I am not so much a past-looking person. That’s maybe because I don’t have the best memory and value living today much more than living in the past. Nevertheless, 2019 has been an interesting year for me and probably one to remember. And one of the things that I learned from spending 10 years at a university is that the best way to remember something, is to write it down.
1. A student no more
Wait, what? Did you just say 10 years at a university?
Yes, I did. And while this might not be a shocking fact to many of you currently pursuing their academic dreams, it might sound like a very long time to many others. To be honest, I myself was a little surprised by this number. When I started my bachelor in Bioscience Engineering at the age of 18, not a single hair on my head thought about doing a PhD. Surprisingly, a bachelor (3 years, University of Antwerp) and master (2 years, KU Leuven) degree later, pursuing a PhD suddenly became a reality.
Four and half years later, in February 2019, that PhD came to an end. It was an epic journey in which I got to meet a lot of new people with similar interests and got the opportunity to travel and meet many others abroad. In addition, I think I fairly succeeded in the main goal of a PhD: I learned a lot. And I am not just saying that, I do mean it that I learned a crazy lot. I further expanded my knowledge on the behaviour and properties of the tiny bacteria that surround us, I got to realise their importance in making tasty fermented foods and what kind of mechanisms they use to interact with human beings. Furthermore, I learned a lot of new technical skills, starting with how to properly set up a food fermentation to reading out DNA molecules. I learned how to communicate my research with the help of posters, papers and presentations. And this not only to a scientific audience; I also talked with chefs, high school kids, maths teachers, science enthusiasts and people without any scientific background. I got more experienced in collaborating with others, bringing a project from idea to reality and somewhat managed to handle difficult personalities. I learned how to code, how to crunch big datasets and create many different kinds of data visualisations. In addition, I am pretty sure that due to my bad memory, I am forgetting 100 additional things that I have learned during this PhD. And although I am definitely not an expert in everything summed up here, I am pretty happy with the diversity of experiences that I stumbled upon during this journey.
I am therefore extremely grateful to everybody who contributed to this experience. I was not able to reach all of this just by myself. I am thankful to my supervisors, especially Prof. Sarah Lebeer, my thesis committee, my direct colleagues and my indirect colleagues who I met trough different networks such as Biomina, RSG Belgium or conferences, courses and Twitter. I am also grateful to my family, friends and wife who have been extremely supportive and are equally proud on the output I produce. Thank you all, you taught me a lot.
2. EOS Pipet and Van Os prize
After obtaining my PhD in the beginning of the year, I continued working in Sarah’s lab at the University of Antwerp as a postdoc. During this time I got notified that I was nominated for two prizes based on the work done during my PhD. I was extremely lucky that my PhD advisor actively promoted these kind of prizes and also took the effort to nominate her students.
The first one was the EOS Pipet prize, which is organised by the Belgian popular science magazine EOS Wetenschap and De Jonge Academie who nominate five young promising researchers. All five nominees have to present their research in laymen terms within 10 minutes to an audience at the outdoor science festival, Sound of Science. In preparation of this talk, we got the opportunity to follow an intensive one day course by The Floor is Yours, who trained us in how to give a killer presentation. The result was amazing; I truly enjoyed all of the presentations given by my peers. If you ever get the chance to participate in such a workshop, definitely do!
After the presentations, two prizes were awarded. One from a specialised jury who pick their favourite candidate and one from the public vote (online voting as well as voting after the presentation). Anneleen Malfiet was awarded the Jury prize, while I won the public vote prize. Thank you all who voted!
One month later, I was invited by the NVGO, a Dutch organisation of pharmacists. The NVGO was founded in 1914 after the first world war, to restore and preserve the supply of medicinal plants in the Netherlands. Nowadays they organise a yearly symposium to promote research on phytomedicine and every two years they award the ‘Van Os’-prize to young researchers who just finished their PhD on a topic related to their interest. This year, Annelies Verlaet, who also happened to be from the University of Antwerp, and myself were awarded the 2019 prize.
When I first got this invitation, I was a little surprised as my PhD was focused on microbiology and not on any “medicinal substances of plants”. However, this year’s symposium was all about the “gut-brain-axis” and how active components in plants could influence this. Although I am no expert on that, my PhD work on fermented foods and associated Lactobacillus species was a good match with that topic. Science can definitely bring you to unexpected places. Thank you NVGO for the interesting symposium, the great discussion and the “Van Os”-prize!
3. A new position and moving abroad
When I was laying the final hand on my PhD, I realised that I probably needed some new stimuli as soon as the job was done. I started to think ahead and tried to figure out what would be an interesting next new step in my career. I knew I was ready to leave the University of Antwerp (and Vrije Universiteit Brussel), not because it was an uninspiring place, on the contrary, but more because I felt the urge of exploring other environments. I tried to diversify my search for the next thing and ended up following different leads into multiple industries and institutions. But there could only be one single match. And that match slipped right into my inbox on Twitter.
I had been to EMBL, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidelberg (Germany) already four times. Once for a conference, and three times because I was guiding the UAntwerp’s yearly student trip to Germany, which paid a visit to EMBL. And every time I was there, I was inspired by the atmosphere, the international vibe and the science. So long story short: I thought about it, discussed it with my wife, applied, got invited, got selected, discussed it with my wife, packed our things and moved to Heidelberg! (Warning: the last sentence is maybe a small simplification of the decision process)
So far it has been great here. The Bork lab is an inspiring place within the already inspiring EMBL institute. I have not yet much to report on the work that I am doing or will be doing here, but I am sure that when the time is right, you will hear about it in one way or another.
I hope you are lucky enough to enjoy a wonderful Christmas break. And if you get the chance, pay a visit to Heidelberg’s Christmas market for some Bratwurst and Glühwein!