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Interview with Amanda Santos Kron

For her, organization and good planning is half the battle. And although she sometimes has to jump out of bed early to get all her experiments done and on some days even fit in a second job, she still manages to also enjoy student life. Maybe Amanda Santos Kron, who is doing a Masters in Prof. Jan Pieter Abrahams’ lab in the field of structural biology and biochemistry, is so successful at doing both because of her Swiss-Brazilian roots.

What is it about molecular biology that captivates you?

Its complexity. If you carry out experiments and something small goes wrong, you realize that the tiniest thing may turn everything upside down. Everything is so closely intertwined and I find that really exciting.

How did you select a research group for your Master’s thesis?

During the block courses in the third year of the Bachelor studies, someone volunteered to write to all the professors asking whether they offered a Master’s position. Brief descriptions of these were then put up in the block course and since I didn’t know where I wanted to go, I just went through all the positions. The project in Professor Jan Pieter Abrahams’ group appealed the most to me, so I sent him an email and then went for a short job interview. It was all very straightforward.

And what are you working at now?

I am investigating the interaction of a molecular chaperone – a folding helper – with amyloidogenic proteins. I focus on misfolded proteins that form aggregates in the cell and which are the major cause of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. We are interested in whether and how exactly misfolded proteins, such as alpha-synuclein, interact with chaperones and whether they form a complex to fold correctly.

How was your first day in the lab?

On the first day I followed the others a bit like a pooch (she laughs): I watched, wrote down everything and collected oodles of impressions. Now it’s different, of course. I work quite independently and plan my experiments on my own. If they work out properly, it’s good, if not, I have to repeat them once again or consult my supervisor about how to proceed.

Experiments often fail in the beginning. How do you motivate yourself in such cases?

I tell myself, hey, it's not just you, this is normal, that’s the way science works. You just have to accept it and overcome the hurdles to get results. In the beginning this is not very easy, because you're a bit frustrated and thinking what have I done wrong again! But with time you realize that this happens to everybody.

Have you already achieved some results that you can use for your Master's thesis?

I was able to gather quite a large amount of data in the first four months. It was fortunate that the protein was relatively easy to purify and work with. But anyway, the project is still in its infancy. I must now repeat the experiments and validate them to be able to deduce something meaningful out of the findings. But I already have many results and that's really cool.

How is the collaboration in the lab?

I primarily get feedback from the PhD student who supervises my project. But we also have a weekly seminar together with Henning Stahlberg’s group, where you get input and advice from the others. Anyhow, there is much mutual support and the two groups form a good team, which also frequently meets for an after-work beer.

Besides your work in the lab you also attend courses. How do you choose them?

It’s pretty much up to you what you choose and that’s great. So, besides the courses in molecular biology, I attended one in molecular psychology, for example, simply because I was interested in the subject and not because it would have been relevant for my project. And it's also a question of timing. I prefer to go to lectures and seminars early in the morning or in the evening because this way I am much more flexible in planning my experiments.

Comparing your Bachelor with your Master’s studies, what’s the biggest difference?

First of all, the fact that the focus shifts to the practical work, to doing "hands-on" things. Sure, I already did experiments at the block courses but back then you actually followed a given protocol, just like a recipe when you are cooking. For what I am doing now there is no standard protocol, so I simply have to try out things. And I obviously also work much more independently.

And what about time and effort? Do you manage to get things done within a normal working day or do you have to work late, too?

That depends. In general, I get most things done within a normal working day. Good organization is my keyword. I like to plan ahead. If I know that there is much to be done on a specific day, I simply start earlier, so that it does not get too late in the evening. Naturally, despite accurate planning, it can happen that something goes wrong and then you have to stay to fix it but this doesn’t happen very often.

I suppose you don’t find time for a student job besides all this, right?

Yes, I do. Also with regard to this, it’s a question of organization. On Monday, I start very early because in the evening I give Tamil children German lessons. And once or twice a month on weekends, I work in catering, mostly at weddings or other events.

Why did you choose the Biozentrum?

Well, the reason is quite trivial: Because I grew up and live here (she laughs). But honestly, why should I look elsewhere? The Biozentrum has a very good reputation and Basel is the best location for life sciences in Switzerland, so it never came to my mind to go to Zurich or somewhere abroad.

And would you recommend it to others?

Yes, certainly. The block courses in the third Bachelor year are unique in Switzerland, as far as I know, and they give a really good overview of the research areas. And for the Masters, you then have a huge range of topics from which you can choose.

Do you have any advice for prospective students?

Don’t let yourself get down because of the huge amount of physics, chemistry and math you have to study at the beginning. It gets better afterwards (she laughs). And establish learning groups for these subjects. There is no point brooding over exercises for hours alone at home when together you mostly get an idea and a solution. And in addition, it’s a great preparation for the exams.

Do you already know what you want to do after your Masters?

I haven’t decided yet. I very much like the lab work, to work independently and solving problems because if you then find a solution, it's a really cool feeling of success. But I don’t think that I will do a PhD in academia but can rather imagine going into industry or to take on a job even outside the lab. Anyhow, after my Masters, the first thing I will do is to go traveling (she laughs).

And how is student life in Basel?

Basel is really a great place. Every Thursday evening, there is a student party somewhere in town, where almost everybody goes, except for the biology undergraduates who have the bad luck of having a heavy lecture, for example in mathematical methods, on Friday mornings at 8 am. And the Skuba also organizes many events. Furthermore, there is always a concert going on somewhere, there are nice bars and restaurants and in summer it’s great when everybody floats down the Rhine with their swimming bags and then meeting on the shore.