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Interview with Ricardo Righetto

A scientist ‒ that’s what he always wanted to be. And he wanted to do his PhD abroad. Then the Brazilian Ricardo Righetto spotted Prof. Henning Stahlberg’s group and knew it was the one for him. But it is not only Structural Biology he is interested in, his motto being “keep your mind open”. That’s why he loves the interdisciplinary approach and international character of the Biozentrum, the huge life sciences network of Basel and its location in the center of Europe.

Where did you do your Master’s and in what discipline did you get your degree?
I did my Master thesis in Electrical and Computer Engineering at the University of Campinas in Brazil, 100 km north of Sao Paulo, in collaboration with the Electron Microscopy Facility of the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory. Studying in Brazil takes much longer than here in Europe. For your Bachelor you need four to five years, depending on the field, and for the Master’s two. 

Why did you decide to do a PhD?
I more or less always wanted to become a scientist. Already as a child I loved to watch movies and read books about science and my parents very much supported me in my endeavors. When I started with my Master’s it was clear to me that I would also do a PhD because I think that the PhD is the most important part of the scientific training. I also realized that I wanted to do my PhD abroad, as this is the moment when you have to do a lot of networking, get to know people and experience new ways of working. And I want to stay in research also after my PhD, either in academia or in industry.  

How did you choose the topic for your thesis? 
I very much liked the topic of my Master thesis so I started to look for research groups who are doing method development for microscopy and Henning Stahlberg’s group here at the Biozentrum does so. And then at a conference, through a stroke of luck, I met a PhD student from the Biozentrum, who told me about the “Biozentrum PhD Fellowships” program and I took this great opportunity and applied.

How was the selection process?
Well, it was very competitive and tough. But I had the chance to learn a lot from this very same PhD student’s experience, who himself was a fellow, and he helped me in preparing my application. And then I was shortlisted for the interview week. It was really a great experience, though I was a bit scared in the beginning and very nervous in the first interview. I don’t know if it was a coincidence but I improved during the process and my last interviews were definitively better (he laughs). 

Although you had spotted Henning’s group as knew it was the one for you, you first spent some time in Torsten Schwede’s group. Why?
The Independent Fellowships program’s offer to get to know different groups before you decide where to do your PhD is absolutely unique. So I had to grab this chance. You always have to be open minded and I thought that maybe I was just biased from my Master thesis and there could be something else I did not know yet that could suit me better. It was a great experience working with Torsten, I learned a lot and improved my programming skills, but in the end I kept to my initial idea and joined Henning’s group in the Structural Biology Focal Area. 

Besides this rotation, are there other benefits to the program? 
The main incentive is the extra money one gets to support your project, which can be used for going to conferences or to buy different research materials, like for example, books. And there is the yearly trip together with all the fellows, which is very interesting in terms of getting to know the others as well as different places and working environments. 

What are you working on?
In our lab, we work with electron microscopy to study the structure of proteins. This requires the development of a lot of algorithms and methods for data processing in order to be able to solve the structure of the proteins. And interesting biological stories often present methodological challenges, so we have to develop tailor-made solutions for them. I do not work at the bench, like many other PhDs at the Biozentrum, but exclusively at the computer, which suits me considering my computer engineering background (he laughs). Nevertheless, the step into life sciences was pretty big and I had to and still have to learn a lot. The Graduate Teaching Program helped me in this. We are free to choose our courses and, to start with, I attended an intensive course in computational structural biology. It was a great way to become immersed in this topic. 

How is the collaboration with your PhD supervisor Henning and your colleagues? 
We have our weekly group seminars, where each time two people present their work, and it is excellent for getting feedback. Aside from this, Henning is very accessible and I can go to his office whenever I want to talk to him and discuss my results ‒ whether they are good or bad ‒ so our collaboration is very flexible and works very well this way. There are also other PhD students who do data processing and even though we all work on different projects we help each other a lot, as each one has a different area of expertise.  

Is there something you especially appreciate about the Biozentrum?
I think the working conditions here are excellent. I also very much enjoy the international atmosphere, having people from all around the world, and the fact that the Biozentrum is not just a structural biology institute but has four other Focal Areas with which we can interact. Also the location in Basel is very special, on the one hand because of the huge life sciences network, which is probably one of the best in the world, and on the other hand because of the geographical location in the center of Europe. It is so easy to go anywhere without having to travel long hours. And this is something very different to Brazil. If from there you want to go to an international conference, it is always a long and expensive trip, except when they happen there.

Talking about conferences, have you already been to a Biozentrum PhD retreat?
Yes, and I think this is also very special about the Biozentrum and an amazing experience for all the students. So, after my first retreat, I decided to join the organization committee. This year’s took place a few weeks ago and we have already started to organize the next edition. 

For your PhD, you moved from Brazil to Basel. How was your start here? 
I think I adapted very well in general but of course it was a big change. Here, everything is much quieter and there is a different pace. I miss the Brazilian music a little and the culture but Basel is a very good place to live. My wife and I love to go to the many museums and cultural events and Basel and its surroundings are great to explore by bike. And I quickly made friends. I also know a little German, which helps a lot. I was lucky to come to Basel when the government started to give all newcomers a voucher for a German course, so this was a great incentive. 

Do you have a tip for future PhDs?
I think you should not only focus on the research topics you like most but take an interdisciplinary approach. And the most important thing, in my opinion, is to keep one’s mind open all the time, to meet new people, and learn whatever you can learn.