PhD Interview for the Francis Crick Institute!

Despite being funded as a Cancer Research UK charity, the London Research Institute (LRI) went to considerable lengths to ensure that we interviewees were comfortable during our three-day visit to London and the institute. Firstly, our travel expenses – ranging from short intra-England train journeys to flights from across Europe and North America – were covered, as well as our accommodation at a hotel overlooking Russell Square at the heart of Bloomsbury:

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The first day was probably the most strenuous. First we listened to introductory talks given by the LRI Academic Director and the LRI’s Deputy Director who, incidentally, also quoted Donald Rumsfeld about the unknown unknowns just like at the departmental research day. Furthermore, as part of my destressing strategy I took a walk around the area during one of the breaks, inevitably stumbled into a bookshop and found this:

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The rest of the first day was filled by talks given by each of the recruiting group leaders. Eighteen times ten minutes of concentration. After that we got the chance to speak to those principal investigators (PIs) we were interested in. Lastly, we had dinner with the PIs and some of their students. And although all of this was not part of the “official” assessment procedure I think it was important to be making a good impression throughout, and therefore by the end of this first day most of us felt exhausted.

The official panel interviews were scheduled for the second day. We each had to give a presentation of a research project we were involved in, as well as a critique of a research paper. We were then asked some questions on these presentations and also had the usual questions hurtled at us, “Why do you want to do a PhD? Why do you want to do it at the LRI? What are your long-term goals?” Etc.

We were also privy to a tour of the LRI building at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. During the introductory talks they emphasised how great the facilities – DNA sequencing, flow cytometry and microscopy among others – at the LRI are. I was skeptical at first, but the tour was convincing, especially considering that probably not so much money is being invested in the upkeep of this building due to the move of the LRI into the Francis Crick Institute in 2016. At the Crick of course everything will be even better, as they didn’t fail to mention at every possible opportunity.

On the second day we had dinner together with the lab members of the recruiting labs, but without the PIs who were busy trying to work out who to invite for the third day on which one-on-one interviews would be held. We were certainly more relaxed this evening. However, the next morning between 7.15 and 8.00 am we had to come down into the reception area of the hotel to pick up a letter informing us whether we had been invited for the third and final day. It was irrational to be nervous because at this stage there was absolutely nothing to be done about the situation. Nevertheless, I, and probably many others, had difficulty sleeping that night.

Luckily, I was invited back to speak to three group leaders: Axel Behrens, Victoria Sanz-Moreno with Ilaria Malanchi, and Caroline Hill. In these sessions it became clear that I would want to work either with Axel on pancreatic cancer or with Victoria and Ilaria on melanoma. The third project was more focussed on neurodevelopment, which is interesting but my gut feeling told me to veer away from it simply because I have a stronger background in cancer biology.

At the end of the third day we had to hand in a preference list, and then all there was left to do was to go back to Cambridge and wait. But the waiting was mainly a formality since it had become clear during the day that Axel Behrens’ lab was going to make me an offer I couldn’t refuse. I am extremely excited! London, here I come!

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PhD interviews – Round 1

You’re sitting in front of a panel of four principal investigators (PIs)/group leaders and they start by asking you to simply summarise the paper you were assigned a week in advance (Radford et al. (2014)). You had read the paper carefully, analysed the figures and written down the main things you liked about it, the few things you thought could have been improved, and importantly, what future experiments you would want to do. Simply summarising the paper should have been simple, but was in fact surprisingly tricky. However, after some rambling you do manage to relay the gist of the article.

Next, they start asking about previous research experience and when you mention CRISPR as a genome-editing tool one of the PIs immediately starts questioning you about where it originally came from and what its purpose is. Luckily, having read about the subject, thought about it a fair amount and written about it, those questions did not pose any difficulty.

The toughest question during the panel interview was undoubtedly, “which biological question would you like to answer?”. I thought honesty would be the best policy and so I said that I wasn’t sure since my research interests are still broad. There are probably better ways of phrasing this though. All in all, the panel interview was far less painful than I had anticipated and somehow I even managed to make all four of them laugh.

The next stage involved speaking to potential supervisors in one-on-one meetings, half an hour each. At the end of these we were required to submit our top three choices:

1. Jean-Baptiste Vannier

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His group works on telomeres (the DNA stretches that protect the end of each of the 46 chromosomes in your cells) and how their maintenance is impaired in various medical conditions, ranging from cancers to dyskeratosis congenita. The PhD project would involve mainly in vitro work in mouse cell lines with a lot of fluorescence microscopy and hopefully the use of CRISPR to knock-out various factors that normally protect telomeres. His own post-doc work is summarised in Vannier et al. (2014).

2. Mathieu Latreille

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Mathieu has made type 2 diabetes his research topic. In particular he studies how the dysregulated expression of certain microRNAs (short RNAs that regulate the translation of messenger RNAs into proteins) affect beta cell function in the pancreas. His PhD project, for which the foundation work was laid in Latreille et al. (2014), would be a combination of in vitro experimentation and modelling the disease in mouse models.

3. Simona Parrinello

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Lastly, and this is a testimony to the fact that I really do find a lot of biological problems intriguing, Simona’s group studies the interactions between neural stem cells and endothelial cells, the cells that make up blood vessels. Their most recent paper is Ottone et al. (2014). In particular, the PhD project would investigate how this “vascular niche” influences neurons’ responses to injury. Probably the hardest question she asked was, “if I offered you the position would you accept?”. Again, I thought honesty would be best and I said that I had also applied at other institutes (probably like all the other candidates as well) and that this set of interviews at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre was the first. They will let us know of the outcome next week…

And on that note, best to end with this cheery bit of news: I’ve been invited to the PhD interviews for the Crick/London Research Institute (LRI). At the moment the LRI is situated in central London at Lincoln’s Inn Fields, but will be moving into the new Francis Crick Institute just behind King’s Cross, and they focus exclusively on cancer research.

References:

Latreille M, Hausser J, Stutzer I, Zhang Q, Hastoy B, Gargani S, Kerr-Conte J, Pattou F, Zavolan M, Esguerra JLS, Eliasson L, Rulicke T, Rorsman P, Stoffel M (2014) MicroRNA-7a regulates pancreatic beta cell function. Journal of Clinical Investigation 124: 2722-2735

Ottone C, Krusche B, Whitby A, Clements M, Quadrato G, Pitulescu ME, Adams RH, Parrinello S (2014) Direct cell-cell contact with the vascular niche maintains quiescent neural stem cells. Nature Cell Biology 16: 1045

Radford EJ, Ito M, Shi H, Corish JA, Yamazawa K, Isganaitis E, Seisenberger S, Hore TA, Reik W, Erkek S, Peters A, Patti ME, Ferguson-Smith AC (2014) In utero undernourishment perturbs the adult sperm methylome and intergenerational metabolism. Science 345: 785-785

Vannier JB, Sarek G, Boulton SJ (2014) RTEL1: functions of a disease-associated helicase. Trends in cell biology 24: 416-425

Interview Season

Apart from the fact that today is “Bridgemas” (i.e. Cambridge Christmas) Boxing Day and that therefore the actual festive season is about to begin, it is also the start of PhD interview season. Next week two other people from the Cambridge biochemistry course and I will head to London to be interviewed (and interrogated about a particular paper that we will have read in advance) at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre. So anyone reading this who has been through the PhD interview process themselves: I’m sure we would appreciate some advice. For example, were there any questions that completely caught you by surprise? Maybe in hindsight you realised that was an obvious thing to discuss, but it just hadn’t crossed your mind while you were preparing for the interview? What’s the most useful thing you can ask the current students and post-docs in a lab of interest? Any help is welcome!

Lastly, on an unrelated note but regarding one of my favourite subjects, CRISPR: a new review by one of the pioneering CRISPR researchers, Jennifer Doudna, was released only a few days ago (Hochstrasser & Doudna (2014)) and gives a great overview of the three different CRISPR/Cas systems. I like it especially because it focusses mainly on the underlying biochemistry (including Cas protein structures), which is becoming more and more overlooked as many people have started to use CRISPR for genome-engineering on a daily basis.

Reference:

Hochstrasser ML, Doudna JA (2014) Cutting it close: CRISPR-associated endoribonuclease structure and function. Trends in Biochemical Sciences.