Could you briefly introduce yourself?

Hi, I am Axelle Bouche, I started my PhD a bit over a year ago, I’m in my second year now. My background: I have a Bachelor in Cell Biology, followed by a Master in Experimental and Regenerative Medicine, both at French universities. At the end of my Master’s Degree I was really interested in cell therapy, and I got really lucky to find the perfect topic for my thesis (in my opinion). I am in a cell therapy lab, doing research into skeletal muscle cell therapy (Didier Hannouche’s lab in the BIOMED program). The lab is affiliated with the hospital but also with the basic research department. My research is preclinical and quite translational.

What were your scientific/academic reasons for applying to Geneva?

I was not really looking for Geneva (although my family used to encourage me to come to Switzerland ). But when I saw the advertised position, I was convinced that it was exactly what I wanted to do! I did not know about the PhD School when I applied but coming from France, I expected there to be a PhD School because this is the standard model in France.

What were your personal motivations for applying to Geneva? What do you like about (life in) Geneva/Switzerland?

Location was not a criterion when I looked for a PhD – I applied also to Canada for example. But Geneva turns out to be a very convenient choice because I am close to family and friends. And I like the fact that you have a lot of possibilities for hiking, being outdoors. I grew up next to the ocean, so I am really enjoying discovering the mountains.

How is your supervision going? How is the atmosphere in your group?

To be honest, I consider myself lucky! I have two supervisors, one is at the hospital and very busy, so I only see him during TAC meetings or major meetings. My second supervisor is very approachable, we share an office, and I can talk to him for technical, scientific, and everyday questions etc.

We collaborate with a lab next to us, which is great because we have different approaches, different models. It is helpful to talk to other students, to troubleshoot, to have someone to listen. You should not be afraid of going and asking questions – people are usually happy to share and help.

How about funding in Switzerland? Do you have all the means you need?

Compared to France where even getting pipette tips was an issue, research in Switzerland is easy – I would not say the sky is the limit, but if your lab is lucky to have some skilled grant writers, you always have funds. The CMU (Faculty of Medicine) is also very well organised, there are platforms (bioimaging, FACS, for example) that are staffed with experts who can help you design your experiment, improve your technique, give you advice.

What is the biggest change when moving from a Master project to a PhD thesis project?

My Master was a 2-year project, which is quite long compared to other Masters in Europe that tend to be 6 months. Even then, I felt more like a student, a trainee, during my Master studies. I was guided as to which experiments to do and I easily got help when the experiments did not work. In my PhD, I am in the driver’s seat: I have to decide which experiments to do, and I have to ask for help and identify solutions or people who can help me with my project. During my PhD studies, I have learned how to get the most out of lab meetings for example: instead of presenting my data and having general questions directed at me, I prepare the parts where I have questions and make sure I come away from the meeting with solutions or new paths to explore.

What about training?

I have taken animal experimentation training, which is directly linked to my project. Then, what is important is statistics – when you come from a biology degree, you might have rather poor statistics knowledge. I feel I lacked this training, and I can now follow a course through the BIOMED program of the PhD School.

What is the biggest change when moving from a Master project to a PhD thesis project?

For France, the Master internship is quite short, 4 to 6 months, the rest of the year is coursework. As a PhD student, if I have an idea, I can share this with my PI and follow it through; as a Master student I did not have that freedom and time. So, the main difference is that as a PhD student, I can follow my own ideas.

How about social life, did it take you long to get to know people?

When I arrived, it turned out a co-worker is also called Axel, so this became a running joke and people got to know me quite fast =) But you will easily meet people as a PhD student. Geneva is very cosmopolitan, you can discover different cultures and people, and everyone is a foreigner, so this makes integrating easy.

Then, I also had contacts with the PhD association from the start, so I got to know other PhD students through that route. I am now part of the committee myself. There is an annual turnover, but some committee members also stay over the years. Being a member pushes me to do more scientific and social activities, for example right now we are doing a Secret Santa, and we just started doing feedback sessions on presentation skills, everyone can join and get feedback from peers. It also means I am meeting people I would not have met through my scientific activity, beyond the lab. It enables us to see beyond the PhD.

Is there any advice, anecdote, experience, … from your PhD life that you would like to share with prospective PhD students?

Since I did not go through the call, I do not have advice on that. But in general, I would advise students to go and talk to lab members – even if they generally like their PI, they might have some aspect that they dislike, and you will have to think about whether this is something you are willing to put up with for 4 or 5 years. So, talk to people, ask about the topic, wait for them to say ‘but…’ and reflect on it.

For me, the recruitment was over Skype, then I came to Geneva for an ad hoc interview. At this stage I had opportunities to talk to the lab members.