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Interview with Lisa Traunmüller

She gets enthusiastic talking about her fascinating research data. Frustration she considers to be a driving force and if she works until late, it’s because of her own impatience. Lisa Traunmüller from Linz in Austria has her goal clearly in mind: an academic research career. But not only this has led her to Basel into the neurobiology group of Prof. Peter Scheiffele ‒ she was also taken with the city from the very beginning.   

Where did you do your Master’s?
I studied in Vienna and graduated from the local university. My Master's thesis I have however, completed at the Biozentrum. And since I was very happy in Peter Scheiffele’s group and as I very much like Basel, I stayed here.

Why did you decide to do a PhD?
I have always been interested in neurobiology. Then, when I started to work at the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology in Vienna as an undergraduate in 2011, and saw how people were doing research there, I immediately knew that this was exactly what I wanted to do. I also want to keep on in academy after my PhD and would like to become a group leader one day. That's my goal and there is no getting around a PhD to reach it.

Why did you choose the Biozentrum?
For my thesis I wanted to go away but not too far yet. I thought, give it a try, it’s just for one year and if it turns out well, then you know that you can go anywhere in the world. And the Biozentrum’s offer was really great, especially in neurobiology as there are very renowned researchers here. Also the fact that the Biozentrum harbors different disciplines makes it really attractive. At the Biozentrum Symposium in January, for example, I was able to learn a lot from the other research areas. That was really great!

The Biozentrum also collaborates with other research institutions in Basel such as the FMI, the Swiss TPH or the DBM. Do you get to benefit from this?
Yes, I do. In neurobiology we have all the lectures together and I think that with so many institutions it makes perfect sense to exploit synergies and to help each other. There is a lively exchange, also for example, with Roche.

How did you choose the topic for your PhD?
It has its roots in my Master's thesis. At the beginning we knew little about the protein which we investigate, but during my Master’s we found out really interesting stuff, so I could not let go anymore (she laughs). To characterize a relatively unknown protein gives you a lot of opportunities to try out different things. Already data from my Master's thesis were published in the Journal of Neuroscience and now we just had a publication in Science. The protein affects the behavior of mice in new environments and may be important for the study of neurodevelopmental diseases.

Nevertheless, research is not only about luck and success but also sometimes frustrating. How do you deal with this?
For me, frustration is the best driving force. If things do not work as I hoped for, I really get stuck into the nitty-gritty until it works. And then, of course, you are not alone. There is a lot of team spirit in our lab and in such moments I get great support from my colleagues and the boss. But sometimes you also have to kick yourself! But it’s true, this is the most difficult part of the job and indeed it’s rather the rule than the exception, that things do not work.

You also attend courses from the Graduate Teaching Program. How do you choose them?
I am very stubborn in this respect (she laughs). I'm completely focused on neurobiology, because I feel that I still know far too little, because I love to dig deeper and also because neurobiology is a huge area of research. But in our lab there are people with very different backgrounds and you, of course, get to know a lot of things from them, too, and start to investigate other topics.  

How is the collaboration with your PhD supervisor Peter Scheiffele?
We have a very frequent exchange. On the one hand, there are the weekly meetings. On the other hand, just recently, when Peter was doing a sabbatical in Japan, I realized how often I wanted to barge into his office with some questions or results, because I want to tell it to him on the spot. He always takes the time for me. Peter is very good both at challenging and at fostering ideas. In our group there is no PhD student who is exclusively coached by a postdoc. So, Peter is very involved with all of us.

How is the atmosphere in the team?
Great. Each one has their own project, but depending on how things develop, we also work closely together. The Science paper, for example, was done together with a postdoc, because when I told her about my fascinating data, she said, “hey, I can contribute something to that”

You also have a Thesis Advisory Committee. Have you already met with them?
Yes, my committee is made up of Peter Scheiffele and two other professors of the Biozentrum. All three are outstanding scientists and the meeting was very inspiring because there were a lot of discussions, partly just between the three professors. It was really exciting to see how they work.

And what about your workload, do you also have to work in the evenings or on weekends?
This happens from time-to-time. Mostly because of myself. Because I think, ah, if I stay three more hours here, I get the results already today and then I can do other experiments tomorrow. So the reason for staying on is often my own impatience. Of course, there are also experiments that run over several days and then you have no choice but to wait.

Have you already been to a PhD Retreat?
Yes, last year. I hadn’t been at the Biozentrum for long then and a colleague from our lab introduced me to all the people she knows. That was very helpful. And the talks were incredibly good, I learned so much about what the others do. It was also personally enriching and great to spend two days, of which some leisure time was also taken hiking together. I only realized afterwards how much we were talking about science even in this downtime.

Any advice for aspiring PhD students?
I think many people underestimate the importance of their colleagues in the lab and, on the occasion of the job interview, only talk to the group leader. However, not in all labs, PhDs are directly supervised by the boss. It’s often by a postdoc. And then you also need the support of the team since, after all, you spend many hours with these people. So, I would not just consider science. The personal environment is important too.

You moved from Vienna to Basel. How was your beginning here?
At first it was pretty tough to get contacts, but now I meet with people from the FMI, from the Physics and Chemistry departments and, it’s funny, with many architects. Also in the group, it took some time to integrate into the dynamics. Only Basel has made it easy for me from the very beginning. People are so nice here, the atmosphere is very friendly and there is so much going on. In summer, we meet at the Rhine, in winter in small, cool bars and Basel also has a huge cultural offering. I also often grab my bike and am off out into nature. My career will certainly involve moving to other cities, but I'd love to come back to Basel one day.