My first year as graduate school student

Eugene Ballhysa, PhD Student of the Cologne Graduate School of Ageing Research (CGA)

A new interview series of the Voices of our employees section starting with Eugene Ballhysa, PhD Student of the Cologne Graduate School of Ageing Research (CGA), Department Antebi

Eugene, your first year as student of the Cologne Graduate School of Ageing Research (CGA) in the lab of Prof. Adam Antebi is almost over. Can you describe what you experienced during the last year? What was the best and what the most challenging experience for you?

I still remember the first few days in the lab when I was completely amazed by the world-class facilities and equipment. But, that is only the tip of the iceberg, as the real treasure of our institute is the scientists working here. Not only are they extremely friendly, but also very intelligent, spearheading ageing research in so many different angles. Thus, my greatest challenge this year was to close the knowledge gap between my lab mates and me, so that I may continue where they left and take their work to new heights. Maybe you would expect me to say that the greatest challenge was dealing with the pandemic while setting up my project? Fortunately, that was not the case for me at all. German legislation and the measures taken by the Max Planck Institute made me feel safe while at the same time I managed to work as efficiently as possible, either at home or during my lab shifts.
As for my best experience, that would be attending the Graduate Symposium in 2019 where the CGA class of 2016 graduated from the programme. That was an event organized by the 2nd year CGA students. For me seeing the accomplishments of the graduating students was incredibly inspiring.

Let’s take a few steps back: How was the application period for you? How did it feel being in Cologne for the CGA Recruitment Week and what did you first do, when learning that you were admitted to the CGA class of 2019?

The application period was quite stressful for me. I think, starting a PhD position is a great commitment and it is better not to be admitted at all, than to be admitted somewhere and regret it later. That’s why I only applied for labs where the topic was interesting for me and at the same time had an excellent research output. However, these positions are of course extremely competitive, so it is only natural I screamed “YEAH” in the middle of the airport after receiving the good news of being admitted, no?
Regarding the CGA Recruitment Week, I have nothing but the best of comments, really. A friendly and supportive coordination team, guidance and tips from current CGA students, polite and on-point interviews and very interesting discussions overall. The best part for me was the interviews with the five PIs of my choice during the 3-hour lab visits. This helped me a lot to further understand the mentality of each PI and it allowed me to ask more specific questions on their work. After the Recruitment Week, I knew what I wanted to do and felt safe and happy to commit to a PhD at the CGA.

What is the topic of your PhD project and why did you choose it? Can you tell us about the process of finding the best matching group for your PhD?

The topic of my PhD is focused on deciphering the interplay between nucleic acid surveillance pathways, inflammation during ageing and vertebrate health-span. I am looking at the contribution of nucleic acid surveillance pathways, such as cGAS/STING, to inflammaging and I am trying to figure out ways to tackle this in vivo using the African killifish Nothobranchius furzeri as a model organism. I chose this topic for two reasons. First, nucleic acid surveillance has been under-studied in respect to organismal ageing and recently a number of groups have found evidence that support a strong connection between them, making it a very hot topic. Second, the killifish is from my point of view one of the best ageing models we have at the moment, due to its short lifespan and the fact that it is a vertebrate.
How did I find the best group for my PhD? Well, during the Recruitment Week, I came in contact with many PIs from the MPI for Biology of Ageing, the MPI for Metabolism Research and the CECAD Research Center. We had a lot of interesting discussions on their work and about what I could work on if I were to join their labs. I got really excited with some projects from different labs and I had almost made my mind to join one of them. That was until I met Adam Antebi. During my panel interview, he asked the most interesting questions about my previous work. During the poster session, his enthusiasm for science and his cheerfulness totally drew my attention. And finally, during my visit in his lab, his knowledge and scientific mentality made me decide to join his group for my PhD.

What helped you the most before, during and after moving to Cologne to feel prepared, welcome and integrated?

First and foremost, the CGA coordinators supported me with all crucial aspects of moving to Cologne. I knew what I had to do regarding all legal documents and they even helped me find accommodation. Then, my CGA buddy Álvaro showed me around the campus, gave me advice on how to handle the beginning of my PhD, introduced me to people and made me feel welcome. It is always good to know that there is someone out there ready to help with any problem I might have.

Which CGA activities do you find most helpful for you in terms of your personal career development?

The workshops, seminars, courses and lectures organized by the CGA provide and enhance the fundamental skills needed for future leaders both in academia and in industry. If I had to choose one workshop to rank as the most helpful? I guess that would be the Career Mentoring and Management module. I know I want to stay in academia for the near future, but never before was I taught how to write grant applications.

What advice would you give students interested to apply to the CGA?

In my opinion, applicants need to be prepared for a competitive selection process, so they should put a lot of effort into their applications. They should also carefully read the host lab proposals to find their best match. They should not be intimidated if they do not have experience with the model organism or some main techniques of the lab they are interested in! A PhD student is still a student and they are here to learn and develop before they start producing data. They should finally be ambitious, motivated and eager to work on deciphering the mechanisms of ageing.

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