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Interview with Palmer Bassett

She has a passion for the tiny worm C. elegans – not only because it offers so many possibilities for discovery but also because it brings together so many interesting people. This and the fact that she wanted to find out about how it is to work in Europe brought Palmer Bassett from the United States to Susan Mango’s lab to do her master’s. 

Where do you come from and what did you study?
I grew up in Colorado in the United States and did my bachelor's in Portland, Oregon. The small school I went to has the philosophy of giving you a very broad education, so that later you can work in many different positions and change your career, based on the needs of society at that time. You only specialize towards the end of your studies and I did so in math and ecosystems biology. 

We do have PhDs and postdocs from the United States, but it’s quite unusual that people already come for their master’s. Why did you do so?
In my second year of my bachelor’s, I had planned to study in Dakar in Senegal for a year, but my stay abroad was cancelled because of Covid. So, when I finished my bachelor’s degree I was really looking for an opportunity outside of the US. I applied to different labs in Europe and my PI at that time had recommended Susan Mango to me, with whom he had studied. After various interviews her lab turned out to be the best fit. 

You have a Bachelor in Ecosystems Biology and not in molecular biology. Was this a hurdle when you applied? 
Well, of course, they had to review my CV before they accepted me into the program and I had to do some prerequisite bachelor’s courses in molecular biology. At first, I didn’t like the idea of all these prerequisites very much but then they turned out to have some silver lining. For people like me it’s difficult to get to know other students. In the Mango group, the others are all PhDs and postdocs and thus at a different stage of their career than I am. So, the bachelor’s courses were super helpful to get to know other soon-to-be master’s students. And I was thankful that the courses were taught in English. 

What is your master’s project about?
I am investigating the role of a certain gene in the development of the eating apparatus of the tiny worm C. elegans. In Greg Hermann’s lab in Portland I was already doing research with C. elegans. There I was looking at intestinal development, so I kind of moved up the body of this little worm (she laughs). I am using a lot of microscopy, which suits me well because already as a little girl I was fascinated by small things and could look at them for hours. 

So, you are still working with the same model organism. What attracts you to C. elegans
I think it’s super fascinating that this tiny, little worm, which is only one millimeter long, offers so many possibilities for discovery and for addressing questions about humans. And on top of that, I have the impression that this little worm draws together many interesting people and that this research community is super accepting and welcoming. This is a big part of what I chose to do and where I chose to work. 

Do you work alone or in a team?
I work together with a postdoc in the lab who is my supervisor. My project is a small subset of hers and, as I do not have the in-depth knowledge that she has, I often ask her questions on a day-to-day basis. I also meet with Susan Mango but this is more on a monthly basis. And then we have the weekly group meetings, where someone presents their research and the others help to trouble shoot and give feedback. 

You also attend courses. How do you choose them?
I take courses that deepen my knowledge for my master’s and also others which are completely out of my field but sound interesting. I choose them myself and discussed them with Susan and my supervisor. I like topics which have bigger implications for the community as a whole − currently I am attending a course in infection biology. I mean, my project really fascinates me, but it is very zoomed in. I also go to the Discovery Lectures which are thematically very varied and I like the subsequent lunches with the external speakers because there you can really find out who they are. 

How is the atmosphere in the lab, do you also meet in your free time?
Yes, we often meet for lunch in the middle of the Biozentrum and we find time to go together to things like the Autumn Fair or the Christmas Market. With the four of us who sit together, we also sometimes have dinner at each other’s apartments. We have a good community and I appreciate knowing people not only for their projects. 

How is your work-life balance? Do you find time for hobbies?
Yes, I do. I am a very organized person. Every week I know exactly what experiments I am going to do and where I am spending my time, be it in the classes, working in the lab or doing my part-time job as a student assistant. If I wouldn’t plan as much, I would not have the time to go outside for a bike ride, hiking or skiing and I really need that, to clear my head to be able to fully use my brain capacity when I am working. 

You moved from America to Basel. How was your start here?
I moved together with my partner. He is Dutch-American and also doing a Master’s in Computer Science in Switzerland. We found an apartment to sublease for eight months, which was very helpful because we didn’t know anything about Basel. You have to learn all the small things, like how to handle the trash – we don’t have a Bebbysagg in the US (she laughs) – so if you don’t have someone who tells you this is how we do it, it’s really hard. It took a while to feel at home, especially since I don’t speak German and also to build the nice community we now have. So, settling in was slow, but it worked out. 

And is there much difference between America and Europe?
Yes, and I think the European lifestyle as a whole is aligned much better with my personal views than the American. In lots of cities, like my hometown, you have to have a car. Here I ride everywhere on my bike and the public transport also works so well. People bike to work, they hike a lot and just have a greater desire to be outside. I wanted to work in Europe to discover how they work here. Here the focus seems more on the life part of work-life balance. For me, I think Europe is the better place to live and pursue a career. 

Do you already know what you want to do after your master’s?
I would like to work on a project that has a bigger implication for society and I really enjoy using my mind to answer questions or solve problems. So, considering this, a career in science would be ideal. On the other hand, it would be nice to finally have a good, regular paycheck, which a job in industry would offer. I suppose I will apply for both, some PhD positions and some industry positions and then see what provides the best opportunity. It’s really hard to have to decide between academia and industry. 

Do you have a tip for future master’s students?
In fact, I have two. Ask people around you right away if you have any doubts or questions, be it concerning classes, the credit system, research or whatsoever. The second tip: Follow your gut instinct! We have this intuitive, decision-making system built into us but a lot of time we do not listen to it. Your intuition knows what is best for you.