Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I am Ece Şahi-İlhan, I am originally from Istanbul/Turkey. I started my PhD in April 2018, so I’m currently at the end of my 3rd year. I work in the Pharmaceutical Biochemistry lab, under the supervision of Prof. Leonardo Scapozza, in the Pharmaceutical Sciences division. It is a very large group, with several subgroups, very multidisciplinary. I study mRNA biology and small molecules in splicing-related diseases and rare diseases.

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

I studied Molecular Biology and Genetics at Bilkent University in Ankara for my Bachelor, then moved to Izmir Institute of Technology for my Master’s Degree. During one of my Bachelor’s internships, in Vienna, I imaged conjugations between Tetrahymena species, unicellular eukaryotes, under the microscope. Although I had very successful results, I preferred to continue with other subjects. I always wanted to do scientific research and thought Switzerland was the best place to do this in Europe, because it is a very well-funded country, with lots of opportunities. I applied to an open call online and I was invited to face-to-face interviews organised by the Faculty of Medicine, University of Geneva. With many PhD student candidates, we presented our Master projects to PIs of recruiting groups and visited some of those recruiting groups in order to have an individual interview with PIs and their group members. During individual interviews, I felt the Scapozza lab was the best match for what I wanted to do. It was still a bit of a lottery since I did not know anyone in that lab!

What do you like about (life in) Geneva/Switzerland?

I really like the fact that Switzerland is in the heart of Europe – it is well connected, and you can easily go abroad for short trips, to Italy, France, etc. and explore. It is also not too difficult to fly back to Istanbul on a regular basis. Swiss PhD salaries allow you to travel and still save a bit of money, depending on your spending style!

There are many opportunities to do things on campus and in the city – from dance classes to tennis courses, which provide a varied social life.

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

I am the only person working on my project, so I rely directly on my supervisor for advice. Even though it is a large group, and he is a busy person, we manage to meet on a regular basis, every week or so. Even if he is unavailable at times, he has a large network and can redirect me to someone who might be able to help. I feel very lucky to work under his supervision.

In general, there are always people you can go to with questions, and because the group is so multidisciplinary, there is a wealth of knowledge around.

Do you have any opportunities to teach? To go to conferences?

I have already supervised a Master student and I assist with teaching in Pharmacochemistry practical sessions and literature review projects of undergraduate students. The courses I teach do not require French; I can teach in English, but I do both now! I found the Master supervision very rewarding as you really learn a lot when you have to teach something to someone else!

For conferences, my lab sets aside a given amount every year for every student to attend a conference of their choice. My supervisor suggests conferences we might want to attend, but we can also propose conferences ourselves, as long as the topic is relevant for our project.

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.

How do you deal with the frustration inherent to research?

We are a large group and there is always someone you can discuss with. When you are stuck, it is important to talk to someone and seek advice. Failing is part of doing a PhD: you will fail in your experiments, but you should get up and walk again, this is what makes the PhD worth your efforts.

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

First, for choosing a lab it is really important to talk to the people in the group, to ask them questions about how they get along with the supervisor, how the atmosphere is in the lab. You should try to have these face-to-face meetings before accepting an offer in a lab. You might walk away from meeting your prospective supervisor thinking he/she is a friendly person, but the group has spent much more time with them, and they will be able to tell you what to expect.

Then, you should not embark on a PhD if you are not fully convinced that this is what you want to do. You need a lot of determination to keep going whenever experiments do not work (which happens regularly!). Having a determined mindset is essential to get through your PhD.

And for non-EU students: do not be put off from applying thinking that Switzerland might prefer EU applicants – Geneva is a very international place and there are students from all over the world!

Finally, I did not speak French before arriving here, and although it was not a requirement to start a PhD, I feel it would have made my life easier in general, and my social life richer, if I had taken an intensive French course before arriving. It was very difficult to manage learning French on top of the PhD, and I think if I had had a basic understanding of French, I would have improved it simply by being exposed to the language on a daily basis. Yet, I have managed to learn French in three years and to communicate easily in French with people outside!