This week, we hear about Vakil’s scientific motivations and aspirations. He is doing his PhD in Matthias Heinemann’s lab in Groningen.
What is your background in science (and otherwise)?
My earliest research experience was walking in forests surrounding my Siberian village and collecting and describing various species of moss and lichen growing on the ground among grass, on tree trunks, in bogs and at the edges of brooks. That was when I was seven. That time I wanted to become a botanist, geneticist, mathematician, physicist, programmer and writer at the same time. For the next ten years I hadn’t solved the dilemma which path in the above-mentioned list to choose loving them all so I moved to Moscow to study bioengineering and bioinformatics which I thought would include everything I liked. And indeed during the years at university I dived in calculus and probability theory, researched microevolution of one tiny bristle worm living in a northern sea, took part in setting up a web-server for examining protein structures, became acquainted with the powerful tool of analytical science called mass-spectrometer, wrote several poems including one in German. For my graduation project I moved to Leiden, a spectacular Dutch town with myriads of canals and brick bridges over them, to find out how human ageing affects splicing – a sophisticated process of rearranging RNA sequence. There I fulfilled my passion of uniting different fields: biology, programming and math (here, in the form of statistics) in one project.
What led you to decide to do a PhD?
I always wanted to do a PhD as I was interested in science since my childhood. PhD is about becoming an independent researcher, a person leading projects, formulating and solving tasks; and I would like to turn to a professional like that.
What does your lab do? What is a brief description of the project you work on? Why are you motivated to work on this topic? What do you hope to accomplish during your PhD?
I am working in Matthias Heinemann’s group of molecular systems biology at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands (http://www.rug.nl/research/molecular-systems-biology/?lang=en). We try to find out how diverse processes within cellular metabolism are regulated and connected with each other. The focus of my research is directed onto the relation between metabolism and cell cycle. It is a fundamental and significant topic, and that captivates me. We get insights from using state-of-the-art experimental techniques (in my case, fluorescent microscopy in combination with a microfluidics device to analyze signal from nanosensors that were designed to detect important metabolites) and mathematical modeling that allows us to draw conclusions on the basis of complex data.
I do like the lab I am a part of due to its interdisciplinary approach. In my imagination a cool scientist has to work with sophisticated devices to carry out experiments, do modeling, programming, statistical analysis and write about it in an interesting and clear way. A source of my motivation is the desire to become that kind of scientist, and I am sure my lab will help me to achieve that.
What are your short-term and long-term career goals?
In the short term I want to become more efficient in organizing my work, I plan to come up with several interesting hypotheses to be tested and formulate my projects fully. Also I dream to be able to do cloning (i.e. genetic manipulations) like God, meaning to do it quickly and to get the results I wish.
In the long term, I would like to have my research group and teach students. I also want to tighten scientific connections between Europe and Russia. Besides, there is a long list of crazy intentions, like starting a political party, writing a philosophical book, going to space and so on – but I will think about it later.
What do you like to do for fun?
To dispute with people giving arguments in favor of a thesis I actually disagree with. To dance in a club with artificial fog. To play board games with friends.
What is your favorite food?
Most unfortunately I like everything edible. But there is one thing I cannot stand – liquorice, which is so popular and ubiquitous in the Netherlands that I mistook it for chocolate once.
An ITN is about international collaboration – what has your experience been so far in living in a country that is, perhaps, quite different from your own? What are some tips you would give to new PhD students (or students in general) who are moving to a different country?
Go outside, go to open lectures, meet new people and suggest your colleagues and fellows from other labs to do something together in the evenings and on weekends. It is beneficial not only from the point of changing your activity (which has been proven many times to increase the productivity at work) – other people can give you ideas connected to your project, you can come across a useful collaboration in informal situations and it is easier to adopt to a new environment when having mates there.