NIH GPP Alumni: Where are they now? Postdoc Fellow

Name: Julien Debbache, PhD

Job Title & Organization: Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Zurich

Location: Zurich, Switzerland

How long you’ve been in your current job: Two years

PHD Advisor, IC: Heinz Arnheiter, NINDS (Now NIH Emeritus); Individual Partnership Program (Rennes 1 University, France)

What do you do as a Postdoc?
I lead two main projects on two very different topics. One is dealing with the Wnt signaling pathways in melanoma using in vivo mouse models. The other is looking at the physiological roles of adult Neural Crest derived stem cells in healing of the skin upon injury, again using in vivo mouse models.

Since June 2013, I have supervised one PhD student and will mentor a new one starting June 2014. I am also more loosely supervising two other PhD students in the lab, playing the role of “scientific consultant” for their experimental strategy and troubleshooting.

I am involved in some of the institute’s teaching activities by helping with the histology courses. I will become the animal research representative for our group, which means that I’ll be the contact person for the state veterinary office if they have questions about our experimental procedures.

What are the most important skills that you utilize in your current position?
Analytical skills, especially since I’m working with such different projects. Of course there is some overlap between them, but the biggest challenge is trying to digest the context and the particular differences between all the projects.

What is your favorite aspect of your current job?
Mentoring and helping people out. During my time at NIH, I realized that my greatest satisfaction came from the help I felt I was bringing to people more than from the results I was directly generating. I did not have the chance to mentor anyone directly then, even though I was helping out postbacs and summer students as well as a few postdocs from neighboring labs. But the time I spent helping people was truly rewarding on a personal level.

What has been the hardest aspect about transitioning into this position? What are some of the challenges you faced?
The hardest part of this process has actually been outside of the lab. Science-wise, Switzerland is very similar to the US — relatively good funding opportunities for labs and for fellowships, good collaborative networks between labs and universities and good international diversity among the students/fellows. So professionally, given the generous funding situation in Switzerland, there hasn’t been much of a difference from my previous work environment besides the outstanding support I had the chance to benefit from during my time at NIH. OITE/GPP has played a major part in the success of my PhD and I have never been able to find anything which relates to the level of support/help/advice I received at the NIH.

The language has been and is still a big problem outside the lab. Zurich is located in the German speaking part of the country and I have struggled a bit with it. Also my experience in the US made me appreciate the incredible convenience the American society offers its citizens and that is far from being the strongest attribute of Switzerland, even while living in the biggest city of the country. I’ve come back to the US twice since I left NIH for conferences and tourism, and I do feel “homesick” for quite some time when I return to Switzerland afterwards. So I would say my biggest challenge has been leaving the American lifestyle I got used to enjoying for five years.

What was your job search like?
Fortunately, I have been lucky enough to always get the position I was looking for. For my master’s degree, my PhD and now my postdoc lab, I only sent one application. In all instances, they were spontaneous applications, not openly advertised positions on websites or journals. I just wrote an email saying I was looking for a position and was interested in the work they were doing.

How did you come to choose this as your next step?
I went to a conference and attended a lecture from the lab I’m currently working in. I found their research highly interesting and it matched the idea of what I wanted to do after working for five years in developmental biology.

What are the most important soft skills needed for your position?
Critical and collaborative thinking. I no longer think of my work as solely mine but shared among the people I work with, and I think I get more satisfaction out of it because of this mindset.

How did you prepare for the interview?
I gave my interview presentation three days after my Thesis Defense so I just had to prepare for that one. I gave the same presentation, which was actually better spoken at the interview than at the defense.

Any last bits of advice? If you had to do your search differently, would you change anything?
Well, I now have a different approach to the type of job I want to do in science, so I would probably look for what I want now. But I don’t regret anything I have been through since these steps were essential to allowing me to figure out what I really enjoy doing in science. I would certainly tell people not to stay stuck with a job they do not enjoy waking up for. Sharon Milgram once told me, “With a PhD and enough motivation, you can practically do anything you want.”


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