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Dr. Holger Sieg, Junior Research Group Leader
Please shortly describe your current profession. What does your typical day at work look like?
At present, I am working as a Junior Research Group Leader at the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) and I am leading a group consisting of 5 employees and some students and trainees. We are working on the toxicology of nanomaterials in the context of oral uptake through the gastrointestinal tract. This includes physicochemical particle characterization, cellular in vitro and in vivo analyses and toxicological studies, by which we quantify the uptake and investigate cellular mechanisms of action of these nanomaterials.
A typical work day begins with some planning. Rethinking the experiments of my PhD students is important since I am infrequently performing lab experiments myself after having finished my PhD. Nevertheless, I try to be close to the lab work and help to introduce methods to the students and know about which experiments my employees are currently doing. More often, my tasks are to collect data, evaluate data and visualize them in presentations. I am writing statements, comments, publications and attend different team meetings and working groups. I am involved in the organization of meetings, conferences and events and I am also writing scientific press articles. Often, requests are coming unexpectedly so this aspect of my work never gets boring. Furthermore, some administrative work is required too. In a big public institution, there are superordinate regulated processes such as procurement, project proposals, invoices and so on. Business trips to conferences or for qualifications occur frequently. So my typical work day often is a mixture of scientific and administrative work, and it is always surprising.
What was your motivation for studying Biochemistry?
During my school time the topics Chemistry, Biology, Politics and History were the most interesting for me. I had to decide and thought that Biochemistry would be probably the best subject, as it is exciting, diverse and allows financial surviving.
When and how did you choose your current profession? Did you realize your plans from the time of your studies?
I finished my diploma at FU Berlin in 2011. At that time, I was not sure in which direction my life should go. I had a quite turbulent time where I tried a first PhD, worked in a small biomedical company, had teaching contracts at the university and worked in the “Bundestag” for the German government. All of these options were not created for a long time and not sustainable plans for the future, until I applied for a PhD position at the BfR in 2014. The project worked well and I liked the research atmosphere there a lot so I could finalize my PhD in 2017. The current position is a very lucky circumstance since my institution developed these junior research groups at that time, so I got the opportunity to continue my work with a new function. I had no idea of all these steps before and I think life happens and can hardly be planned on the long run. Life gives perspectives but there is no “master plan” in my opinion.
What in your opinion is the most important thing for your work that you learned during your studies? What do you still profit from?
On the scientific side, I think it is important to get a broad overview of techniques, methods and qualifications. It is important to approach complex questions and to think outside the box. It is also important to create a network of collaborations because no scientist can master all methods and topics him/herself. There is a big potential of synergisms.
On the personal side, I think people should learn to keep calm, rational and solution-oriented. Social competence is a must in cooperative teamwork – never getting indignant or angry. All people are doing their work and they do it voluntarily. Often, it is better to find a productive compromise rather than being intransigent, opinionated and alone, and some problems are better solved tomorrow.
Which additional qualifications should one gain as a student that are crucial or useful for your current profession?
For my current profession, in addition to the biochemical studies, it was important to gain knowledge in toxicology. The way of thinking is a bit different. While biochemists typically try to discover mechanisms, detect interaction or invent techniques, a toxicologist measures and studies effects, describes different parameters and evaluates the results qualitatively and quantitatively which leads to different findings. Both “types” of science are important and the focus is slightly different. Additionally, the topic of xenobiotic metabolism was not familiar to me after having finished my studies and needed to be learned.
Is there anything from the Master’s program that evokes especially strong memories?
In my studies, I liked the research internships most because of the multiplicity of the methods and people. But I enjoyed most my own time as a tutor where I could plan and carry out the practical course modules myself. If you enjoy teaching and working together with students, apply for a tutor position!
What advice would you give the Master students who would like to pursue a similar career?
A good point to enter the field is a practical course shortly before the Master’s thesis or with the Master’s thesis. It is also possible to start with the PhD but it is necessary to already have some of the necessary experiences at this time. So do a practical course or a training in toxicology or analytics to gain qualifications and get an overview about the different research fields, institutions and their characteristic individual research foci. Have no fear of throwbacks. There is never just one right way and the world will not collapse. Work on your abilities instead of meddling with your weaknesses.
Be focused but don’t panic.