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Interview with Đorđe Relić

He was brave. Maybe a bit too brave when he signed up to give a talk at the beginning of his PhD. But Đorđe Relić, from Serbia, doesn’t do things by halves. That is why the mathematician and computer scientist took on the challenge and changed to biology, why he did the full program of research group rotations and also why he quickly started to get involved as a PhD representative. 

Where do you come from and in which field did you do your master’s?
I grew up in a town called Sombor in the north of Serbia and studied mathematics in Belgrade. For my master’s I wanted to move to Switzerland and looked at different universities. In the end, Basel had the best offer for me and so I did my Master in Computer Science here.

Why did you decide to do your PhD at the Biozentrum?
Up to my graduation, I worked purely on a theoretical level and in computer science. When I was looking for a PhD, I learned about the Biozentrum PhD Fellowships Program and my interest in biology, which I had felt early in my career, was revived. Finally, I could take part in the fellowships interview week and this was an absolutely inspiring and enriching experience. In three days, I could talk to ten group leaders, for about half an hour each. It was intense but great and I knew right away that I wanted to do my PhD here.

What are the advantages of the fellowships program?
As I said, it is really having had this opportunity to talk to so many PIs and, of course, the rotation system. When you get started, you can work in different research groups before you decide where to do your PhD. I did the full program and worked in three different groups for two months each. It was not only interesting with regard to the range of topics, but also to see how different groups function. And it was pretty challenging since I had no prior experience in biology but I learned many skills and met many people.

So, this is also a possibility for networking at the very beginning?
Sure, but networking always depends on you. There are lots of opportunities at the Biozentrum but you have to seize them. I became quickly involved with the PhD Representatives and I am now its Vice President. We organize career lectures and courses on soft skills. We have our monthly PhD Lunch Talk where a PhD student presents his work and then we have pizza and fries together. We also organize social events like barbecues or parties, sometimes together with PhDs from Novartis, Roche, DBM, D-BSSE and other the life sciences institutes in Basel.

You are now doing your PhD in Erik van Nimwegen’s group. What are you working on?
The main topic is gene regulatory networks and this is a very broad subject. I study the regulation of gene transcription and try to model it on a genome wide level to understand how the different cell types develop. In fact, I am working on two projects. The first project aims to decipher the “regulatory code” in the DNA. The other project is more high level. Here, I investigate how multiple transcription factors regulate gene expression and how we can model the development of an organism. Actually, I am trying to tackle two questions from different viewpoints, both are really challenging.

How is the collaboration within your group?
We are all working on different projects but we support each other wherever we can.  At our weekly group meetings, where the group members present their projects, we often have very constructive discussions. And then, of course, I also regularly check my ideas with Erik and with Alex Schier who is co-supervising my second project. It is a very dynamic environment.

Doing science is not only about successes but also failures. How do you motivate yourself?
The biggest challenge for me is when I cannot see the forest because of the many trees and have to find my way back to see the big picture. And it is always important to bear in mind that you are doing a PhD for yourself. This is my motivation. You just have to keep your goal in mind. My biggest struggle was in the beginning. Coming from mathematics, I was used to exactness and reproducibility. Biology is much less predictable.

Do you also interact with other research groups?
Not so much because we are dealing with quite different questions. We have very specific collaborations and contacts with other institutes around the world. But what I really like are the yearly two and a half days PhD retreats. There, among your peers in a relaxed environment, you hear about what the others are doing and how they are doing it. I often have interesting conversations with people from infection biology as we work with the same organisms, with bacteria.

Have you already given a presentation there?
Yes, in the first year. I was quite brave, maybe too brave (he laughs). I was very ambitious and convinced that I would achieve what I wanted to do in those six months, so I signed up for it. I didn’t manage it. That was really frustrating but I had to give a talk anyway. In the end, it was o.k.

How is the workload and do you find time for hobbies?
For me everything is about time management. My PhD is quite intense, so as a balance I do sport. Earlier I was playing basketball, then football and now it’s everything from squash to jogging. I also play in a band. I have a lot of interests and like to keep myself busy.

You moved from Belgrade to Basel. How do you feel here?
I really like the city, there is so much culture and such a good atmosphere. I originally come from a small city and then I moved to a big city of 2 million people. Basel is something in between. I once read that the size of a city correlates with how fast people walk and I really like the speed here. And with regard to Life Sciences, Basel it is definitely one of the best places in the world to be.

What do you plan after the PhD?
This is still open. I thought about myself as a man with a plan but things have changed. I have learned that I am interested in very specific projects and for me success is the result of motivation combined with investment. Regarding my future, I do not think about in which city I want to live or how much money I want to earn but let myself be driven by my interest.