The dream of having it all…

I could not decide. I never wanted to. Why choosing between maths & molecular biology if one can have it both?

In 2003, I went to a boarding school specialized in mathematics and life sciences.

In 2010, I started to study Systems Biology, which involved mathematical modelling as well as the generation of quantitative, time-resolved biological data.

Two years later, during my PhD, I took over the computational work of a joint project from a PostDoc who just left the group of our collaboration partners while I performed the in-vitro work for my actual PhD project.

In 2016, I was looking for PostDoc positions that would allow me to continue both, theoretical and experimental work.

I wanted to broaden my perspective beyond signalling and erythropoiesis to epigenetics and hematology. I was even willing to change fields for instance to immunology or cancer therapy if I could expand my skill set and keep my interdisciplinary track meandering between the dry lab and the wet lab, which I always enjoyed the most.

I realized that most group leaders were looking for experts either in biology or computer science and hardly any of the proposed projects allowed training in two disciplines such as mouse work and bioinformatics.

This reminded me on a chat I had with Professor Matthias Mann, one of the world’s leading scientists in the field of proteomics, back in 2012 at the Mosbacher Kolloquium. When I told him about my endeavor to pursue an academic career as half a biologist and half a computer scientist, he plainly said:

“You know, no one is gonna give you any prize for being the second best – even if you are the second best biologist and the second best mathematician at the same time.”

I knew he was right but I was seemingly convinced that the technological advancements would create a future need for scientists with mutual understanding of theory and experiments to harness the potential in the field of omics for a system-wide description of the health and disease state with benefits for personalized medicine.

Many research groups indeed share this ambition but prefer to set up collaborations on interdisciplinary projects where each partner provides the expertise in a single discipline – be it bioinformatics xor biology. I appreciate this initiative as a first step.

We have to improve our ability to communicate our research across the borders of scientific disciplines (#SciComm). This is the sole way for theoreticians and experimentalists to get a grasp of what each other is doing as a precondition for synergies. It is my firm believe, however, that projects can be carried out most efficiently if one and the same person that performs experiments also uses the generated data for computational analysis. I am well aware that interdisciplinary work requires special training, which takes time. And I understand that the expected frequency of publications for early-career scientists creates the temptation to divide projects into a theoretical and an experimental part to distribute the workload and speed up the progress.

But a truly interdisciplinary scientist could still facilitate the main work while teaming up with experts in the respective fields to seek advice from multiple sides separately. Being trained in theoretical and experimental aspects of the project will ease the exchange of information between the disciplines and fuel method development, which forms the basis for innovation to tackle the challenges of modern life-sciences.

The EMBL Interdisciplinary PostDoc Program (EIPOD) highlights those benefits of interactive research overcoming borders between scientific fields. The idea behind the program is that:

  1. You can come up with your own project trying to answer the question that has been always nagging you irrespective of scientific disciplines or schools of thought.
  2. You team up with two experts at the EMBL, partnering institutes or companies that could ideally train you to tackle the problem of your choice.
  3. You write a project proposal in correspondence with your prospective supervisors for a three-year joint PostDoc generously funded by EMBL and an EU Marie Curie Actions Cofund grant.

As such, EIPOD created a unique opportunity for me. I could shape my own ideas without being afraid of crossing borders of scientific disciplines. Because if I left the field of expertise of one of my supervisors I would immediately enter the focus area of my second supervisor. If planned thoroughly, successful EIPOD candidates could receive advanced training in both worlds, for instance bioinformatics and biology.

It did not come as a surprise to me that more than 700 people had applied for the approximately 20 fellowships that were awarded this year. To prepare the selection process, I

  • dug into the literature,
  • wrote the project proposal,
  • rehearsed a precisely timed 10-minutes presentation on my main scientific achievements,
  • defended my project in front of friends and colleagues from very diverse backgrounds,
  • thought about potential bottlenecks, fall-back strategies and justified schedules,
  • made clear what I wanted to learn and where I was seeing myself in the future with all this.
Me giving the presentation at the EIPOD selection. (c) Vasavi Sundaram

The entire selection process was perfectly organized. I was very delighted to be invited to the EMBL outstation in Monterotondo (Rome, Italy) for lab visits and the interviews in Heidelberg. In both places, I met wonderful people sharing the spirit to foster enthusiasm, curiosity, dedication, creativity and diligence. During the dinner at the first night, participants from backgrounds as diverse as engineering, medicine, microbiology and chemistry engaged in lively discussions on scientific matters of all sorts. This was when the common sense became apparent that interdisciplinary research and communication unleashes synergies to answer overarching questions of modern life-sciences. I was really amazed when I saw the presentations of the other candidates. I found their work and the proposed projects really inspiring.

After all, I am very glad that I was offered the EIPOD fellowship. Now I do only have to evaluate my other options for joint PostDocs that I will explain in my subsequent blog post. Then, I have to make a decision between two very unique opportunities, which will be very tough, but at least I do not need to make a choice between maths & molecular biology any more. I can have it all. I am very fortunate and feel very grateful. It feels like a dream coming true.



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