Interview with Alexander Junge

To not be alone

Manuel Corpas was a pioneer; he wanted to get involved in the iSCB so much, that he found other like-minded people, got together and founded the Student Council of the iSCB. Gonzalo Parra was motivated by the need of local Bioinformatics students to organize, eventually becoming a founding member of RSG Argentina. Daniele Parisi, a pharmacologist by training, found himself adopted in the Bioinformatics community in Leuven, eventually assuming a leadership role within the RSG Belgium.

The interviews we published until now represent different stages of the lifetime of the iSCB Student Council. Manuel was there at the Big Bang; Gonzalo helped create a new RSG community; Daniele was approached by his local RSG community and integrated. However, if there is someone who is a poster child for the new era of the Student Council, it surely is Alexander Junge. When he attended the ISMB/ECCB 2013 in Berlin, he had no idea the iSCB and the Student Council existed, and he probably had no intention of joining a student society or group.

But the Student Council Symposium caught his eye. “The description sounded fun, very engaging. It sounded like a event I wanted to be in, not knowing anyone at the conference”, he says.

His new friends recruited him to the cause; Alex volunteered to help out with the outreach committee of the Student Council, became its chair, and then graduated to vice chair of the Student Council, a position he held for two years, helping organize the Student Council symposia in Boston and Dublin. How did that impact him?

Friends in all places

“It was very good [for me], because I could build a very strong network right from the beginning of my academic career”, Alex says. He is still in contact with some of the people he befriended through the Student Council. “Every year we see each other at the ISMB or the ECCB, so that’s really nice”, he laughs. He becomes more serious again: “[The Student Council experience], both from a personal but also from a professional point of view, adds a lot of value to what I’m doing on a daily basis.”

It was not as much meeting direct collaborators, he says. Rather, it seems he appreciates how he was put in a context that required him to develop abilities that his research didn’t require of him: “You learn a lot by serving in these committees. You have to write documents that are read by a lot of people [...] It becomes easier to put yourself out there [...] for instance, when you present a speaker for a SC event”.

The work for the Student Council (and later for RSG Denmark, which Alex helped found), also functioned as balance for him. “I thought about [this] a lot during my PhD, whether I shouldn’t spend time writing documents to form the RSG instead of coding and working on my project. But there is only so many hours in a day during which you can work on a project and be focused. If you look at coding, for example, you can’t code for 12 hours a day. So, in my work, I like to focus on one thing at a time, and then switch context and do a document for the RSG afterwards. Use your mental capacity in a different way, if you like. Looking back, I don’t think I would have achieved something more in my PhD had I invested [my time differently].”

Research is the first priority, he remarks, but there are so many more things beyond research that are important. Two stand out: “Just sitting in your own little box all the time ignoring the outside world is not a good approach”, he says first, and quickly adds: “Science is sort of a society endeavour, it doesn’t happen in isolation, you know? You have to give back something to the community”, he says.

Making the transition

I ask him to expand on his thoughts. Successful scientists, he notices, are more often than not very well connected. This networking not only leads to new friends, but also to meeting people who aren’t working in your own research niche, something that gives you the opportunity to expand your horizons. Finally, the communication and teamwork skills required to function in the context of an RSG or the Student Council are definitely useful in academia or in the industry - and not something likely to develop when “you are working on your own little research project, but when contributing to an endeavour like organizing a symposium”.

Alex is currently doing a PostDoc in the University of Copenhagen, but he is not solely focused on a career in science. “I wanted to create a network outside of academia”, he says. “Again, it’s very easy as an academic to live inside to your own academic bubble, to only talk to the people that you see regularly”. He finds it valuable to hear what people outside academia think about science right now. “There is a lot of investment going into biotechnology and small startup companies, and a lot of innovation happening on the technical [and the biological] side, and it is nice to have a look around.”

So he became a member of REBBLS, an organization that tries to bring academia and industry closer together with a focus on innovation. He says it was driven by a realization: “You don’t only get people [interested in innovation] in academia. [...] That’s who we are trying to bring together.” They organize workshops and invite speakers from both worlds. They put a lot of emphasis on brainstorming sessions and discussion. Alex says it is surprisingly easy to pick peoples’ brains: “This is where speakers from outside academic research are very valuable. [We] ask them things like, ‘Oh, what do you think about this new technology? What do you think about CRISPR? Are you planning on using it? Where do you see it going?’ And [they] are usually very happy to discuss this. Even though they may be working for companies, they really want to share what they’re working on.”

When I ask him for a parting word of advice for young researchers, he comes back to the same issue that is so central for him: “Try to speak to people that are outside your little bubble and find out what other people are working on. Share what you are doing and exchange your ideas, assimilate other people’s ideas. I think this is what enables science in the end. Most likely you don’t get your bright new idea by sitting in front of your computer, but by talking to other people.”



You can interact with Alex on twitter at @JungeAlexander. Niko tweets as @galicae - let him know what you thought of this! For more content about the ESCS follow the official account of the ISCB student council at @iscbsc.