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Interview with Enea Maffei

From bacteria to bacteriophages, from a large to a small research group - with the step from Master to PhD student, Enea Maffei opted for several changes. Still, some things remained the same: The Biozentrum as his preferred research institute and Basel which he appreciates as a pocket-sized metropolis. 

Enea, you have been at the Biozentrum since 2013. What brought you from the Ticino to Basel? 
Originally I moved to Basel to do my bachelor studies. Since I have enjoyed being here so much, I decided to stay longer. After completing the degree, I went on to do a Master in Microbiology in Prof. Urs Jenal’s lab. For my PhD here were different options but after careful consideration I realized that Dr. Alexander Harms’ team was the right fit for me. 

Why did you change from a large group to a small one and from bacteria to bacteriophages?
Firstly, Alexander Harms’ team is linked to the Jenal group. We all share one office and so it doesn’t feel like being so small in the end. Nevertheless, I chose Alexander’s team because I wanted to work in a small group. This is just a personal preference and I feel good here. An advantage is that it is always easy to discuss things with someone. Regarding the switch from bacteria to bacteriophages: I was looking for a new challenge. I made the right choice.  

Compared with your master course of studies, what is now different?
I now have more theoretical knowledge and practical experience, both of which I can apply in my project. What’s more, as a PhD student you have much more time for research, you have a much clearer overview of the current state of research and which questions still remain open. 

It is a big step to take on a doctorate. Why did you decide to do this?
It was a long process. As I wasn’t sure if an academic career was the right thing for me, I first worked in private industry after finishing my masters. It soon became clear that– whether in academia or in industry – you can only get a position where you can take on responsibility and make decisions, if you have a PhD. 

And why did you choose the Biozentrum for your PhD?
I think that the Biozentrum offers a unique environment. You can experience this already even in the small things: If you have a question, colleagues on the same floor can give you an answer. And in terms of my project, I really found what I want to do: Basic research with a view to human health. Things are well organized here, there is a designated person for each areas and the core facilities provide professional assistance within a very short time. 

What is the subject of your doctoral thesis?
My work is based on Alexander’s research on bacteriophages. I investigate how bacterial viruses can be used to fight bacteria that cause chronic infections. Bacteriophage research was much more common earlier on and thanks to Werner Arber’s and Eduard Kellenberger’s work the Biozentrum even became a leader in this field. But that was a long time ago. Now, however, bacteriophage research is experiencing a renaissance.

How is the supervision?
Very well. I appreciate the close supervision, the direct exchange and the short path. With Alexander I can discuss everything – whether good or bad. I am supported, challenged and guided and I also get much encouragement. Alexander gives me the courage to try out new things, to share my thoughts and ideas, and besides my work, to attend courses. In short, it couldn’t be better. 

How do you deal with setbacks?
Fortunately, I have already experienced some successes and been able to answer some of my questions. Also partly due to luck. Learning to deal with failure and frustration is part of our work. Sports and some time off helps me to switch off. I generally tend to celebrate every success, however small, and not to let setbacks get me down. 

The Graduate Teaching Program is part of the PhD. How are you going with this?
Fine. I already collected nearly all the credit points for my PhD in the first year. Since the lectures are held during working hours, you need to weigh up whether they will help you or if it would be better to continue working. Still, it is usually well invested time. The program offers a broad selection of lectures and provides you with an insight into other fields. For instance, I took a course in «fundamentals of programming», as nowadays you can no longer get by in biology without this knowledge. In December, I plan to attend lectures in molecular virology.  

Did you already participate in a PhD Retreat?
Yes, at the very beginning of my PhD. I didn’t give a talk because it was too early for this but it’s my next big goal. 

How are discussions with other PhD students?
Very open and enriching. As a PhD Representative, I am an active member of the PhD Committee Board. We try to bring science and social activities together and we also have an advisory role. We arrange an introductory day twice a year, we visit the core facilities, organize the PhD Retreat, “apéros”, lunches, barbecues and other events. One of the highlights for me, last year, was the organization of the Life Sciences Party together with other leading institutes and companies in Basel. 

Do you still find time for hobbies?
My great passion, and much more than a hobby, was the Scouts. Up until recently, I was an active scout leader in the Ticino. During my studies, I travelled there every weekend. But my leisure time has become shorter, so now I only work behind the scenes. In return, I now have more time to hike in the mountains and go to concerts.  

And what do you most like about Basel? 
Two things spontaneously come to mind: Firstly, it is a metropolis in pocket format, which offers everything you want without seeming too large or anonymous. And secondly, the Rhine River. I live just 100 meters away from the riverbank. The Rhine is the heart of the city and if you want to meet friends for a beer, it is the place to go. For me this is pure quality of life.