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Interview with Andrii Kharin

What he likes most about molecular biology is that he can work in the lab all day. This is one of the reasons why Andrii Kharin decided to do his master's degree at the Biozentrum, because here he has three semesters to fully immerse himself in his master's project which is longer than elsewhere.

Where do you come from and what did you study?
I come from Kyiv in Ukraine. As I had decided to study science and was aware that I would find better equipped labs and study opportunities in Europe, I went straight to the Freie Universität in Berlin after graduating from high school. After an introductory year for foreign students, I started my bachelor's degree in biochemistry.

And what brought you then to the Biozentrum in Basel?
Studying biochemistry in Berlin was really great, very hands-on compared to other places in Germany and, above all, we had to do a six-month internship at another research institute or in industry. Since I could speak German well by then and was drawn abroad again because I wanted to experience something new, I looked around in German-speaking countries and finally did my internship in immunology here at the Biozentrum  in 2022. I then went back to Berlin to complete my bachelor's degree and since August 2023, I have been back in Jean Pieters' lab for my master's degree.

In simple terms, what is the focus of the research in the lab of Jean Pieters?
We investigate how cells regulate their population size using in vitro cell models as well as in rodents such as mice but also in amoebas and humans. In a living, multicellular organism it is essential to strictly regulated cell population and we want to identify the mechanisms involved. 

Do you work alone or in a team?
I have my own project and a direct supervisor, a postdoc, who is my first point of contact for questions about experiments or their evaluation. Sometimes, I also go to other students and postdocs who are more familiar with specific areas, such as microscopy. The interaction with my supervisor is very spontaneous and straightforward. Since we're sitting face-to-face, I can just call out to him over the table (he laughs). Of course, there are also formal meetings, such as our weekly lab meeting, where every four to five months I present my results and get feedback from the whole group.

Do you also meet on a personal level with the other members of the group?
Yes, sure. We usually have lunch together and sometimes colleagues ask in our chat if anyone would like to do something together in the evening. Of course, this depends on how busy we are in the lab, but most of the time someone joins in.

Speaking of busyness: Do you manage to get everything done in a normal workday or do you often work evenings or weekends?
It depends. With some experiments, you have to do certain steps at a given time. For example, when I treat my cells with an active substance, I might need to stay longer or drop in at the weekend.

Experiments don't always work right away. Is that frustrating?
No, I've become used to the fact that when you try something new, you have to expect that it may not work right away or perfectly. But that's part of science and also an important reason why I'm doing my master's degree at the Biozentrum. Here you have three semesters for your master's project, in many other places you only have one. This really gives you the opportunity to explore things by yourself, so you learn to identify and correct errors in experiments.

You are working in the lab, but you also attend courses. How do you choose them?
Of course, I look at which topics interest me, but also whether it fits into my daily schedule, so that I don't overload a day with seminars. After all, my primary focus is on my research, on my master’s project. I take about one course per semester because I also have the lab meetings, the floor seminars together with the cell and developmental biologists, and the weekly Discovery Seminars for all the researchers here at the institute. In short, I already have quite some commitments.

Do you keep in touch with other Biocentrics outside your group?
Yes, I know some master's students from other groups. We meet at the Discovery Seminars, the Happy Hours and we play soccer every week together with some PhDs and postdocs. I'm also in a few WhatsApp chats, where we arrange to play football on the weekends.

Comparing your bachelor's with the master's program, what's the biggest difference?
During the bachelor's studies you have quite a lot of theory, lectures and seminars. The topics are also not focused that narrow  yet. It's about learning the basics and gaining an insight into different areas. In the master's it becomes much more practical, especially here at the Biozentrum, where, as I said, the master's project is given a lot of weight. You are really immersed in research and doing your own experiments.

What do you like most about your studies?
That I'm in the lab every day. When I was thinking about what I wanted to study, it quickly became clear that this interests me the most. And I like that, on the one hand, I can work quite independently and, on the other hand, I am also part of a team. I also think that studying molecular biology opens up many different career opportunities.

For your studies, you moved to Basel. How was your start here?
Pretty straightforward. I already had a taste of Basel during my six-month internship, so I was able to sort out the administrative matters quickly. And I was lucky to get a place in the Student Residence again. If you are coming from outside, I can really recommend a student residence. It’s easy to make new friends, as the housemates are about the same age and there are a lot of international students. 

How do you like it in Basel?
Of course, there isn't as much going on here as in Kyiv or Berlin, but I do spend a lot of time studying anyway. In summer I like to go swimming in the Rhine or I explore more parts of Switzerland to hike as there is a huge choice of hiking options. 

Do you already know what you want to do after your master's degree?
My plans may change again by then, but for now I think I'll look for a job first and not start a PhD right away. And then I'll see what happens next.

One last question: Do you have any advice for prospective master’s students?
Yes, I think it is important to apply to the research groups for your master's project early on. Since the selection process can take a while, this gives you a little more flexibility.