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Interview with Alexander Kuznetsov

From a medical degree in pediatrics to a Master in Bioinformatics, from industry to academia, and from Moscow, via Armenia, to Basel. Alexander Kuznetsov considers things carefully before making very conscious decisions. The rotation-based selection of a research group for his PhD, as part of his Biozentrum Fellowship, therefore suits him perfectly. 

Where do you come from and what is your scientific background?
I grew up in Moscow and first did a medical degree in pediatrics.  Even before starting my residency in intensive care, I felt like academia would suit me more. But since I was not completely sure and didn’t want to have second thoughts later, I thought I’d give it a try. It soon became clear that I had been right, so after half a year I decided to do a master’s degree in bioinformatics. 

Why bioinformatics?
Bioinformatics is the perfect way for me to combine my experience in physics and mathematical themes as well as programming, which I had already gained in high school and my know-how in biology. I applied to Skoltech, one of the top, young universities, founded in 2011, where you can get an English-based education. During my studies, I became really excited about machine learning and the idea of applying algorithmic thinking to understand complex biological problems. 

After your master’s you went into industry and worked for BostonGene, right?
No, I started to work for BostonGene already during my master’s, as you have to do an internship for this. BostonGene develops personalized medicine for oncological patients using AI-based molecular and immune profiling. So, I mostly focused on machine learning there but my expertise in biology and medicine of course also came in handy. Then, when the war broke out, the company, which was half American and half Moscow-based, decided to relocate to Armenia. That’s how I happened to live and work in Yerevan for nearly two years. 

Why did you decide to do a PhD?
Well, working in industry was nice, especially in the R&D Department, where you had quite some freedom. But after some time, I realized that I wanted to deepen my knowledge in this field and that I was a bit tired of industry as a concept. I am really more attracted to academia.

And how did you learn about the Biozentrum?
I started from a larger perspective and was looking at Europe as a whole but then, digging deeper, I soon found out that Switzerland offers the best environment for biotechnology, especially in Basel. From there, it was only a short hop to come across the Biozentrum PhD Fellowships Program and I was lucky enough to get onto the shortlist and be invited to the interview week. And that was really a funny story because I didn’t know that Daniil, a colleague at BostonGene, had also applied to the Biozentrum. In the end, we traveled together to Basel, quit our jobs, started here on the same day, and have become flatmates.

Let’s take a step back. How was the interview week?
Well, as I was the first to give a plenary talk, I didn’t even have the time to get nervous (he laughs). The week was great. I had about eight interviews with PIs, mostly from computational labs which was very interesting. And the organization was absolutely perfect. Angie and Susanna from the PhD student office already helped me in the run-up writing invitation letters to get a visa and they also set up the whole social program which added a lot to getting to know the spirit of the Biozentrum and the environment better. 

What is special about the fellowships?
For me, the greatest advantage is the rotation system, which is quite unique. You can work in two or three labs for two months each before you decide where to finally do your PhD. That’s great because the PhD takes four years and so much depends on your fitting to the supervising PI, on your personal relationship. I have seen many friends who have started their PhD with a direct application to a lab and then changed or quit after half a year. So, I am really grateful that I can do these rotations and then make a well-balanced decision. 

You started in Richard Neher’s lab, in Bioinformatics, your field of specialization. Now you just moved on to Susan Mango’s, to Developmental Biology. What’s your motivation?
Bioinformatics is a very broad field. Some people even say that it’s not a science by itself but a tool to analyze biology with computational methods. At BostonGene, my research was mostly focused on RNA sequencing, cancer and tumor data. Richard’s lab is doing bacterial and viral phylogenetics, which is something completely different. Susan is investigating chromatin, with which I am at least already familiar from my master’s thesis. As every wet lab, they have a huge amount of data and since Susan told me during the interview week that she would like to have a student who would look at her data from a computational point of view, I am doing my second rotation in her lab. The third one will be in Attila Becskei’s lab.

Do you also attend courses of the graduate teaching program?
When I started, at the beginning of December, most courses were already up and running so I could not enroll but I just happened to participate in the two-week crash course for first-year PhD students “How to be a scientist”. It was pretty thorough and gives you a good impression of what the Biozentrum can actually help you with. So, for example, we got to know all the facilities. We also practiced different skills, had to give talks or analyze articles from research fields we are not familiar with. And it was, of course, also very nice from a social perspective. Unlike my master’s where all students started together, as a PhD you basically start alone. So it was great to get to know other PhD students and make some new friends. 

And how is the exchange within the research groups?
I was really happy with the guys in Richard’s group. We not only worked together in the lab but also met outside for aperos or at each other’s homes. In his group there are people from many different countries and it is really nice to discuss together and have all these different perspectives. I have only been a few days in Susan’s lab but it seems that at the Biozentrum everybody is very welcoming. I already experienced this during the interview week and this was one of the reasons why I eventually came here. 

You moved from a huge city to a big city and now to Basel. How do you feel here?
I was gradually downsizing (he laughs). Moscow has about 15 million inhabitants and from the outskirts where I lived, it took me 1 ½ hours by subway to get to the city center. Yerevan in Armenia already felt like a small city, as I was going everywhere on foot. What I really like here is that you can meet up with someone within 15 minutes and once I have a bike, like almost everybody here, I will be even faster. And I can literally go for a stroll through three countries, with Germany and France being within walking distance from my home. That’s amazing. In the summer, I am also looking forward to going swimming in the Rhine, which is just outside my window. 

You have now been here for 2 ½ months. How was settling in?
I’m still struggling with some paperwork and I have to get used to all the shops being closed on Sundays. But I am already getting into some routine. I go running along the Wiese, to the university gym and I have already visited some museums but there is still a lot to discover. As a newcomer, the city gives you a whole book of vouchers for museums and such things and also for a German course which I hope to start next month. I already know some German as my grandma is German-speaking and I love to learn languages and keeping to Wittgenstein’s quote “Die Grenzen meiner Sprache bedeuten die Grenzen meiner Welt” (The limits of my language mean the limits of my world). So, I also know some Spanish, French and Polish and here you can practice everything if you want. Basel is a very international city and therefore it suits me perfectly.