From real time-PCR to real time-disease outbreaks

Many young investigators are facing the question of which carrer path to take after finishing their PhDs: staying with hard science or maybe finding a different path. Here, we interviewd Kirstin Meier, who did her PhD in the lab of Dr. Kenneth Pfarr in the Institute of Medical Microbiology, Immunology and Parasitology. Now working for a service provider in the field of interbational cooperation, Kirstin tells us about how she found her new job, the callenges she is facing now and how her PhD prepared her for all of this.

Johanna: Hello Kirstin, thank you for taking the time to let me interview you on your new job outside the science world. We worked in the same institute, but as a start can you tell the reader what your doctoral thesis was about, so what your scientific background is?

Kirstin: Hi Johanna, in the bigger picture I worked on neglected tropical diseases. Some of these are worm infections, also known as helminths, which are widely endemic in the tropics and put a high socioeconomic burden on many countries. In our lab, we work on a helminth model, Litomosoides sigmodontis, which is used to study human-pathogenic filarial infections. In more detail, my project focused on Wolbachia bacteria. These are endosymbionts of some filarial species and are essential for their survival and replication. So far, filarial diseases are treated with different “anti-worm” medications, but also with antibiotics that target the worm via its endosymbiont. One of the goals is to develop new antibiotics that can improve the treatment of filarial diseases, and to do so it is crucial to get a better understanding of the Wolbachia. Currently, they are described as gram-negative, but it is still unclear, whether they actually possess a cell wall. They do express enzymes for cell wall biogenesis in their genome though, and in that regard, it was my task to analyze these proteins in more detail and characterize their function.

Johanna: After performing all experiments and writing your thesis, you now decided against staying as a post doc in a laboratory, but you started working for the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmBH (english: German Corporation for International Cooperation). Can you tell me a bit about the work that is done there?

Image from

Kirstin: Yes, exactly, I work at the GIZ here in Bonn. Like the name suggests, this is a public-benefit federal enterprise, and we operate as a service provider in international cooperation and sustainable development in more than 130 countries worldwide. GIZ has longstanding experience in a wide variety of areas, including economic development, energy, or peace and security. I for instance work in the section ‘Health, Education and Social Protection’ in a project called Universal Health Coverage. Within this project, I am part of a specific team – the “Schnell einsetzbare Expertengruppe Gesundheit (SEEG) / Epidemic Preparedness Team”, which aims at supporting partner countries to prepare for and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases. This team, the SEEG, was initiated by the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) in cooperation with the Federal Ministry of Health (BMG) in 2015 and is implemented by GIZ in cooperation with the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) and the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNITM). Part of our work is to monitor disease outbreaks and assess the potential to become epidemics or even pandemics at a very early stage. If there is an outbreak, we support our partners upon their request, for instance, by strengthening the country’s laboratory capacities, improve diagnostics and train people how to respond to the disease outbreak without spreading the pathogen. We do this by deploying teams of experts at short notice. In addition, we support countries in their efforts to improve their preparedness for disease outbreaks.

Johanna: This sounds like a completely different environment, compared to your work before. What made you come to the decision to step away from the laboratory research work towards an occupation in the governmental health sector?

Kirstin: I always really enjoyed working in the lab, I had a lot of fun in designing, carrying out and analyzing experiments. The work excited me and I did have a great time, but after several years, I simply felt like it was time for something new and more concrete. This is what I like about my job now. And when I think of the experiments I performed, sometimes things I did just went down the drain. That’s part of lab work and it is part to endure that, but in the long run I wanted to get away from that.

Johanna: Earlier you told me that you had an interview at the GIZ, I had no idea that they could be a potential employer for our training route. How did you get to know about this opportunity and in general how did you tackle finding positions once it was clear that you soon would be finished with your thesis?

Kirstin: A befriended PhD student from another department received the job advertisement via e-mail and thought it sounded like something that would interest me. And yes, she was right; I liked the position because it combined social aspects with my scientific background. Some time ago, I did a voluntary service and already worked for a non-governmental organization – in a way, I always already had an affinity for that kind of work. So, when I saw the job opening it appeared to be the perfect connection for me. I directly applied and two months later, I had a job interview, then I had to wait a bit and got a positive answer and could organize the job change. In job portals I did not find the opening though, but I know that it was online on the GIZ homepage. By the time I also had no idea that biologists could work at the GIZ. I would recommend to always directly checking the homepages of organizations or companies you are interested in to search for positions or even just contact them and ask for possible positions.

Johanna: You said you had to wait around two months until your job interview, so how was the overall application procedure, did you have to take part in an assessment center?

Kirstin: I applied online to the job. The job interview was a so-called OPAL, like an assessment center with several applicants. We spent the whole day there and together with us there was a psychologist that observed the procedures, our superior and a co-worker from the department. We had to solve assignments as a team or on our own and we all had a private conversation with the psychologist.

Johanna: What are your tasks and what does your typical daily routine look like – presumed you have one?

Kirstin: First thing in the morning I collect information on new disease outbreaks, especially in middle and low income countries, and share the news with colleagues. In case there is an unusual outbreak somewhere, we discuss what measures might need to be taken, like implementing diagnostics. In that regard, we work closely together with the Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine or the Robert Koch Institute. In case, a country requests our assistance and our commissioning party, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), approves of a mission, we deploy a team of experts to support the country to deal with the challenges they are facing. Since every outbreak is different, the teams are put together according to the specific needs of each mission. Apart from taking part in organizing that, I represent our group on meetings and conferences.

Johanna: This is very different from laboratory research. What do you think prepared you for this job during you PhD time and what qualified you to do this work?

Kirstin: During my time as PhD student I learned – I guess what every PhD student does – to work independently, be persistent and develop stamina. I believe those are important aspects. Further, we learn to quickly dive into new topics. This is what I really need to do now, too. Sometimes a request is made and within a short time, perhaps only several hours, there has to be a reply. Then I have to instantly get familiar with the topic and prepare an informed answer. Another quality I learned during my PhD that helps me now is the frequent presenting of our research at conferences or simply during lab meetings in the own institute. Even with a short time notice, I am capable of giving presentations. I learned to trust in my skills during my PhD time.

Johanna: Like you just said, you are still new in your job. Can you tell me about your future professional path and promotion prospects?

Kirstin: Right now, I am junior technical advisor, so next I will be a technical advisor. If I stay longer, I could become project leader or manager of some employees, but this requires several years of experience.

Johanna: Earlier on we mentioned some advantages of your new job. How satisfied are you so far, especially regarding aspects like, working hours, worker protection and flexibility?

Kirstin: I like that when I work over hours I can take a compensation day per month and I do have the option of mobile working. What I like as well is that we have the chance to take part in certain health check-ups. Those are minor things but I think it’s cool that it is offered. The same goes for example with the option of having electric desks so we can work standing. It’s just several smaller things that happened to keep us employers happy and healthy. Another plus is that you have a large selection of trainings. You can attend professional trainings or expand your management skills, language skills, or IT skills amongst others.

Johanna: Earlier you gave the advice to directly look at homepages of companies that interest you, when looking for jobs. At the end of the interview, do you have other advice for PhD students that attempt to find a job outside the direct science world?

Kirstin: Well, I was really lucky and did not have to search long, but I know from others that it is very important to not get down from rejections, and we have to know our market value! I always thought well… me as an “unimportant” biologist, do they even want me? But after the time as PhD student one definitively has qualities that are of great values for companies and we have to be aware of that. It doesn’t really matter in which area, whether its consulting or whatever, I believe we do have qualities that we should not underestimate.

Johanna: Thank you for your sharing your experiences with me and success with your future work!