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Interview with Talia Ulmer

First the bachelor's degree, then the master's and now a PhD. For Talia Ulmer, the Biozentrum and Basel were the perfect match right from the start. And so, she stayed. She started her PhD without any specific career plans in mind, simply because she enjoys working in the lab so much and loves her project in neurobiology. 

What attracted you to the Biozentrum and how long have you been here? 
When I decided to study biology, Basel was the perfect match. The city completely won me over, as did the research at the Biozentrum, which I got to know better during the block courses. For me, everything was super exciting and so I thought, why leave when everything fits so well? And the same happened after my master's. I did it in neurobiology in Flavio Donato’s lab and quickly realized that I really enjoyed my project. So, I am very pleased that I can now also do my PhD with him and continue with my research project.

You started in the old Biozentrum building. How was the move to the new building?
It was very interesting to witness how an entire lab is dismantled and then rebuilt. It's really cool here and the fact that there are always two floors connected to each other makes it much easier to interact with other labs. You see more people, get more involved and everything feels much livelier. Of course, that's also partly because of me, as at the beginning I was much shyer and not yet part of everything (laughs). 

What are you working on?
We are investigating the formation and persistence of episodic, that is autobiographical, childhood memories. I am interested in how infants manage to form and store memories, despite their immature brains. We know that they can, but we don't know how they do it and how the process differs from that of adults.

You are continuing your research on the same topic as during your master's. What’s different now?
Well, at the core, it's the same topic, but during my master's I focused on a single aspect. Now the question is much broader. And, of course, I now feel more competent, have clearer ideas and know more about the research field. In short, I trust myself more, I am more confident and, since I attend fewer lectures, I can fully concentrate on the project. 

How many lectures do you actually still attend?
I am in the lab almost the whole time, I would say about 95 percent. Of course, I check which neuroscience lectures are offered every semester. But as I've already done three during my master's, there aren't that many left. But there are other great offers like the Neuroscience Workshop. There, every three months, the neuroscientists from the Biozentrum, the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research, the Department of Biomedicine and the Institute of Molecular and Clinical Ophthalmology Basel come together. Six researchers each give flash talks on an overarching topic. And I also like attending lectures outside my field to stay up to date.

Why did you decide to do a PhD?
Research is really fun for me, and I very much enjoy working in the lab here at the Biozentrum. I don't have any specific plans for the future yet, I just decided to do my PhD because I like it here so much and I wanted to continue my research for a few more years after my master's. Additionally, a lot of really exciting questions came up during my master's that I wanted to pursue.

How is the collaboration within your group?
Very good. We all get along really well. Many of us also work together on certain research questions because even though we all have our own projects, there are often overlaps. And it's really fun to brainstorm together when you’re working in pairs or small groups.

And how often do you meet your PhD advisor? 
Officially, I meet with Flavio once every other week, we each have our timeslot, but in reality, I talk to him much more often. Flavio's door is always open, so you can just walk in if you have a question or need to discuss something. 

You mentioned the interactions on the double floors. How is it with the other Biozentrists?  
I really like the Biozentrum Discovery Seminars. They are for all researchers in the house. PhD students, postdocs and external speakers present their projects there. It's super exciting to find out what the others are doing and who is involved in which project.  For me, some of it is really mind-blowing stuff that I have little or no idea about, such as structural biology. And then there are the aperos, the monthly happy hours. At all these events, I got to know a lot of people outside of my double floor.

You also have your own PhD Club. What do you do there?
I've already been to a PhD retreat and it was really cool. There are presentations, poster sessions and science talks and since we are completely among ourselves, we can exchange ideas without any pressure and in a relaxed way. As a PhD student, it's a great way to get started and the best thing was that I felt like everyone was really supportive and genuinely wanted the best for everyone else. There was absolutely no sense of competition.  

What about your work-life balance? 
I can manage my time quite well. Of course, there are experiments for which I sometimes have to be here at the weekend. But I find time to meet friends, draw or read and I enjoy going for a jog or to visit a museum. Sure, I spend a lot of time here, but I also really like it, so it's my choice. And I make sure that the research doesn't take over completely, and I consciously tell myself, “Okay, it’s time to take a break now!” 

You said that Basel was the perfect match for you. What do you like most about it?
The Rhine River. And then there are the people. Basel is a very warm and welcoming city and I think part of that is due to the Rhine because that’s where everyone gathers in the summer. There's nothing better than heading to the Rhine after work in the summer, meeting friends and going for a swim. Basel is also a very beautiful city and pleasant to live in, not too big and not too small and very international. And there are a lot of students here. 

One last question: Do you have any advice for aspiring PhD students?
At the beginning, you might feel like everything is going to move quickly now and then you have to learn that not everything works straight away and that there are setbacks. That can be a bit tough. It's important not to get frustrated and blame yourself for everything. Many things don't work right on the first try, so you need to figure out why and repeat the experiment. It takes time, but that's just the way it is.