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Doing a doctorate in biotechnology

by Anke Wilde

A man and a woman both doing a doctorate in cancer research - she on how specific active substances can best be transported in a tumour tissue through vaccination; he on how these active substances and their biochemical reactions can be described using a mathematical model. She always wanted to work for a pharmaceutical giant; he dreams of founding a department for system biology at his home university. Two routes to obtaining a doctorate in biotechnology.

Doing a doctorate in biotechnologyXin Lai, a doctoral candidate in biotechnology at the University of Rostock, wants to establish a department for system biology at his home university
Xin Lai can finally breathe a bit easier. The 29-year-old Chinese student at the University of Rostock has just completed his doctoral thesis. It was late at night when he made the final corrections, saved the document and sent it off for printing. Now he's off on a weekend break to Copenhagen with his wife before research is once again the order of the day.

Anna Maria Städtler still has all this ahead of her. The 26-year-old began her doctorate at Bayer Pharma AG, which she will complete within the scope of a joint project funded by the BMBF, just one year ago. She can still remember the first few days there clearly: they were carefully planned; every effort was made to make it easy for her - the newest member of staff - to settle into the new work environment. This was followed by a lengthy reading phase during which she devoted herself entirely to the latest state of research in her chosen subject.

Research aim: drugs to combat cancer

Her topic covers the evaluation of nano transport systems for so-called small interfering RNAs, short-chained ribonucleic molecules, which are implanted directly into the tumour cells. Thanks to gene-regulating processes, they deactivate in a targeted fashion the genes, which allow the cells to divide unabated causing malignant growths. The problem, however, lies in the targeted transport of these molecules to where they should have an effect though. The RNA molecules themselves are not intended for free circulation and degrade in the body. The immune system also recognises them as hostile invaders and reacts to them. Hence a kind of protective transport system is required, explains Anna Maria Städtler. "In our case, these are new, extremely ramified molecules, which bind the RNA and implant this in the affected cells, whereby the tumour growth can be halted."

Two transport systems, which have been synthesized by the Haag work group at the Freie Universität Berlin, are meanwhile being tested in vivo, i.e. in mouse organisms, with promising outcomes. A third, which already functioned well in vitro - so in the test tube - is to now also be tested in vivo. "It is all very application-oriented", Städtler tells with enthusiasm. "It's about developing a drug that will ultimately open up new life-altering treatments to patients." This focus on applied science during her doctorate and the aim to create new medical therapies using her knowledge is extremely important to her and this can be found more in a company than at the university.

Doing a doctorate in biotechnology Anna Maria Städtler is doing her doctorate at Bayer Pharma AG with a BMBF-funded joint venture

Research aim: models for the behaviour of molecules

Xin Lai also works with the small RNA snippets that should discourage the tumour cells from their malignant activities. His approach is an entirely different one though. In his home town of Chengdu in Central China, he studied IT and his doctoral thesis was about creating a mathematical model to describe the impact of the RNA implanted in the cells. One example of the parameters to be included in a model such as this is the reaction speed - so how quickly a protein is processed or changed into another molecule.

Should such a model be good, then it is possible to predict how a cell will behave under certain conditions without any kinds of tests in the test tube or on mice. "The sustainability of such a model must naturally also be assessed," affirms Xin Lai. In his case, a work group from Leipzig cooperating with the University of Rostock on the research project assumes this task. "You must see it like this: you compile all the data available in literature and from colleagues' experiments, and then incorporate this into the model. During the experiment, it is examined whether the model's predictions are also really fulfilled." If this is not be the case then the model is corrected.

A doctorate in industry or in free research?

A doctorate in industry, or at a university or research institute - both options have their advocates and opponents. Doctoral candidates in academic research accuse industry research of a lack of freedom and too much of a focus on lucrative projects. Conversely, the criticism exists that publicly funded research institutes are poorly equipped and pay precious little attention to the practical applicability of the research findings.

Anna Maria Städtler finds the criticism about obtaining a doctorate in a research company unfounded. At Bayer, she enjoys extremely competent specialist support and is encouraged to also present her research findings at conferences and in publications for the scientific community. "I must of course check beforehand whether aspects relevant to patents will be touched on," she admits. But this is no different at universities - those wishing to secure a patent for their newly developed technology also do not speak about it publicly beforehand.

Xin Lai is happy with the conditions of his doctorate. He was able to participate in countless conferences and did not have to interrupt his work with endless administrative duties, he says. And although his work primarily aims to be pure research, it nevertheless has an application. "After all, such models can help to develop treatments for diseases for which there is not yet any cure," he points out.

Technical expertise: the decisive factor

And what do the personnel managers say? Claudia Israel is the Recruiting Manager at Qiagen in the town of Hilden in North Rhine-Westphalia. The biotech company employs some 1,400 people in Germany and 4,000 worldwide. Of those with a doctorate applying to her company, most obtained their doctorate at a university, she says. However she has since observed that obtaining a doctorate in industry is gradually gaining importance. "This simply lies in the fact that companies wish to identify and tie well qualified young talent to the company as early as possible," she says. However, from her perspective, it is not so important whether the title was obtained at a prestigious university or a leading company - the subject, expertise acquired and technical methods carry far more weight. Hence she advises graduates to think very carefully about what their career goals are and to choose the route accordingly.

Anna Maria Städtler had ben eyeing up a career at an international pharmaceutical company for a long time, so she also applied to Bayer over a year ago. In contrast, Xin Lai wishes to conduct research in the academic sector, and ideally to establish his own research lab or a department for system biology at the university in his home town of Chengdu. In light of the goals the pair wish to achieve, both have chosen the right route to scale their personal career ladder.

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