Meet our PhD Fellows

AntiResist PhD Fellows

Our PhD Fellows have each followed a unique route to the Fellowship, and have found new direction through a multi-disciplinary rotation approach.

Featured this month is Isabel Wegner from Munich in Germany. Isabel studied Biochemistry before joining AntiResist, and is focusing on Host and pathogen molecular remodelling during early lung infectionfor her PhD.

Next is Kerstin Strenger from Frankfurt am Main in Germany, who talks about how her original nursing training sparked her interest and her journey to infection biology research, and onwards to the NCCR AntiResist Fellowship.

You can then read about Maximilian DĂĽnnebacke from the Black Forest in Germany, who talks about his route to the AntiResist Fellowship via a Bachelors in Molecular Biotechnology and a Masters in Biochemistry, and offers his advice to Fellowship applicants.

The next featured student is Sandro Jakonia from Georgia, who describes his educational journey from Human Medicine to Infection Biology, and the personal motivations which brought him to the fellowship, as well as his experience during his rotations.

Isabel Wegner

About Isabel

From: Munich, Germany
Speaks: German, English, French a bit
Pet Peeve: I really don’t like getting up early and having very early morning meetings
Hobbies: I play the cello in an orchestra, like to go cycling on weekends, and dance Salsa and Tango Argentino
In three words: Creative, lively, sociable 
Where would you be if you could be anywhere else right now? Somewhere in South-East Asia, eating all the good food
Who do you most admire? Jacqueline du Pré

Bachelors to PhD
I studied for my Bachelors and Masters in Biochemistry at Universität Regensburg, and did an external Master Thesis at D-BSSE, ETH Zürich. Following my Fellowship rotations at NCCR AntiResist, I have chosen the PhD topic Host and pathogen molecular remodelling during early lung infection. The Jenal lab gives me the perfect opportunity to learn more about computational methods in biology and to combine these new skills with cell cultures of lung models and microbiology to hopefully make a contribution to fighting antibiotic resistance and ultimately save lives.

I plan to investigate the molecular changes occurring during P.aeruginosa lung infections on the pathogen and the host side using proteomics, transcriptomics and metabolomics techniques applied to a cell model. The model was developed in the Jenal lab and mimics a human lung. Once the analysis pipelines are established, I would like to benchmark the model by comparing proteomics data from clinical isolates coming directly from the patient tissue and clinical isolates, grown in our lung model system.

A Day in the AntiResist Lab
I try to keep a routine, with the view that consistency will pay off in the long run. I come to the lab, I code to analyse data or read papers in front of my laptop. Thankfully, how my time is spent has changed since the COVID19 lockdown, when I could not meet with my colleagues. Now, during the day, I engage in lots of interesting discussions and meetings with scientists from my group and other groups in the NCCR, and I do experiments in the lab. 

Applied Learning to Combat AMR 
In my short time here, I have already learned a lot about collaborating in a large scale, project management, computational methods and infection biology, which was a new field for me, coming from a biochemistry background. It is incredibly motivating to directly see the reason for and application of my research. As a PhD student in NCCR AntiResist, the continuous contact with physicians in seminars or meetings makes me realise how urgent the fight against antimicrobial resistance is.

Advice to Applicants
You should think about what exactly in your prior experience you have really enjoyed, and that you want to keep doing for the 4 years of your PhD. If these interests match with the AntiResist project and you can make this visible to others, I think that people will value you and that you will fit right into the NCCR community.

Parting Words
Strive for 1% better every day instead of perfectionism.

Kerstin Strenger

Kerstin Strenger

About Kerstin

From: I was born in Frankfurt am Main in Germany
Speaks: German, English
In three words: Creative, Reflective, Open-minded
Where would you be if you could be anywhere else right now? At the moment, the weather is becoming really nice, so I would be sitting in a small, old piazza somewhere in Tuscany with a good Italian coffee, watching the relaxed hustle and bustle around me, listening to the street musicians and enjoying the sun on my face. Luckily, I've heard that the train connections to Italy from Basel are very good, I definitely have to try that out soon.

Route to PhD
My path into science started in school, where engaged teachers aroused my curiosity for natural science and biological questions. After school, I began training to be a nurse. However, I realised that I really enjoyed the scientific part of the medical education. I wanted to know and learn more, so decided to study classical biology in Marburg for my Bachelors degree. My Masters degree was at the Max Planck Institute with Prof. Knut Drescher, where I further specialized in Microbiology and Infection Biology. Afterwards, I continued to work in the lab where I then heard about the NCCR Fellowship programme.

Facing Challenges and Staying Motivated
Especially in academic life, you can sometimes get the feeling of never being or doing enough. Always believing in yourself and your abilities is sometimes not easy, but it helps to have great colleagues and friends to talk to. 

It motivates me that I am able to work in a research area that is of great interest to me. The speed at which new methods develop, providing information that would have been inaccessible just a few years ago, fascinates me. But you also have to accept that new methods take time until they work smoothly. Then you need to have patience and accept that there will be good days and bad days.

Unique and Collaborative Fellowship Experience
A typical day as a PhD student at AntiResist is very diverse and every day is different from the day before. I spend a lot of time in the lab doing experiments, but also attending meetings or analysing my results. I like to attend interesting talks from international scientists, as well as scientists from the University of Basel, to learn about their perspectives. Ideally, I also have time for a quick coffee break with my colleagues to discuss our problems, new findings and discuss our experiences. 

So far, becoming an NCCR Fellow was the greatest achievement in my academic career and it is a great honour to be able to experience this, and be able to work alongside great scientists and learn from them. The AntiResist PhD Fellowship enables me to work in close collaborations with different labs and combines my passion for microbiology with my interest in clinical questions which is really great and unique. I believe that translational research plays a very important role as a bridge between basic and clinical research and I am happy to learn more and be part of it. 

I hope that my research can help to better understand what is happening between bacteria and the immune system during an infection. I also hope to learn a lot and develop a skill set which enables me to contribute to the elimination of the ever-growing problem of treating bacterial infections.

Advice to Fellowship applicants
Take your time to find out what interest you the most and what is your passion. You can always speak with other scientists to get more information about the programme and listen to their experiences in academia. If you are invited for an interview, show your motivation and believe in yourself and the skills you developed during your undergrad education.

Parting Words
“Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.”

I really like this quote from Louis Pasteur. To me it means that science has the potential to transcend borders and bring all people together to work and uncover solutions for the challenges that afflict our world. This is one of the many reasons why I really appreciate being part of the scientific community.

Maximilian DĂĽnnebacke

Maximilian DĂĽnnebacke

About Max

From: A small village in the Black Forest in Germany
Speaks: English, German
Pet Peeve: While I am not very organised in my private life, I can’t stand people messing up the order on my bench and taking stuff from there.
Hobbies: Skiing, bouldering, hunting
In three words: Easy-going, curious, foody 
Where would you be if you could be anywhere else right now? New Zealand. I have never been and always wanted to see it
Who do you most admire? Marie Curie

Route to PhD
After school in Germany, I spent a year in the USA before doing a one-year orientation study in MINT, TU Munich and stayed there for a Bachelors degree in Molecular Biotechnology and a Masters in Biochemistry. I was then awarded the NCCR AntiResist PhD Fellowship, focusing on drug-target interaction using LiP-MS with a focus on antibiotics and antibiotic resistance.

Challenges Along the Way
Navigating the academic system when my parents didn’t study and no one in my family is in a related field was challenging, as it was not always easy to get advice or guidance. After I made the decision to study in the field I am in now, my grades steadily improved and I finished in the top of my class in both my Bachelors and Masters.

It is important to realise that there will be ups and downs, but results in the lab can’t dictate your life and how you feel. It helps me to know that loads of others have made it through their downs and so I can as well. At the same time, I try to enjoy and celebrate the ups, instead of just moving on to the next step, as there are always next steps.

Fellowship facilitates tight interaction with other disciplines  
A day in the life of a PhD student in this field is a day in the lab. AntiResist does not change that completely, but there are more chances to interact and get inspiration from other people, because of the focus on multidisciplinary collaboration. There are also opportunities to learn about starting your own company, and you are encouraged to bring your research to industry.

AntiResist makes available multiple learning channels. I was able to go to two different universities in two different cities, using different methods. There aren’t many programs for biologists, where you interact this tightly with clinicians and engineers at the same time.

I come from a structural biology background, but was fascinated by the method developed by the Picotti lab. I had lots of ideas on my own for which this method would be useful and I could imagine spending three to five years of my life focused on this so, after my rotations, I chose this route to complete my PhD.

Advice to Fellowship applicants
The committee aren’t looking for people who are already experts. A PhD student is supposed to learn. What they look for is scientific interest, curiosity and enthusiasm. One way of showing this is by reading up on the work they do in their lab and the NCCR itself. Show that you are willing to put in the work and are focused on this program specifically, while also being yourself.

Parting Words
My motto in life is to try not to make the world a worse place.

Sandro Jakonia

About Sandro

Born: Tbilisi, Georgia
Speaks: English, German, Georgian
Pet Peeve: Messiness
Hobbies: I play guitar and I really like cooking. If I was not a scientist, I would probably try to be a chef.
In three words: Passionate, curious, persistent
Where would you be if you could be anywhere else right now? In a cabin in the mountains, next to a fireplace, sipping some tea :)
Who do you most admire? My wife. She and I are at similar stages of our careers, and I find it very inspiring to watch her succeed in everything she attempts through sheer determination and hard work.

Route to PhD
I studied for a Bachelors in Human Medicine for 4 years at the Tbilisi State Medical University, before moving to Basel where I finished my Bachelors in Biology, and subsequently a Masters in Infection Biology at Dirk Bumann’s lab. Working there reaffirmed my passion for infection biology and helped me realize what my specific interests are and also what kind of scientist I want to become. When I saw the NCCR AntiResist fellowship call go up, there was no doubt in my mind that it was exactly what the next step in my career had to be. 

Challenges Along the Way
Studying demanding subjects in a foreign country while also working part-time to support myself was a major challenge. I found that determination and passion for my interests drove me on, as well as a good amount of luck. My genuine interest in the work that I do provided a major motivation. 

“One of a Kind” Fellowship Experience
Young infection biologists like me rarely have an opportunity to work closely with scientists from other disciplines and NCCR AntiResist is built around such collaborations. The fact that I can learn not only from the experts in biology but also from engineers, clinicians, chemists and computational scientists make this experience one of a kind. In my first rotation at the Veening Lab (UNIL), I learned a lot about CRISPRi-seq of Staphylococcus aureus (one of the bacteria being researched at NCCR AntiResist) and worked closely with other lab members. It was a very interesting and different experience to my Masters. 

On a typical day, I try to get to the lab as early as I can. Generally, I already have the day planned beforehand: experiments that I aim to do, meetings that I have to attend, interesting talks that I wish to listen to. I also thoroughly enjoy speaking with my colleagues and learning about their research.

Being awarded the NCCR AntiResist PhD Fellowship is one of my proudest achievements. I hope to learn as much as I can throughout my doctorate from this amazing group of researchers, and I hope that my work will become a meaningful contribution to the monumental goal of the consortium – finding ways to solve the antibiotic crisis.

Advice to Fellowship applicants
Learn as much as you can throughout your undergraduate studies and use the time during your Masters to formulate what kind of research you want to do in the future. This will help you determine if the Fellowship is the right fit for you. Also, your motivations and goals will be very important during the interviews.

Parting Words
I like a quote from Leonardo da Vinci: “All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions”. 

I think we often misunderstand our findings for objective truths on how nature works. To this day we are revising axioms that were once thought infallible. I am very curious to see which ones will be next.