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Openness to new approaches in science – traveling abroad, building contacts and taking care of the work-life balance 

Numerous projects and successes in research

Karolina Protokowicz, a PhD student at the Marcel Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology, talks about the projects she is involved in. Since the beginning of her doctorate, she has participated in three different ones. The main one is related to the BrainCity grant and her dissertation. Karolina is developing and characterizing a new model of behavioral changes in adult mice following early activation of the immune system. She is also investigating the molecular mechanisms behind these changes. The project brings together as many as five laboratory groups and deals extensively with neuronal plasticity. Karolina’s role is to study how activation of the immune system, at the developmental stage, affects the adult life of mice. And the second project Karolina was involved in focused on changes after ischemic stroke. The goal of this project was to study the processes of epileptogenesis, or pathological plasticity after ischemic stroke. These changes can lead to the occurrence of epilepsy. 

“I promised myself that I will use my PhD well and learn as much as possible. Hence the diversity and working in, seemingly, two different projects,” Karolina explains.

She says she is particularly proud of the results she has been able to gather as part of the work associated with her doctorate. She notes that it is not always successful to confirm the hypothesis with which one started the research. However, in her case, it did succeed.

“I’m very pleased with the direction we are going with these results,” she adds.

She explains that the issue is the role of a protein, metalloproteinase of the extracellular matrix nine (MMP-9), which is the focus of the entire laboratory she works in. Her project originally involved analyzing the behavior of animals after inflammation in early life. But, in the course of the study, the researchers concluded that it was also worth looking at the role of just MMP-9.

“This is a protein that has an active role in inflammation and plasticity processes. In fact, we were able to confirm that it has an impact on the observed changes in the behavior of mice,” Karolina adds. Research into exactly what role this protein has is still ongoing.

The findings may later be translated into further knowledge gathering about neurology in humans as well:

“Now there is a lot of talk in science about neurodiverse people, but not in the context of disease or disorder. And in the context of the fact that we are simply different from one another for some reason and what factors can influence that. Research like mine, to some extent, can explain how certain events in our early life, whether in fetal life or infancy, can affect our behavior as a whole.”

Fot. private archive

An unexpected turn of direction

Working in science was not Karolina’s dream. After high school, she wanted to go to medical school, but she didn’t get into university the first time she applied. She decided to improve her final “matura” exam score and, in order to do so, look for a major that would allow her to best repeat the chemistry and biology subjects for the matura exam. This would allow her to apply for medical school again.

However, she found her major in Gdansk: biology-medicine, with one of the specializations in neuroscience.

“In my first lab classes, it turned out that I fell in love with it. Especially in the classes on animal and human physiology,” Karolina laughs.

She didn’t repeat her high school diploma, and stayed in the university. The first year reaffirmed her belief that this is exactly what she wants to do:

“You can do interesting things and be at the stage before doctors work. To learn about the mechanisms of disease or physiology. And then I found that this is what I want to focus on.”

Surprisingly, because as she says, at the end of high school, scientific work seemed to her “terribly out of reach.” 

Building contacts

Another thing that surprised Karolina about science is that the job of a scientist is not as introverted as she thought. She found that it requires confidence and networking skills.

“An invaluable trait in science is the ability to build contacts,” she stresses.

She notes that travel and participation in conferences can be a huge value here. Karolina argues that it is by staying at such events that it is easiest to make new contacts. She adds that this is incredibly important in science, where the key is to develop and use the latest methods possible.

“And it’s much easier to talk about, for example, the protocol of a particular method live. Talking live about difficulties and getting advice, is different than just reading such a protocol.”

Foreign trips

She herself has participated in conferences and two trips abroad. She has been to Japan and India. She remembers them very warmly, both the atmosphere and the amount of knowledge she gained there.

The trip to India was part of a course on different models of neurodevelopmental diseases and was aimed at young scientists. Karolina had the opportunity to give a short paper about her research there. Despite the fact that the trip itself lasted only a few days, Karolina notes that she learned a lot there.

The young scientists and invited guests, such as experienced scientists and group leaders, lived together.

“This allowed us to engage in the kind of discussions that would not have been possible at a regular conference,” Karolina recounts.

She says the trip was a bit like a meeting in a laboratory. With the free exchange of ideas and experiences, the scientists talked not only about the final results of their work, but also about the difficulties they encountered. Karolina stresses that this is very useful for doctoral students who are facing a doctoral defense in the future. There, they also discuss weaknesses in the research or elements that did not work out as expected at the beginning of the study.

Karolina is still in contact with two other female scientists she met on the trip to India:

 “One has already defended her doctoral thesis, it was cool to see that she brought her research to completion,” Karolina enthuses.

The second trip she participated in was a two-week stay in Japan. It was the Developing Neural Circuits Course (DNC) in Okinawa. Scientists there discussed the neuronal networks that form during development, as well as those that form, for example, when learning a new activity.

“I was right before my PhD exam in neuroscience, so it was a good repetition,” Karolina laughs.

She also learned new things during the intensive course, because, as she notes:

“Neuroscience is so broad that despite having completed a degree and many courses, there are things that are still a mystery to me and will probably remain so for a long time to come.”

During the course, Karolina also took part in the experimental part, in the laboratory. She worked in a group that dealt with ants. And although she herself focuses on research on mice every day, she saw that it was possible to study social behavior on other animals as well.

Thanks to her trip to Japan, she gained a different point of view and saw new paths that she could pursue during her research in Poland. She also gained new contacts and an openness to trying new approaches.

Openness in one’s own research

“When you present your research results within a laboratory, where most people use the same methods and equipment, you lose the ability to stand by and look at those results from a different perspective,” Karolina notes.

Foreign trips and courses allow precisely that different perspective and encourage a different approach to research. With the knowledge and experience from her trips, she herself modified her recent experiments a bit for her PhD.

Karolina encourages travel during PhD studies. “It’s the perfect time,” she says. She adds that funding for flights or stays at conferences is easiest to get right then:

“Being a PhD student, it’s much easier to get such funding. Quite a few foundations from institutes or scientific journals offer them.”

And the contribution to getting a grant is relatively small. You have to submit an abstract from your research, in the same way as for any other scientific conference. This abstract shows what the researcher wants to present during the trip. In addition, one should explain why one wants to go to a particular conference.

“Which is easy if it’s related to research. It’s really worth it, you can gain a lot,” Karolina encourages.

Work-life balance

There is another element in a scientist’s life that is important to Karolina – work-life balance. The ability to separate private and professional life is a very important skill, helping to avoid professional burnout, she argues.

“I’m lucky myself, I still have fun from what I do. But you have to take into account that not all PhDs and research are like this.”

She notes that there is little public discussion of the problem of burnout among scientists and researchers. And, she notes, because of the passionate nature of scientists, it is very easy to experience professional burnout.

“It’s hard to get the balance right. Especially if you have the nature of an explorer and want to pursue further and further,” Karolina says. She also says that when research doesn’t lead to a specific result, it can be really frustrating.

“And yet, the lack of a result is also a result!”

She notes that many scientists end their scientific career after their PhDs and leave for private companies, which she links precisely to professional burnout and frustrations in the field of science.

Karolina also shares her reflection that this problem does not only affect early-stage scientists, it also affects those with long experience in science. 

She herself, as of this moment, does not see the negative effects of her work. However, she has two pets at home that she loves to take care of. She’s also a fan of crime podcasts, “it’s a totally different vibe from what I do at work,” she laughs.

And a break is necessary. Only then can you approach science with a fresh mind.

Cover photo. Pexels

Barbara Niemczyk
I graduated from a bachelor's degree in applied linguistics and a master's degree in journalism. I have done numerous internships and fellowships in the past years, including a translation traineeship at one of the EU Institutions and a journalistic fellowship at Deutsche Welle. I have a big passion for telling stories, talking with people and exchanging ideas. I am proactive and have excellent writing skills and ease at making new connections. I like to spend my free time sailing, hiking and practicing Ashtanga Yoga.
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Barbara Niemczyk

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