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Just a question of perspective

June 2019

In Tanzania you can wait for five hours for a train and no one complains. In Sweden there is a two-month summer break. In Switzerland, in contrast, this time is used efficiently. The vast differences in the perception of time fascinates Michaela Roth. Due to the time she spent abroad, the Biozentrum alumna today sees many things from another perspective. 

Four years ago, you moved from Basel to Lund. What kind of a city is Lund?
Lund is purely a university city. More than half of the population of 90,000 are students. The university spreads out over half of the city, this includes dormitories, research institutes and the hospital. It is almost like a campus, with a notorious student life. The town and the uni buildings, many made of red brick, are very beautiful and old. There is something almost Harry Potter like about the city.

Did you move north straight after doing your masters at the Biozentrum?
No, as I didn’t particularly want to go straight into a PhD after graduating, I first took on a four-month internship at the SwissTPH, which took me to Tanzania.

Exciting! What did you experience there?
The time in Tanzania was an exceptionally important experience for me. I was in Claudia Daubenberg’s research group, which works closely together with the Ifakara Health Research Center, and was running a clinical trial on a malaria vaccine. I travelled to Bagamoyo, a small fishing village about three hours north of Dar es Salaam and joined two of her PhD students. Although the labs were quite modern, we struggled with everyday problems. Once a day the power supply failed. And we often had to worry about our samples because the liquid nitrogen was not delivered in time. It was quite funny when the monkeys managed to get into our tearoom causing mischief. On the weekends I travelled a lot. I was impressed to see how peacefully the people of different religions live together and how relaxed they are. A completely different perception of time prevails. If a train arrives five hours later, so what? Nobody gets upset about that.

Did this time influence your plans for the future?
Yes, very much. In the evenings, it became dark around 6 o’clock and it was not advisable to go out after dark. So, I had a lot of time to think about my future. I realized that I was more interested in applied research and that I would like to work abroad. Therefore, I started to look for a suitable PhD position. I had my first Skype interviews while I was still in Tanzania.

From Tanzania to Sweden – a culture shock?
Not quite but the Swedes are certainly different. More like the Swiss, very friendly and helpful but reserved. My boyfriend is Swedish and this helped me to enter the Swedish community. This was lucky for me.

You have been working on your PhD project for almost four years now, so you are close to finishing. What is your highlight?
We found a protein that keeps pericytes viable longer, increasing the chance of survival after a stroke. Pericytes are cells surrounding the blood vessels. They play an important role in maintaining the blood-brain barrier. During a stroke, pericytes begin to die quickly and many molecules that tend to worsen the condition can overcome this barrier. We use a mouse model for our research but also examine tissue from stroke patients.

This is usually an emergency. How do you get the specimens?
Yes, that’s right. I always have my mobile phone with me. When it rings, I have to go immediately. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to do such applied work and to have experienced how long it actually takes to set up such a clinical project.

And what comes next?
I am close to finishing my PhD. My exam will be on 25th October. Here we do a cumulative PhD, which means that we have to publish a certain number of papers and to write a summary. The exam itself will then be in form of a public defense, that can last for several hours. The thought of it makes me pretty nervous. When I have finished, I would like to change to work in industry.

And do what?
Through the clinical trials that I have taken part in in Africa and here, it became clear to me that I would like to work in the field of study coordination or documentation.

You have pretty concrete ideas.
Yes, during our PhD we have been relatively well prepared for later. We have regular seminars and also a mentoring program, which is geared towards future career development. It is also clear to me that I will not be coming back to Switzerland immediately, although that would please my family. Going to an English-speaking country would be an attractive option, but unfortunately the current situation in Great Britain is quite uncertain.

Is Sweden different to Switzerland?
I find it very intriguing to experience that, although we are in the middle of Europe, so much can be completely different. I will never forget the huge differences between summer and winter. In the dark season, life takes place only indoors. However, as soon as the sunlight and warmth come, it draws the people outside. All enjoy the long evenings and the two-month summer vacation.

Does anything work during this time?
Come June, everything is “off”. Also at the uni. The employees and many professors take four to six weeks holiday. It is difficult to get reagents or other things during this time. In most companies, activities are cut back to the minimum. Therefore, it is important to more or less plan in May, what you will need during the summer break period. Inconceivable in Switzerland.  

Is this also the chance for you to take a break?
The PhD students and postdocs keep working, of course (she laughs). As I live in Malmö, I live very close to the seaside. When I am at the beach, it always feels like short holidays. But I also had time to travel around in Sweden. Last year we went skiing right up north. Much to my surprise, it sadly hardly snows in Lund. I also do a lot of hiking. There are many long-distance hiking trails. At the beginning, however, it felt a little strange to hike on the flat. I missed the peaks.

And have you ever met a moose?
Here in the south of Sweden, in Scania, moose are extremely rare. The area is used extensively for agriculture so there are only few forests. However, during a hike in northern Sweden, we walked until we found one. To see an elk in the wild was very touching.

Curriculum vitae
Since 2015, Michaela Roth has been working at the Department of Clinical Sciences of the University of Lund, Sweden. In a few months, she will finish her PhD in Translational Neurology. Before moving to Sweden, Michaela Roth studied molecular biology at the Biozentrum and completed her Masters in Prof. Clemens Cabernard’s group in 2013. Subsequently, she did an internship at the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute (SwissTPH), in Basel, and carried out the fieldwork in Tanzania.