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Interview with Niels Schellinx

He is in charge of the social activities for the PhD club. A good match. He loves to go clubbing. Also, with regard to other aspects of his life, Niels Schellinx was always on the move ‒ from Maastricht in the Netherlands to Leuven in Belgium for his studies in biomedicine and finally to Basel to the group of Prof. Markus Affolter. Only when it comes to his research, the jack-of-all-trades appreciates that as a PhD student he can work now in a much more focused way.

What's the biggest difference between a Master’s and a PhD?
For me the Master was far more exhausting because you constantly had to change the chip in your head between lectures, learning for the examinations and working in the laboratory for the Master thesis. In addition, in the lab everything was new to me. I mean, in theory you already know quite a lot, but then in practice everything turns out to be pretty different. I had hardly ever had a pipette in my hands before. As a PhD I can now fully focus on my two projects and store all my energy.

How did you choose your research group and topic?
I did my Master's thesis on the development of the cardiovascular system and wanted to keep on researching in this field. And I wanted to get to know yet another country. However, without good contacts this is not that easy. Eventually, I landed a lucky chance. Markus Affolter had been recommended to me by no less than three professors in Leuven and not only did his work with zebrafish and live imaging seem super cool to me, he was also the first to reply to me. After only two days! I then traveled to Basel, expecting a one-hour interview. But Markus Affolter had organized a whole-day program for me. At lunch I had to defend my Master thesis. That was a very good exercise just before the official defense in Leuven, and it was much harder than this (he laughs).

At what point are you currently in your PhD?
I am now in the second year. At the beginning you are looking into many different things. After half-a-year I finally settled on two projects. One is kind of more straightforward and for this I already have some interesting results. The other is of a more technical nature. I'm developing a particular transgenic line and that takes time.

Research is not only about luck and success but also sometimes frustrating. How do you deal with this?
Sure, it happens pretty often that something does not work as expected. But there is always a reason for it. Biology is logical and there are always parameters that you can change or optimize. One should not give up easily and if it works you are happy all the more. And, of course, you have to master certain difficulties, but to be honest, if there were none, anybody could actually do a PhD.

Is there something to the Biozentrum which differentiates it from other research centers?
One senses that the Biozentrum is well-funded. And I very much appreciate the core facilities, not only because they are equipped with state-of-the art technology, but also because the employees there are top specialists in their field and superbly advise you in all technical issues.

How is the cooperation in the group?
We have two subgroups. One works with zebrafish, the other with Drosophila. I have little scientific contact with the latter. Socially, of course, I do. In each of my two projects I am closely coached by two research associates. And then also everybody in the group has a different expertise you can benefit from. From Markus Affolter I currently get detailed input twice-a-year. This will become more intense once I start writing my dissertation. And during the semester on a Monday we have a lab meeting.

You meet once-a-year with your Thesis Advisory Committee. Does this help?
Yes, the two external experts have very different perspectives on my work. In order to convince them of my project, I have to reflect again and make myself aware of why it is important to find out what I'm trying to find out. If you are looking into a disease like Alzheimer's, the necessity of this research work is pretty obvious. This is different with basic research. All the more, it is important to work in a focused, target-oriented way and to know exactly what my research can contribute to society. In the end, all achievements in applied research are based on achievements in basic research.

Apart from the scientific exchange, how is the social interaction in your group?
Today, fine. At the beginning, it was a bit difficult, since most colleagues were older, lived together with their girlfriends, had already a child or a solid circle of friends. So I had to build up my social life outside of the lab. But last year, many of the older ones left and some new ones joined. So things have changed. After my first six months, I had also attended the PhD Retreat, which was a great opportunity to get to know students from other groups. Since then I am active in the PhD Club.

And what’s your job there?
I love to party, so I suppose that’s why they put me in charge of organizing the social activities (he laughs). Last Friday evening we went to play Laser Attack in Saint Louis. In summer, we organize barbecues, in winter we do pub crawls, sometimes we go on a bike tour, to “Room Escape” or to Freiburg. There will soon be a "Life Sciences Party" together with the DBM, the D-BSSE of the ETH, the Swiss TPH, Novartis, Roche and the Friedrich Miescher Institute.

What else does the PhD Club do?
We organize the annual PhD Retreat, the so-called Career Lectures to which we invite people from the industry and there will soon be a beginner’s course in German. Once-a-month we meet at lunchtime for a pizza and a presentation of one of the PhD students. For me, it is very interesting to learn what the other groups are investigating. But most importantly is also the exchange about future plans. This gives you a lot of new ideas on what to do after the PhD.

And where are you heading for?
Actually, I think it would be exciting to do a postdoc in another city. But I guess my chances to do an academic career are not very high. So realistically speaking, I should probably refrain from it, because after a postdoc you're too old and too expensive for industry or the state. And I am also a bit ambiguous about changing the city again. I mean, I might want to move on after four years in Basel as was the case after the years in Maastricht and Leuven. But, on the other hand, you’re getting older and when you’re no longer a student it becomes more difficult to rebuild a new social life. But at the moment this is still in the distant future and it all depends on where I can find a job.

And what about the student life in Basel?
I studied in Leuven. 50,000 of the total of 90,000 inhabitants are students. If you see an adult person, it is either a professor or a beer brewer and at 11 o’clock in the evening the cafes put away the chairs and people start dancing. Basel cannot keep up with this of course! (he laughs). But what I particularly like about Basel is the atmosphere at the riverside of the Rhine, Rhine swimming and its architecture. I love old cities. And the location is great. From the Biozentrum it’s a stone’s throw to the Swiss or the German railway station or the airport. From there you have direct connections to many cities. I love to travel and am constantly on the move.

Any advice for aspiring PhDs?
If you come from outside, it is important that from the very beginning you actively set up a social life. I have met a lot of people at UniSport and their offers are varied and not expensive. I have learned, for example, skiing and I went to dance classes. Also the PhD Club offers many activities and the opportunity to meet people. And if you, like me, live in a shared flat, then everything is fine.