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Interview with Silvia Candido

Her picture of a typical research scientist has changed significantly in the mind of the undergraduate student in her third year. Like many others, she imagined that scientists were somewhat secluded, working alone in a lab. However, since attending the Molecular Biology block courses each day at the Biozentrum, she has realized that this is not the case at all and that researchers progress by working together. 

Why did you choose to study biology?
It was quite a spontaneous decision. I planned to study medicine at first but when I didn’t pass the entrance exam I looked for something similar. Biology was the obvious choice. I’ve enjoyed it from the beginning. But I must admit that the third year is very different from the first two. It is mainly practical work. During the block courses, we spend the whole day in the lab, from 9 o’clock in the morning till six in the evening. It is almost like working full time. 

During the first year there is a strong focus on mathematics, physics and chemistry. How was it for you?
In the first year there are only three biology subjects per semester. That's very little, considering that you have chosen a course of study in biology. This is quite a hurdle for many students. But I didn’t have problem with this as I have an overall interest in the science subjects. I also think that this is just part of this course of studies: In order to understand biology, one needs some fundamental knowledge of chemistry, physics and mathematics. In the Structural Biology block course, for example, the basics of physics become very relevant.

Did you choose to major in Molecular Biology from the start?
Yes, this was quite clear to me. Choosing Molecular Biology keeps a broad range of options open, I have more choices for my Masters and I find the subject matter very interesting. Furthermore, since I am especially interested in biomedical research, the decision to take this direction was clear-cut, in particular as the causes of many diseases can be found on the molecular level. In the long run, I am glad that I didn’t study medicine because I find lab work much more interesting than the daily clinical routine. In our course of studies there is much emphasis placed on understanding the connections within the big picture. And I like this!

How do you plan your timetable of lessons?
Our timetable is already set since the first year and for each semester. We only add our elective subjects taken at other faculties to the schedule. For example, I attended the lectures "Molecular Psychology" and "Medical Rights" at the Faculty of Law. I think it’s good that subjects are offered from other faculties as this expands one’s horizons. The credit points from these lectures are also important and I must add that it was really quite difficult to organize this well.

Is there someone available to provide some advice?
When we started our course we were each allocated a more experienced student to give us some support as part of the “buddy system”. At the time, I contacted my buddy and she gave me some advice concerning things that require particular attention. It was very helpful but despite this I still made some mistakes. There are some things that you simply have to experience yourself.

Describe the third year of study?
The third year consists of four block courses about various subjects, of six weeks duration each, such as neurobiology or infection biology. The courses usually begin on Mondays with an introductory lecture, followed by practical experiments to do in the course lab room. I think it is valuable that we now have so much practical experience, providing us with an early insight into the daily lab routine and what research work entails. I think that this ultimately makes it easier to decide about one’s future direction. Unfortunately though, in comparison with the first two years, the third year leaves much less time for the student social life.

Do you still have enough time to do something aside from studying?
Unfortunately, I can’t do any paid work currently because of the block courses. Before that, I often tutored or worked in catering or at the exhibitions. While attending lectures in the earlier semesters, I managed everything well. Now, I only have time to earn some money late in the evenings or on the weekends. If one is dependent on this income, it can become a problem. Officially, the block course finishes at 6 pm, but there is still much follow-up work and preparation to be done, papers to be read and reports to be written.

And what do you think of the Biozentrum?
I enjoy the atmosphere here. You can always ask anyone for help. During the first year, I went to a lecturer and he gave me some good tips. I also asked him what life as a researcher was like because you don’t know this at the start. I appreciated that he took some time for me. The lecturers in the block courses are also easy going. There are certain requirements that we must meet but they usually consider our needs as well. And they are still quite young. I think it is great that there are so many young scientists and lecturers.

Do you already know what you want to do next?
I would like to do my Masters. However, after completing the Bachelor's degree, I would first like to do an internship or perhaps look for work at Novartis, with a particular interest in their biomedical research. I think it is important to gain some professional work experience. Having had such practical experience is certainly helpful when applying for a position after graduation.

At the beginning, how was it to start studying - did things run smoothly or was it rather chaotic?
It went really well. Yes, the first year was really great. I passed everything. We had a timetable, which made it clear which lectures we needed to attend. I knew that we had to solve the exercises in physics and math, preferably on our own, because that was the only way to pass the exams. Self-discipline and perseverance are both very important.

What is student life like here?
There is probably not a very typical student life here, because, similarly to me, many students still keep up with their old school friends. This may have made me less open for new friendships at the start. But since the block courses have started, where we are a group of thirty students who spend our whole days together here at the Biozentrum, we sometimes also meet in the evenings. We now have much closer contact. On occasion, we meet for a drink after a day’s work and we do something together almost every weekend. This is really great! This makes the “lows” in the course much more bearable. We can pour out our troubles to each other and sometimes even laughing about things together.