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Interview with Arantxa Urchueguía

She was looking for an institute with an interdisciplinary approach. Then she learned about the Biozentrum PhD Fellowships program and the opportunity to look into different research groups. After three rotations, Arantxa Urchueguía from Spain decided to immerse herself in an entirely new area and join the Computational & Systems Biology group led by Prof. Erik van Nimwegen for her PhD.

Where did you do your Bachelor and Masters?
I come from Valencia on the east coast of Spain and studied at the university there. This was before the introduction of the Bologna System so there was not yet a split between the Bachelor and Masters but just one five year block in biology with a strong focus on molecular biology. During my last year, as an Erasmus student, I took part in the Master’s Molecular and Cell Biology program at the Freie Universität in Berlin.

Your name does not sound Spanish.
No, indeed, my name is not Spanish but Basque, from where my grandfather comes. I also have roots in Germany and went to the German school in Valencia. Unfortunately, I hardly use my German here at the Biozentrum as we are an international group and therefore always speak English. Nevertheless, it’s useful when I talk to people in the shops or when I want to do certain courses outside of the University

Why did you decide to do a PhD?
During my university degree, the Spanish ministry supported me to move into research with a fellowship. I worked in an epigenetics research group for about a year in a completely different field than what I am into now but I really liked the experience. It was a great time and I obtained nice results. So already then, research was a really promising option for me but I also wanted to take a look at industry and therefore, after finishing my degree, I went to England to do an internship in an agricultural company near London. However, I was drawn back to university and began to look around in Europe for a PhD position.

Why did you choose the Biozentrum?
I wanted to work in an interdisciplinary environment because I am convinced that the major questions in biology will be solved by groups of people with different backgrounds. In the Internet, I learned about the “Biozentrum PhD Fellowships” program. Luckily, I was invited to take part in the interview week, where I really had the chance to get to know the Biozentrum better. Research at the Biozentrum is highly interdisciplinary, the groups are very good and there are great technology platforms.

The selection process is highly competitive. How was the interview week?
You know that it is a competitive thing but you don’t really feel it. And of course, I was nervous when I had to give the presentation but it went quite well. In fact, I thought it was going to be much harder but everyone was very kind, everything was well organized and they made a big effort for us to have a good time. For example, they assign a student to every candidate and this is really helpful because you can talk to and ask this person all kinds of things. It was really a special week. 

And how did you feel when you learned that you had been accepted?
I was very happy. I wasn’t expecting it (she laughs) and I immediately decided to come. What attracted me the most was this opportunity the program offers to look into different research groups before you finally decide where you want to do your PhD. 

You did three such two month rotations. Was this helpful? 
Very much so. I knew that I wanted to be in an interdisciplinary group but I didn’t have something specific in mind. I did not know, for example, whether I would feel comfortable in a computational biology group with my background in biology and therefore it was great to see where I fitted in the best. First, I went to Erik van Nimwegen’s group, which combines wet lab and computational biology, then I joined Torsten Schwede’s group which is almost purely computational and, thirdly, I tried something completely different and spent some time in Marek Basler’s infection biology group. Still the final decision was not easy but I am very happy now in Erik van Nimwegen’s group. 

Does the Fellowships program provide other advantages?
Yes, you receive some extra money that you can spend on going to a conference, for example, or to buy books or a computer. And you also have an annual trip together with all the other fellows, which is very nice. Last year we went to China. That was a great experience. 

What are the proportions of practical work and theoretical training? 
Most of the time I spend in the lab and analyzing my data. As a PhD student you also need to attend some courses and lectures but this does not take up so much time. There are smaller one-day courses on how to prepare a presentation or a poster and then, of course, the recurring lectures. I can freely choose them from the Graduate Teaching program and that’s really great because this broadens your horizons. This year, for example, I did a course in molecular medicine, which is far away from what I do in my research. 

Can you briefly explain what your research is about?
I am working on variability in gene expression The main focus of the lab is to study gene regulation at the single-cell level in bacteria and, in my case, I am interested in understanding the major factors leading to fluctuations in gene expression between identical cells. 

Have you ever been to a PhD Retreat? 
Yes, already twice and I enjoyed them very much. It’s where you really get to know and can talk to the other PhD students of the Biozentrum, who you hardly see in your daily life. And there you can present your research project in a much more relaxed atmosphere. 

And how is the collaboration within your group? 
Erik is very supportive and really gets involved. Usually, we have a weekly meeting where we discuss the results and next steps. I’m working mainly on my own but I also interact a lot with the others from my lab. If I need help, I can always ask someone. The atmosphere is very nice and as we are a small group we know each other pretty well. Sometimes we also meet after work for a barbecue or to swim in the Rhine. 

Do you have to work long hours?
There are up’s and down’s. Sometimes you can roughly do a 9-to-5 job but often you also work in the evening and on the weekend but this is part of the process and I am fine with it. I mean, for sure, doing a PhD is tough and there are also frustrating moments. But then I just try to remember what made me start it and this motivates me again. And for me it is also very important to have a life outside the lab and to meet people who are not in research. I also like to do different kinds of sport. During moments of frustration this helps me feel much better. 

For your PhD you moved from Valencia to Basel. How was your start here? 
Well, it was a big change. Since I was in a German school, I already knew a little about the culture and of course the language, which made it easier for me to adapt. So did the fact that I had been abroad already. But the Spanish culture is completely different and I sometimes miss it. But Basel is a great place to be and what I really like is that it is so international ‒ there are people from all around the world here ‒ and in summer I especially like swimming in the Rhine.