No pain, no gain: Go to wet lab as a bioinformatician; the importance of supportive colleagues and family

Math is the science of perfection, and biology is the science of optimal, but what is the combination of those two? In order to answer this question, after my master in bioinformatics at the University of Bonn, I decided to do my PhD in developmental biology. During my wet lab experience, I have learned:

  • How extremely complex it is to use mice as a model for my basic scientific question
  • How important it is to have good basic math-skills to quickly calculate the correct concentrations
  • How painful it is to throw away weeks and months of work due to a little calculation mistake
  • How satisfying it is to make pipes on my never-ending to-do list at the end of every day

And looking forward to share some of my experiences with you.

First of all, why to do a PhD at all?

The PhD is one of the most important steps in your scientific career, because:

  • This will be your last project, where you fully dedicate yourself and your time to research without worrying about the project finances,
  • Your PI will be one of your most important contacts in your future academic life
  • The PhD is the final step between student and researcher, where you get the possibility to become an independent, self-confident scientist
  • You can develop a thesis into dogma on your own, in a safe environment

Moreover, you will wake up and go to sleep with your project for the next years, so preferably choose a project you are interested in and choose a PI, who believes in you and your project. For my PhD, I moved from in silico to wet lab in order to combine my skills in data analysis with animal handling, flow cytometry, histology, mass spectrometry and a lot of other lab techniques. 

Here I collect you some pros and cons between wet and dry lab

Computational biologists need data and wet-lab biologists need computational support. A combination of two is extremely powerful, since you understand all processes of your project from the start to the end. One does not need to be an engineer to drive a car, right? If you are a bioinformatician, I recommend you to have some practical experience in a lab in order to see how biological data is produced. If you are a biologist, try to gain some insight about powerful techniques, how you can analyse your data. The combination of mathematics and biology is the optimised perfection.

My supervisor and mentor, (Elvira Mass) told me on my interview: “Nóra, I can teach you how to pipette but I cannot teach you how to keep being motivated and keep aiming for your goals, even if it turns out to be hard.” I always thought about this sentence when it has turned to be very hard and it helped me a lot. 

Learn how to handle criticism

During my wet lab PhD, I had the great possibility to learn how to handle criticism. My longest learning curve was to accept, that critique is not against my person, but is given in order to solve the problem. Next to my supervisors and mentors, I have been accompanied by a highly rigorous technician, Conny. Her criticism, her caring and perfectionistic character in the lab did help me at most on my way to work as clean, as precise, and as well standardised as I can. I will be always thankful for her critique, even if many times it didn’t look like that…

Her best advice to me was the following: Protocol everything rigorously, write down every steps you made. Even if you don’t really understand why you are doing what you are doing (that can be easily the case if you start in a completely new field). A PhD takes at least 3 years; good documentation will be extremely helpful during and at the end of your project.

Accompanied by strong women on my path, I have been blessed with my peer, my Limes-husband, my best friend and my biggest competitor, Amir. I wish to everybody to find such a peer as I found in him. Who can always make me laugh, who comes to the lab on Sunday night cause I cannot catch a mouse and spend his Christmas Eve with me in the microscopy room. We had many ups and downs, smiles and tears that will bind us also in the future. My best advice to all PhD-students: Even if you are working alone on your PhD, collect good friends and collaborations, aim to have one good peer and hold each other’s hand during this challenging path. We are all social beings, there will be many things you just don’t want to discuss with your PI. Share all your joys and tears, because Germans say:

“Geteiltes Leid ist halbes Leid, geteiltes Freude ist doppeltes Freude!”

“Shared pain is half pain, shared joy is double joy!”

I feel especially fortunate to have a great and supporting family, not only in the lab, but also at home. My husband who told me: “If you cannot manage your work in 8 hours the day, you are not well organised enough”. Nevertheless, he keeps motivating me to aim for my goals and takes over the biggest role in child-care and other out-of-lab obligations.

Jumping into a wet-lab-project without any previous experience with pipetting, feels like running behind my 4-years old son on his bike. The project is unstoppable, more answers mean more ideas to test, and I am running behind it. It does not matter how fast I run, I will never be at the stage to really cover every detail and be perfectly aware what I’m really doing. There are so many things, that could be tested. Still, the uncertain bias; “Am I good enough?”, “Would someone else with more experience make this job better?” does motivate me every day to give my best and even something more. The feeling, that I can bring this project to success and the acceptance that I will never be as fast as David does entertain me a lot. The great people around me, who all believe in the importance of my work and support without limits, give a magical touch to my journey.

About the Author:

Nóra Balzer, Hungarian scientist-to-be, studied management (B.Sc) at the Semmelweis University in Budapest. She came to Bonn via an Erasmus traineeship and then continued her studies at the University of Bonn in Life Science Informatics (M.Sc). She has meet with Prof Elvira Mass in Heidelberg via a scientific speed dating and decided to continue her research in developmental biology at the Life & Medical Sciences Institute. She observes, how maternal obesity during pregnancy effects on the innate immune system of the next generation via analysing the tissue resident macrophages in the liver, the Kupffer cells.