In our latest post in our “3 Questions for” series, we have the joy to Interview Dr. Yolanda Schaerli. Yolanda is an assistant professor of synthetic biology at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland. Her research group uses synthetic biology to understand the mechanisms, properties, and evolution gene regulatory networks.
When and why did you move into the field of synthetic biology?
During my studies in biology, I became fascinated with engineering biological systems. The goal of my PhD project was to improve enzymes by directed evolution (performed in microfluidic water-in-oil droplets). When looking for a post-doc position, it was clear that I wanted to move into the emerging field of synthetic biology and decided to build synthetic gene regulatory networks. The research currently ongoing in my lab involves engineering synthetic constructs in E. coli that help us to understand underlying biological principles and fundamental properties of biological systems, with a focus on gene regulatory networks involved in pattern formation.
In which areas do see the main challenges and opportunities for synthetic biology?
Synthetic biology has the potential to fuel the next industrial revolution. Engineered biological systems have potential applications in almost every aspect of our lives, for example by providing novel approaches to detect and treat diseases and to produce fine chemicals, biofuels and smart materials, just to name a few. Synthetic biology will hopefully contribute to transition to a more sustainable society that avoids climate change and environmental degradation.
The big challenge is to realize this potential. This will require moving from “proof-of-principle” circuits to robust systems that reliable function in real-world settings. It will also require addressing ethical and regulatory issues.
In basic science, synthetic biology provides us a complementary approach to study the mechanism, organization, function, and evolution of natural biological systems and processes. By building simplified versions of complex natural systems, we can focus on the elements of interest, while avoiding confounding factors. I hope that this approach will become more accepted and valued in the scientific community.
What is the most important piece of advice you would give to an early career researcher in synthetic biology?
I don’t think there is a single advice that applies to every early career researcher. I would like to mention three points that I think are important:
It is not enough to do great science; you also need to be able to communicate it. Good writing and presenting skills truly make a difference. If necessary, take some courses and practice as much as you can.
I often observe that PhD students and post-docs start too late thinking about what they would like to do next. If you only apply for post-doc positions after submitting your PhD thesis, you are likely to have an (unfinanced) gap, which might for example be problematic for your visa situation. Consider that it easily takes 10 months or more from applying to a fellowship or grant to starting the new position.
I would also like to point out that leaving academia is absolutely no failure and should be an option from the beginning. There are so many interesting jobs outside academia, why not considering them?