In October 2021, I embarked on the journey of pursuing a PhD as an early-stage researcher (ESR) in the ALLODD consortium at the Janssen Pharmaceutical Companies of Johnson & Johnson (Belgium). As I suddenly find myself six months into this track, I would like to reflect on my experiences so far as a PhD student in industry, life in Belgium, and on being part of the consortium!
Pursuing a PhD degree in the modern day and age often goes paired with moving to a new country, and this was no different for me. After my graduate studies in Leiden (the Netherlands) and some project work at Uppsala University (Sweden) and the Technical University of Munich (Germany), I moved to Belgium to start the PhD at Janssen. That’s quite a few countries in the past few years I’ve lived in, and in fact there’s only more to come with several secondments planned for the PhD! Moving to a new country can always present some challenges, and, in my experience, the most impactful one is language. Living in a country where you cannot communicate easily in either English and/or the native language can quickly make you feel isolated from the community. Do not underestimate this. But, being a native Dutch speaker, this was no issue for me in Belgium. In fact, I have never been able to settle so quickly in a new country. Finding great housing options without exorbitant rent was never so easy, and the culture here is truly epicurean.
One of my first experiences with this culture of enjoying good food and drinks was an event organized by the PhD & Postdoc community at Janssen: the “Bierolade”. This is an amalgamation of the Dutch words for beer (bier) and chocolate (chocolade), and, as the name suggests, it involved a sitology expert teaching us the wonders of combining the taste of different beer styles with their perfectly complementing types of chocolate. A delightful experience that I would recommend anyone to try! My favorite combination was a bitter beer together with Sicilian pistachio chocolate, but I am sure there are still some fantastic other combinations to discover.
Returning to the equally wondrous world of doctoral studies, a common topic of discussion I hear among students in the pharmaceutical sciences is the question of whether to stay in academia or to pursue a position in industry, and how different industry and academia really are. While it is certainly too soon for me to fully analyze the differences between the two at this point, I would like to make this a recurring theme in future blogposts in the hopes that it might help anyone on this matter. For now, an interesting aspect I found in this regard is that I was encouraged to read, read, and read for the first few months of the PhD. Naturally, I cannot say if this is different from starting as a PhD in academia, and I am sure it will also depend on the supervisor(s), but I must say it is truly empowering to deeply study the ins and outs of current approaches and insights in the field before setting up your own experiments and methodologies.
It does, however, bring an interesting psychological aspect to the table as well, as not performing experiments for months might make you question whether you are “doing enough” to progress your PhD. In this respect, it is important to realize the implications of the alternative. That is, rushing to choose and setup a methodology without properly understanding its pros and cons will likely lead to scientifically unfounded decisions that you may not be able to justify down the road. However, by then you would be so deep into the chosen methodology that you would not want to abandon it all and start again. Or you do start again, but then you lose the gain of speed you decided to favor earlier. As such, I heartily recommend any starting PhD not to worry about producing results early on and instead focus on getting a good grasp on the current state of the field.
This subject of mental fitness actually provides a perfect segue into the last topic I would like to address in this blogpost: the first ALLODD meeting. Just this month, almost all students and professors in the consortium met in Vienna to get to know each other and enjoy several workshops. The highlight of this trip for me, besides meeting my wonderful colleagues of course, was a workshop on work-life balance. During this training, the instructor shared a powerful lesson that I will cherish for the rest of my PhD. Namely, they proposed the idea of seeing bad thoughts as bees. For instance, if there is an upcoming presentation or, say, you are writing a blog for the whole world to see and judge, you might find yourself questioning whether your work is “good enough” to share. If you interact with this thought too much, it could invoke a fear of how much you will embarrass yourself, and you might become stressed about the whole situation. So, let’s visualize this doubtful thought as a bee or a wasp. Indeed, if a bee is flying close to you, the best thing to do is to just ignore it, and it will be sure to fly away. Choosing to interact with it, however, and trying to hit or shoo it away will only result in the bee constantly coming back and possibly hurting you.
As an avid fan of the Beatles and annoying puns, I could not resist also taking this final lesson as the basis for the title of this blogpost. I hope you enjoyed the first of many more posts to come on my journey in the ALLODD consortium. And remember, if the title is too much on your mind, just don’t interact with it, and it will be sure to fly away!
A dinner at a traditional Viennese restaurant on Sunday evening gave us the opportunity to meet some of our fellow-Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) and their supervisors within the ALLODD consortium in an informal setting. On Monday morning, the workshop started off with a session during which we were introduced to the other workshop participants and were provided with information on the ALLODD consortium, the Project Handbook and the Career Development Plan. The introductory session was followed by a lecture on Open Science by Gareth O’Neill. Principles of Open Science, open access publishing as well as Open-and Findable-Accessible-Interoperable-Reusable (FAIR) Data were introduced. The session fostered a lively discussion on the risks of Open Science in light of ever-more powerful artificial intelligence (AI) tools. Following a team-building exercise and the lunch break, the ESRs participated in a workshop to develop our communication and presentation skills. Of particular interest to me was a section on nonviolent communication, which aims at communicating one’s perceptions and needs with empathy and without any prejudice on other people’s intents. In the evening, the group did a walking tour in Vienna’s city center, presenting some of the most important historic sites such as the Hofburg and the Stephans dom.
Day 2 started off with a workshop on Research Integrity and Ethics. However, due to time constraints, we only superficially touched upon the topic of Ethics and focused on Integrity aspects. Here, I much appreciated our discussions on the “gray zone” between scientific misconduct and “sloppy” science. Based on case studies, we elaborated strategies how to confront situations in which we might be tempted to engage in questionable research practices. In the afternoon, ESRs and supervisors gathered to attend a workshop on work-life balance. This workshop was highly interactive. It was valuable to share experiences and to hear even from senior participants that they occasionally struggle with some of the insecurities that we face as young researchers. Amongst others, the workshop aimed at recognizing negative thought spirals and unhealthy coping mechanisms, and to give us strategies at hand that can be used to disrupt these loops.
The final day of the meeting began with a course on scientific writing. Extending beyond the issue of writing, the course also covered topics such as navigating and managing scientific literature. A main takeaway for me from this course was the order in which to read sections in scientific articles. We were recommended to begin with the abstract and then move on to the conclusions section to find out whether an article indeed answers the question posed. Another advice given during the workshop was to have someone else readout loud drafts for publications and reports that one has written to assess the clarity of the writing. After lunch, Sharon Bryant from Inte:Ligand gave an impulse lecture on scientific innovation with emphasis on the life science sector. According to her, the most striking innovations within the healthcare economy during the past years were biotechnological advances such as the CAR-T cell therapy. I was slightly disappointed not having discussed critically to which extent more conventional approaches such as small molecule drugs might or might not be considered innovative. The workshop was concluded with a discussion on career perspectives outside of science. Although the choice of a career path seems to lay far in the future for us now, it was insightful to hear about and discuss which skills that we acquire during our PhD training are sought after in other sectors apart from research such as finance, journalism and policy making.
“Connecting knowledge to grow a network−
growing a network to explore/share knowledge”
The Allostery in Drug Discovery (ALLODD) Training Program focuses on three pillars: Core research skills, advanced research skills, and transferable skills & qualities. The first ALLODD workshop took place in Vienna from the 3rd- 5th of April and focused on an ALLODD introduction and core research skills. This includes open science principles, communication skills, research integrity, and ethics, scientific writing, work-life balance, and innovation. The following report summarizes the main personal take-aways from the workshop.
After an introduction to the ALLODD program, the first workshop discussed open science principles. Scholarly publishing results in worldwide sales of more than USD19 billion for publishing and access of peer-reviewed papers (see article by Buranyi,2017). The profit margins are incredibly high e.g. the profit margin of Elsevier is 37%(see article by PAGE, 2019) and there is no market control. However, a number of promising actions are regularly discussed to tackle the current dependency on the big publishing houses. Suggestions include transparency in costs spent by the publishing houses, the usage of open-access journals, and delayed publishing, meaning that the article would get freely available after a certain amount of time. In addition, there is a push towards Findable Accessible Interoperable and Reusable(FAIR) data (Teverson,2013). In conclusion, the main root cause why the scientific community is still stuck in the current system is the impact factor. Unless there is a rethinking within the scientific community, open science will have difficulties advancing.
After a team-building event, the topic of the second workshop was communication skills. When communicating with other people, we are often dealing with an ambiguity in the meaning of our words and expressions. For example, the sentence “This project was well done.”, can be interpreted in many ways. On one hand, the recipient could interpret our statement as a compliment, on the other hand as an urge to perform better as "well done" is less strong compared to great or fantastic. How the message is sent out and received depends on the self-revealing aspect (how does the person feel in this moment?), factual level, appeal, and relationship. We learned that the following sentence structure is well suited to clarify misunderstandings or tackle tricky situations: “When I see A (observe), then I feel B (perceive/feeling) because I need C(recognize). That’s why I would like D (ask) now.“. The best way of resolving a conflict depends on the situation. Sometimes it is good to flight, fight, delegate the decision, compromise (win and lose), or find a consensus (win/win). We also learned another valuable skill on how to react in hostile situations, e.g., a competitor puts you on the spot during a talk by saying: “I do not agree with your statement...”. There are a couple of strategies to respond; (a) repeat what the person said, (b) use an emergency word such as O.K. or Aha, (c) reply with a paradox, or (d) change topics. All strategies give the person answering more time to think about the response and make sure that the insult does not result from a misunderstanding.
The second day started with a workshop on research integrity (i.e., good scientific practices, research quality) and ethics (research content). As a scientist, we are con-fronted with tricky and delicate questions, and the line of where misconduct starts are often not as clear. To be safe, it is essential to document the scientific work in a good manner, such as using an (electronic) lab notebook, storing data on cloud services, having a good organization e.g. folder structure, and writing meeting summaries to document decisions. The second topic discussed during the course was the subject of the authorship (who gets the name on the paper?). In general, a person providing a substantial contribution gets to be on the paper. A person can also sign an author-ship contract with a collaborator to define specific points that are necessary to receive authorship. In conclusion, thinking about integrity and ethics is a daily part of the research.
The topic of the workshop in the afternoon was work-life balance. The keyword of the course was “thoughts”. We learned that thoughts are not facts, that we need to question our thoughts and recognize loops. The loops are triggered by a thought resulting in a sensation or emotion, action, and in the end a consequence. There are multiple short-term solutions to long-term problems, such as stress, including exercise, box breathing, listening to music, cooking, and power nap. The way to tackle negative thought is to be first of all aware of the negative thought itself, to secondly create space (e.g. my reframing the thought “I am stupid.” to “I am having the thought that I am stupid). Thirdly, one can choose to react to the thought or just let it go e.g. a thought is like a bee, the more you try to push it away from you the more likely you get hurt. The fourth stage includes being curious to explore positive thoughts.
On the third day, we learned scientific writing skills. Research is published to communicate science and create an archive for future scientists to explore and expand ideas. This is only one of the many reasons why papers must have high quality. A paper should follow the OCAR structure - Opening, Challenge, Action, Resolution.A paragraph is the unit of composition. Furthermore, it is essential to understand the source of cited papers to be clear and concise. Other important writing principles include that we should write to inform and not to impress, write to our classmates and future-self, include evidence with all statements, and omit needless words (Campbell-Kibler et al., 2006). It is essential to establish a system of writing e.g., define a time of the week dedicated to writing and separate editing from writing. Once a text is complete, it is helpful to ask someone else to read the text out loud. This enables one to identify where the text is not yet smooth. The main message of the workshop was that writing is a continuous process, which starts early and includes multiple reviewing rounds.
The workshops in the afternoon focused on the future and included a workshop on innovation and further careers outside of academia.
To conclude, I think that combining research and the soft skills learned during the workshop is crucial to being successful in science. I hope that at the end of my PhD, I can be proud of my innovative, reliable, respectful, and creative work and that I could profit and contribute to the collaborative spirit of the ALLODD network.