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Interview with Enea Maffei

For Enea Maffei molecular biology was a sure thing right from the start, as this subject was a favorite already at school. For this course of studies, he turned his back on the Ticino – his home – to come to Basel. Now, Enea Maffei is already at the end spurt of completing his Master in Infection Biology at the Biozentrum. This experience has taught him what it means to be a research scientist as well as a different kind of patience. 

You are originally from Canton Ticino. What brought you to Basel?

When I started here in 2013, the only university in Ticino was still very small and without a strong focus on sciences. As German is my second mother tongue, I knew that I would one day end-up in the German-speaking part of Switzerland.  Initially, I had my eye on studying biology at the ETH in Zürich.

So why did you then choose the University of Basel?

In Ticino, at the beginning of the semester, there is one day on which universities and institutes introduce themselves. There I made some inquiries at Uni Basel and became quite interested in the Molecular Biology course of studies. The following year, I visited the Info Day for school leavers that takes place in January. That was the moment when I decided to come to Basel. I liked the fact that you can put part of the bachelor program together yourself and an important aspect for me was the inclusion of an elective subject. I took this opportunity to learn Spanish. Even today, I continue to take Spanish courses when possible.

What did you study and where did you do your bachelor studies?

I studied for my Bachelor of Science majoring in Molecular Biology in Basel and subsequently I decided to do my masters here at the Biozentrum.

Did you already have a connection to the Biozentrum?

In the first two years you have little to do with the Biozentrum. But in the third year of the Bachelor’s degree, however, students come into very close contact with the institute when taking the block courses in a range of fields, which are conducted by various research groups.

Were the block courses a help for making the decision about where to do your masters?

Yes, as I actually had planned to do my masters as the Swiss TPH but the block course in Microbiology, that was carried out by the Jenal group, fascinated me so much that I finally decided to apply for a position in the Jenal Lab.

Did you speak directly with Urs Jenal or are you required to make an official application for a master’s position?

At the end of each block course day, the postdocs presented the various projects in their research group.  And so the process went through the postdocs. Of course the research group leader has the final word but Urs Jenal gives his team much free room in the selection of masters students. Beforehand, I discussed everything already with my tutors, who had supervised the block course and so already knew me. After a few meetings everything was basically arranged. 

How did you find the subject of your master project?

As a master’s student, various projects are suggested to you and you can choose, depending on your interest, which direction you would like to pursue. Within the project, however, you have some degree of freedom. This certainly depends on the group. Some research group leaders, for example, provide you with a set topic. 

How is the master research work different to the work in the block courses?

In the block courses, everything is already preset and everything works. It is like cooking following a recipe in the cookbook. You know what result to expect at the end of the experiment and within a week, it is completed, from start to finish. Doing a master’s is completely different. I have found out that sometimes, after a week, you may only have very little or even no results. In research, it often takes years to decades to answer a scientific question. 18 months for a master’s is, in comparison, not a long time. Just learning the ropes takes two to three months; to find out where everything is, how to do certain experiments and who to ask and what to do when something doesn’t work. This leaves you with not much more than a year to do the master project. Real research is more complicated than you are aware of from the block courses. For me, this step was not so straight forward.

Do you remember your first day in the lab?

Oh, I would say it was overwhelming. There was so much information to remember; the 96-well plates are in the cupboard, you will find the pipettes in the other one, the bacteria strains are deep frozen in the -80°C freezer…  In retrospect, everything is fairly simple but it did take a little while to get used to the lab routine.  And you need to dare to ask again and again. I think I rather stressed my lab colleagues with my many questions (he laughs). Now it functions tip top. I work quite independently on my project and discuss a lot with my two supervisors. 

What are you studying in your master project?

I am investigating the tolerance and persistence mechanisms of pathogens. Most patients with the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis very often suffer from chronic pneumonia caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas aeruginosa. One of the reasons why the therapy is not successful in these patients is that the bacteria tolerate and survive antibiotic treatment.  But this is not due to resistance. We are trying to understand at the molecular level, why some bacteria survive such treatments and aim to identify important parameters for tolerance and persistence. If we could better describe and define the survival mechanisms, it would also help physicians to find more suitable therapeutic strategies for their patients.

As a scientist, you also need tolerance – of frustration. What is it like, more pleasure or more pain?

Yes, I totally agree with that. You spend weeks and months working on a small question and then you notice, oh, it goes in the wrong direction. And then you feel like you have just “wasted” a month. It has been a learning process for me to deal with frustration and setbacks. Sport usually helps or just turning off my brain for the weekend. You need to learn a different kind of patience.

From where do you get your ideas and inspiration?

I personally come up with new ideas during discussions with others. I am lucky to be working with a fellow student in the same research group and that I can talk to her about the findings or difficulties. Also my supervisors are always important providers of ideas. And of course, last but not least, Urs Jenal who provides important inputs during our regular meetings. Once, every two to three months, each of us presents our latest results at a lab meeting and I have found that the questions and comments of my lab colleagues often take me a step further.

Did you settle into the group quickly?

I have to admit that I found a fantastic place to be. I was accepted well and felt comfortable from the first moment. Now and then we also do something together outside the lab, for instance, relaxing at the Rhine together in the evening.

Is there any time left for going out during the master studies?

Yes, there is some time. It depends on what you have to do. When I am in an intensive phase of the project, there is of course less time to go out. Already during the bachelor days and also now, I am in the Ticino almost every weekend for my work as a scout leader there. That’s why I don’t spend so much time with my colleagues on the weekends. But here in Basel, there is a great variety of things to do. My favorite place is the Rhine. First you can just float down the river and then afterwards eat or drink something on the river bank.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

In the next period of time I can well imagine to stay in Basel. However, to go abroad has also its attraction. I’d like to do a PhD but at the moment everything is still open.