Rafael Galupa, Life-Science PhD
Degree from KI: MSc Biomedicine
Current post: Post-doc at European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), at the Heidelberg site in Germany.
What is your background/education experience?
I completed my bachelor in Genetics and Molecular Biology in the University of Lisbon. I wanted to get more hands-on experience in a lab before deciding to follow an academic career, so I applied to a Leonardo Da Vinci fellowship to do an internship abroad, which took me to the Institut Curie, in Paris. There I investigated the role of a specific gene in a subtype of breast cancer, in which cells invert their apicobasal polarity. This left me willing to learn more about the biology of the human body!
How and why did you choose to study at KI?
I wanted to learn more about human biology and I started looking for master's degrees across Europe. I have to say I was a bit late with my application already, because initially I thought I'd stay in Paris for my master's but decided last minute that I should go for an English-speaking experience. When I stumbled across the webpage of KI's MSc in Biomedicine, I immediately fell in love. It combined all the subjects I wanted to learn more about, cancer biology and neurosciences for instance, plus subjects on ethics and science communication, which I felt would be very enriching to “build” myself as a scientist, plus a very international environment! I was very thrilled when I got accepted, I felt it was an unparalleled opportunity.
Describe your experience, including any highlights from your time at KI
My time at KI was a very special one, both in terms of science and life experience. The class was composed of people from all over the world, and getting to know them all was the most fantastic experience I’ve ever had – I still have very good, close friends from that time. At the master’s, I was impressed by how everything was so organized and how our feedback on how things were run was taken into account almost immediately. I also loved that it was structured in modules and we would do one at a time, mostly – this was new to me, and I felt it gave us time to fully dive into each topic instead of having to follow several in parallel. I was also lucky to be welcome in Margareta Wilhelm’s lab, so I gained a lot of lab experience as well while studying!
After you graduated from KI, what was your next step, and how did you find this opportunity?
I chose to go back to Paris for my master’s thesis, under an Erasmus+ opportunity, to join Edith Heard’s lab working on X-chromosome inactivation – back to fundamental research! I knew of this lab from my previous experience in Paris, I heard great things about Edith as a scientist and as a person, and so I decided to apply. It was a fantastic experience, I was in one of the best labs in the world in the topic, surrounded by very inspiring people. Plus, new techniques were rapidly being implemented – this was early 2013 and I still remember preparing CRISPR plasmids that had just arrived in the lab! I had the opportunity to set up this system in the lab and try it out myself in mouse embryonic stem cells. When I was invited to stay for a PhD, I didn’t think twice!
What is your current role?
Currently I’m finishing my postdoc at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), at the Heidelberg site in Germany, in Justin Crocker’s lab. Here I’m still working with developmental processes and gene regulation, but in the fly embryo. I knew Justin’s work from papers, which I really liked because of the combination between experiments and theoretical models. When I heard he was starting his lab at EMBL, I thought this was a great opportunity, also to have the experience of being in a starting lab, so I tried my luck with the EMBL’s postdoctoral programme, which awards fellowships for three years, and got in.
Describe a day on the job.
At the moment I am supervising an undergraduate student, so often the day starts with catching up with her on how things went the previous day and set a plan for the new day. I also try to briefly catch up with emails in the morning (I almost never manage) and then I have flies and experiments to attend to – setting up new crosses, starting new stainings of fly embryos, maybe going to the microscope to look at those stainings. Fly embryos are always gorgeous to look at! Often I have one or two meetings per day as well – either with a collaborator, or lab-related, or department-related. I’m also involved in some institutional initiatives, related to mental health and to equality, diversity and inclusion. Never one day is alike another, and that’s what I really enjoy as well!
How did your studies at KI help your future career?
My studies at KI gave me a breadth of knowledge that I am very thankful for – on the one hand in terms of scientific topics, on the other hand in terms of skills, either laboratory, communication, critical thinking or so-called soft skills. Even if I’m not directly working with “human biology” anymore, I feel advantaged for having studied Biomedicine, which allows me to better follow certain seminars or sometimes make connections in my work with things that I learnt previously. The internships in Maggan’s lab (at MTC) were also critical, because they let me develop independence and maturity in the lab – when I moved on to my PhD, I felt I was already very at ease being in a lab and moving on with my work.
What are your future aspirations?
I’m in the final stages of my postdoc, and I’m looking for opportunities to set up my own line of research and have my own lab. I would like to go back to research on the X chromosome, as I felt so many unanswered questions stayed with me. So I would like to set up a lab known for its rigorous and solid research, significantly contributing to the field and where people are happy to work and feel that they are developing as scientists and as human beings. I would also like to combine research with teaching – I really enjoy the interaction with students, so I would like to be a professor one day!
What is your advice to current students?
What worked for me at each step was to go after what I felt like I wanted to learn, what I felt like would be a significant experience for my development as a scientist and as a person. So my advice would be for each of us, every now and then, to take time for ourselves to figure out what it is that we want to be doing – and question this from time to time too. Am I still enjoying myself? Would I rather be doing something else? I’m always questioning myself, and I think that’s a good thing, because it allows me to stay in tune with what I want and because it either reinforces my previous decisions or it shows me that I need to think about them differently.