Biohaterka – an editor at Coopernicus, a scientist from the Institute of Agrophysics, Polish Academy of Sciences.
Dr Dorota Komar – a scientist, biotechnologist, science communicator.
In today’s world, where technological and scientific advancements play a significant role, pursuing studies in biology and biotechnology has become an exceptionally compelling choice. Graduates in these fields not only acquire solid foundations in the natural sciences but also unlock a wide spectrum of career opportunities that can profoundly impact the development of society and the world. In the academic year 2021/22, nearly 12,000 graduates completed studies in the field of natural sciences (source: GUS).
Biological and biotechnological studies encompass not only delving into the depths of cellular life structures but also exploring the potential of technologies that harness these structures for medical, industrial, or environmental purposes.
The hallmark of these studies lies in their interdisciplinary nature – merging biology with technology opens doors to various professional domains. Graduates of biology and biotechnology can thrive in diverse work environments, such as medical laboratories, pharmaceutical companies, the food industry, industrial sectors, and research institutes.
In this interview, Dr. Dorota Komar, a scientist at the Institute of Hematology and Transfusion Medicine in Warsaw, shares insights about her epigenetics work and experiences in the job market. Dr. Komar is also a science communicator, running an Instagram profile named @darwininchaneldress, where she predominantly discusses epigenetics, climate-related topics, and the life of a scientist. She showcases her scientific journeys, and leads a series called #SundaySharing, discussing scientific discoveries that intrigued her during a given week. She shares knowledge in a highly accessible manner, relying on high-quality scientific sources.
Biohaterka: What studies did you complete, and why did you choose them? Looking back, was it a good choice?
Dr. Dorota Komar: I completed Biology at SGGW in Poland. Frankly, as a high school student, I had no clear criteria for evaluating Polish institutions and determining the best direction, apart from various available rankings. During that time, Biotechnology at SGGW was at the top as the best biotechnology program in the country. I was always drawn towards the more practical side of science, wanting to do something useful. The agricultural university seemed to provide access to a practical approach to biotechnology. It had specializations that sounded palpable and offered an engineering degree instead of a bachelor’s, which I thought would distinguish me in the job market. Following this utilitarian approach, according to circulating opinions, it provided a lot of practical knowledge, and independent work, which seemed more valuable to me than theoretical knowledge, which one could always acquire independently. In hindsight, it seems to me that if someone wants to pursue a scientific career, they should probably focus more on how professors publish from a given university, what collaborations the university has, and what internship and travel opportunities it offers. Still, I rate the interdepartmental Biotechnology program at SGGW very positively. It seems to me that a huge advantage was its small size (initially only 60 people). I didn’t study anywhere else, so I can’t compare whether it was better or worse than biotechnology at other universities. I learned a lot there and it largely shaped who I am. Oh, and it didn’t disappoint in practical training – I had much more freedom and independence in the laboratory at the early stages of my career than my colleagues from other European universities.
Biohaterka: What skills or knowledge do you consider most valuable from your studies?
Dr. Dorota Komar: Evaluating this is always very difficult because I consider a lot of things valuable, so I’ll say what came to mind first: presentation skills. I try not to show it, but I’m very shy. Any public appearances are a huge stress for me, and unfortunately, it’s a significant part of a scientist’s life. My first presentation in college was in a group. When my turn came, due to stress, I completely lost contact with the world: my eyes went dark, I heard ringing in my ears, and I stopped recognizing where I was and what was happening. All I could do was mechanically recite the memorized presentation content. I even forgot to switch slides; luckily, my groupmate (thank you, Ewa!) helped me by standing behind me and trying to match the slides to what I was saying. We had a lot of presentations, especially towards the end of our education, where we presented selected scientific publications. Since then, I have come a long way, and today, I even received awards for my presentations. It’s not a matter of innate predispositions but rather hard work initiated precisely at SGGW.
Biohaterka: What challenges did you encounter when seeking biology-related employment after completing your studies?
Dr. Dorota Komar: I didn’t have any problems finding a job. A new project always seemed to be waiting for me (which some interpret as aiming below my capabilities). What seems most challenging, observing the struggles of others (amazing, talented, and wonderful scientists who, by all signs, shouldn’t have any trouble finding a job), is synchronizing place, time, and field. It’s tough to find a position in the field that interests you precisely when a project ends, exactly in the country where you want to live. Or to synchronize available funding (for the topic you want to work on to be funded in the year you can apply for funding). Scientific work involves mobility. You can easily find your dream position if you have the whole world to choose from, but over time, when you want to settle in one place, the situation becomes more complicated.
Biohaterka: Were you surprised by the diversity of career paths available to graduates? Was the job market more disappointing, or did you not see yourself anywhere else but in science?
Dr. Dorota Komar: Somehow at the beginning of my PhD, I also did postgraduate studies, an MBA for scientists, and it made me realize how valuable people with a doctorate are for different industries. These were people who, right after their studies, managed significant projects, and resources. After defending their thesis, they showed that they could complete large projects and report them properly. Depending on the project, they possess great and valued skills: technical writing, communication skills, data analysis, etc. In those days, there was a very narrow view of skills: if someone needed a person to enter odd symbols into Excel, show me a completed course in entering odd symbols into Excel. It seems to me that this has changed significantly since many corporations in healthcare entered the Polish market, and now there are plenty of opportunities. I think a person who has completed a biological course now has plenty of opportunities to develop outside of scientific work.
Biohaterka: What advice would you give to current biology students preparing to enter the job market? Do you notice any trends or changes in the job market for biologists in recent years?
Dr. Dorota Komar: It seems to me that bioinformatics tools streamline laboratory work to the extent that it’s worth investing in learning Python and R properly. Even if the position doesn’t require it, this knowledge can greatly facilitate data analysis and visualization.
Biohaterka: Are there specific skills that you consider crucial for success in the biological industry?
Dr. Dorota Komar: The biological industry is a comprehensive concept. The biological industry intersects with many other disciplines. Working in the biological industry, you can design drugs using a computer, synthesize them in a large laboratory, and test their mechanisms on in-vitro models, or their effectiveness on patients. You can count bugs in the Himalayas, collect diatoms in the Arctic, or oversee clinical trials in Mokotów. Work is a massive part of our lives. Instead of wasting time honing skills that will put us on par with many other candidates, it’s worth investing in something that triggers our passions and aligns with our natural abilities.
Biohaterka: What are the most exciting aspects of your current work, and what are the downfalls? Would you recommend scientific work?
Dr. Dorota Komar: The most exciting thing is what has been exciting since I chose my career path. During this one-third of my life, which I dedicate to work during the day (8/24 hours), I’m doing something that has the potential to change the world for the better. It’s an immense privilege for which I am grateful. The downside is that I wouldn’t be able to perform the kind of work I currently do in Poland because such a position doesn’t exist. Do I recommend scientific work? Once again, work isn’t a new bakery. It’s at least one-third of life. It’s not something that can be universally recommended to everyone. I can only say that despite many negative aspects, for a person who enjoys experiencing something new all the time, is open, curious about everything, is passionate about the journey rather than the result, confident, and motivated by ideals, it will certainly be an exciting journey.
Biohaterka: Do you see any significant areas for professional development for individuals with a biological background in the coming years?
Dr. Dorota Komar: It seems to me that the era of tinkering just for the sake of it, “Scientia gratia scientiae,” has ended in Europe, and we expect scientific projects that will yield measurable results, truly changing the world for the better. There’s an expectation for multidisciplinary projects (utilizing available tools: AI, machine learning, deep learning) that will solve real problems, yield results that enable appropriate legislation, etc. Due to the climate crisis, certainly, all projects related to the environment, resilience building, etc., will be essential. Proper science popularization by qualified individuals and bioethics (how many excellent projects got stuck due to neglecting social and political aspects?).
Biohaterka: Is it worth working abroad? What skills did you acquire during your numerous travels?
Dr. Dorota Komar: It’s worth going abroad, even for a moment, even for a few months of internship. And if not abroad, then at least to other cities or other scientific centers. Breakthroughs are rarely achieved by doing something the same way as always. Science thrives on novelty, inspiration, using something in a new way, and looking at it from a different angle. Living abroad forced me to do many things, like using foreign languages, building life from scratch, forming relationships with unknown people, and constantly breaking my comfort zone, forcing me to do things that seemed impossible. And that there should be a monument in Brussels in admiration of people who managed to handle official matters in a language they don’t know.