.

G: Anyway, I also wish to stay in academia. I had ups and downs during the PhD but now, I don’t know if I’m in up phase, but I’m in an academia phase right now. and I’m trying to understand what is really the topic I would love to pursue my PostDoc. I think that has been one of the most difficult parts of the PhD, trying to understand what I like. Because I would like to change field, although it’s tough to find something else that you don’t know and you’re excited about. So I’m trying to understand that. So, so far it is academia and, as I said, if things, I don’t know, for many different reasons, wouldn’t go well afterwards, I think I would move more to the communication part of science. I would actually enjoy it a lot.

S: So, speaking of communicating science and doing stuff apart from academia. Have you, during any time during your research or any parts of exploring science, have you used some concept or some topic, some wacky idea from outside? From television or from movies or whatever, that you’ve incorporated into your work or your daily lifestyle? Is there something along these lines?

M: What are you thinking about, work, like a project, or?

S: Could be. Some wacky or a very creative idea, which you saw somewhere, you got inspired by something, and did you incorporate that into your project or the way you do research? Or is there something along those lines? Is there something, a very creative or a wacky idea, out of the box?

M: Well, I have to admit that sometimes I hear these things and they trigger some kind of thinking into coming up with also crazy ideas. Or they influence me to think in a, also, similar manner. But I didn’t really put it into a project or put it into my life before. I have like a document where whenever I come up with crazy ideas, because of good science communicators, I would say, or good research papers, or whatever, then I would put it there. But it’s still a document. Maybe one day, it goes into action but right now it’s just on paper. But yeah, for now nothing. But I have to admit that I was influenced by a lot of good science communicators, in terms of how to present and how to deliver my research in a simple way. But yes, it’s mainly, willing to be like them, yeah.

G: Yeah, I think it’s a very difficult question. I tried for very long, and I’m still trying every day, to read outside the box, at least. So try to read things that are not related to what we are doing, necessarily, and try to apply that into my science. I didn’t really find the way to do that yet, either. So I think it’s something very important and something very difficult to do. But I think that once you manage to arrive at that level of creativity – well, it’s done, then.

S: So would you say that you’ve had this creative impulse by, let’s say, doing some repetitive activity? Let’s say, washing dishes or doing laundry or something? And somehow there’s this spark from this – I could have thought about my project from this angle?

G: Yeah, ideas coming in crazy times, for sure. Ideas coming in the middle of the night, when I woke up in the morning, out of nowhere of doing things totally unrelated, yes. Not probably related to what I was doing. I don’t think washing dishes really inspired me but yeah, you need moments of, maybe, more relaxed. I strongly believe that when you’re more relaxed and less thinking about what you’re doing at the moment, you can come up with very creative ideas. I think creativity requires a lower amount of stress. I don’t know, that’s my personal view. Because when you’re too stressed and have too much pressure, you become maybe very productive but it’s hard to think outside the box. So it requires a more relaxed time. Probably not now. I think that in terms of communicating science or, in my case, science or teaching, the person I learned the most from, it was my teacher. I scuba dive, so I’m a scuba diving instructor, and I had a mentor, I still have it, and he really taught me everything I know about speaking in public, about teaching to students. I think my teaching skills, I took it from him. And he’s not a scientist whatsoever, he’s a lawyer. And he just does scuba diving, but he’s particularly good and, for example, there are few important things when I teach other people, that I always keep in mind that I took from him. One is that, with some due exceptions, that if a student fails, it is your failure first. And, again, with some exceptions, I still think it’s true. And I think it’s how I want to teach because I think it’s very important. And the second that I still think is very important is to try to give criticism, of course, but never alone. Every student does something good and something bad, and until you acknowledge what good they did, you cannot really criticise, or the criticism doesn’t get in right.

S: It’s like the hand that strokes the face slaps it as well, or slaps the face strokes it as well.

G: Yeah, I don’t know, we have a different saying in Italian, but yeah, that’s the case. And I think it’s very important because if you just focus on what is bad, it’s never gonna work. Mohamed, what about you? Have someone who inspired you in terms of communication or anything, people who inspired you?

M: Yeah, going back to your point about students and that teachers are, if a student is not successful, then it’s also a lack of success for the teacher or the PI, in that way you can view it. I remember, so, I have a twin brother and I used to love studying and learning when we were in high school, but he wasn’t this kind. He was the kind who just tries to take the minimal amount of studying and so on. And, obviously, I had better grades than him.

S: Sure.

M: No, come on. Sorry, I hope he doesn’t listen to this.

G: Another one not to send this to.

M: But mainly because he was a different person, you know. I mean we’re twins but he’s more active, he’s more interested into stuff, which does not include sitting down and reading a book, which was stuff which is not interesting to him, especially in high school. So when he didn’t get good grades there, we used to have a teacher, who… So in Egypt in high school, there is a bit of like, we didn’t call it corruption, but I would call it improper scientific educational system – that in schools, you sometimes do not get enough from the teachers, so you go into private classes outside. And then there are these very famous private teachers who have big halls where they teach 100 students at the same time. So these teachers, because, I think, like Giulia said, that the success of their students are their success, whoever is not really getting good grades at the beginning, they would ask them to leave the class and not be part of the group.

G: That’s not what I meant.

M: No, but this is a failure, right. I mean they’re bad, you know, because…

G: It’s a failure for the teacher, definitely.

M: Exactly. They just care that they maintain students who got good grades so that eventually people, you know, have students with…

S: The success rate of this, yeah.

M: I think this is a thing, which is very common, as well because…

G: It’s also very common in academia, right.

S: Because every place wants the cream, the top of the cake, the cream of the students. And the problem is, you only have so many students. Because everyone has a scope to improve, you just have to get it to them in the way that they can learn it.

M: Exactly. So what I remember is, I mean it was very strange, he asked my brother to leave the class. And he called my father asking him that I’m the only one allowed to come from now on. And, of course, this made my dad crazy and also made me very crazy, like, it’s either both of us are going or none of us. But my dad called him and then told him exactly what Giulia said. And then told him that if you’re getting a smart kid, or a kid who can or has the willingness to learn, I mean not kid, high school, a teenager who’s willing to learn, and then they get good grades – it’s not because you’re a good teacher, it’s because they’re naturally gifted. And if you want to be a good teacher, you have to convert those who are not naturally gifted into those that can be naturally gifted. And this, of course, applies to academia. And I have to admit that after this conversation, this teacher changed his mind and he admitted my brother into the class again. And after that, my brother studied, and he changed the way he deals with him, and my brother started getting very good grades once again. And at the end of the year, out of the 100 students, he made him stand up in the class, because he got a very good grade, and told him, I have to apologise to you and please tell your dad that he was right, I am sorry.

G: It’s very nice, it’s a very nice story.

S: Yeah.

M: That, I always remember. And I also think, it applies for academia. So, as you are describing, that you’re getting the cherry on top. And sometimes in grad schools, and trying to get the best students. But the best thing is, of course, training or teaching someone, how to. And I think we were lucky to have a mentor or an advisor who helped us like this. But also, it puts an extra load on us, that in the future, if we ever have to supervise students, we have to do the same way.

G: I totally agree. I know cases, unfortunately, in academia, of clubs, in which many students were asked to leave. At the end, on the records, it’s written that this student left. Of course, nobody would say that they were asked to leave, but I know from the inside that they were asked to live. But even if they left by themselves, it’s not good. If a PI has five people in two years, five students left, there is something weird if so many people left. Also because, well, you are the one who has to hire them, to interview them, so either it has something on your recruiting skills or, second most likely, it tells that you are not able to to deal with people with specific needs. Because, as Mohamed said, it’s very easy to teach smart students. I had students that were exceptional and outstanding and it was very easy. And, of course, it’s amazing to teach them, because it’s very easy to do that. But when I was teaching scuba diving, I had people, I really had a hard time with. One I had used to go into the shower with a towel inside because she couldn’t stand the water in her eyes. And she completed the first scuba diving license. At the end, well, it was tough, of course, more than when I had another, a professional swimmer. Because it’s much easier than with someone who barely can swim. But at the end, the satisfaction of all of them reaching a similar level – well, I think that tells a lot.

S: Okay, so last question for now, for today, let’s say. Is there any piece of advice that you would like to give to people who are starting for different phases of their PhD? Because you, both of you, are almost about to finish your PhDs. Now, you’ve been through the whole experience of the first few years, first two-three years, four years now, right? So is there any advice that you would like to give to the people in earlier stages of their doctoral research?

M: Yeah, I think what you can infer from the discussion we had is get ready for frustrations and know how to deal with it. Have another activity in your life that gets you busy, whether it’s sports, whether it’s cooking, whether it’s any kind of hobby that you’re very interested in. And don’t make the PhD the centre of your attention. And, of course, I mean as Giulia said, it’s tough to not compare yourself to others but…

G: But try it.

M: But yeah, I mean this is something which is very important. And just do your best in terms of designing experiments and doing your work. And always appreciate the factor of luck, I would say.

G: Yeah, definitely. Just to add something different, of course, all these points are probably the most important, so at least I have the chance to say it, I didn’t tell anyone recently, but I read an article, I don’t remember exactly, in some journals, some scientific journals, praising the importance of vulnerability in science. I was really enlightened by that and so many times I ask PIs and senior people, how you get through frustration and rejections and so on, and many of them told me you have to develop a thick skin. I realised with time that I just partially agree with that. But what I strongly believe is that you don’t necessarily have to develop a thick skin, or, at least, you don’t need to suppress your emotion for that. So you don’t need to become insensitive to frustration or to bad mood or anything like this. It’s okay, as now it’s very common to say, it’s okay not to be okay. And it’s okay to have moments where you really feel down. And you have to acknowledge that. And I think just take the time to feel sad if you had a rejection, if you had a failure, or so on. And just learn from that and move on. But, yeah…

S: You don’t have to suppress the feelings, but you can…

G: Yeah, but try to learn from. I don’t think you need to build a shield between you and the failure, you and the rejection, and so on, you just need to take your time. It’s…

S: It’s different for everyone. You can find your own rhythm.

G: Definitely, yes. But just know that it’s fine to feel bad, and it’s not the end of the world. And yeah, it’ll get better, with all the moments we mentioned before that are going to delete all the bad days.

M: Exactly. Yeah, that’s actually something, which I would like to add about peer pressure, something, which I found very useful, is positive jealousy. Not the ones, which bring you down, but the ones that inspire you. So I think I didn’t answer your question about who inspired me with science communication. But I remember this meeting that we had in Frankfurt, I think three years ago, maybe you were not even yet there. You know this guy, who I talked to you about, my Egyptian friend in Heidelberg, so he wasn’t a friend back then, I just got to know him. So Ali, his name is, he gave a talk in that lecture, which was unbelievable, the way he presented was amazing, and from his presentation, this was so inspiring to me, that I was like, I want to be like him, you know, I want to be able to deliver science the way that he does. I mean, I’m not close to him yet, but he was a very big source of inspiration rather than a peer pressure. In terms of thinking of it, not, ah, cannot present good as him and bringing myself down, but he was like, no, I want to be like him. So I think just to finally add positive jealousy is good, but not making it a pressure on yourself.

S: Okay, guys, so I think with that we’ve come to the end of this recording session. I really would like to thank you guys for taking time.

G: Thank you, we both enjoyed it!

M: Yeah, thank you very much!

S: It was really fun. It’s a new experience and let’s see how this turns out, let’s see how people feel about our opinions on things.

G: Also, it’s good for whoever speaks, because you never really get the chance to say, to reason and say these things. So, thank you!

S: Huge thanks to the first two guests of the Offspring Podcast. And if you, the listener, would like to be featured in one of our episodes or would like to get in touch with us about any feedback, comments, or any suggestions, with that regard please write to us at You can follow us on any platform of your liking – we are currently available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, TuneIn, RadioPublic, Pocket Casts, and any such podcasting platform. And if we’re not available on a platform of your liking, please write us an email about it, and we’ll make sure we are available on that platform as soon as possible. Thanks a lot for listening and thanks for being an amazing audience! And I will see you guys next week, along with my co-host, Niko, where we get to interview one of the pioneers of the Open Access movement.

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