This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
#LINO18 young scientist Gintvile Valinciute, 26, from Lithuania, is a PhD student at the Clinical Cooperation Unit Pediatric Oncology at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) and Hopp Children’s Tumor Centre at the NCT Heidelberg (KiTZ) in Germany.
She is currently working on two projects and both of them involve an extremely aggressive type of medulloblastoma, which is one of the most common malignant brain cancers in children. On the one hand, she aims to decipher a particular protein complex involved in the tumorigenesis. On the other hand, she tries to find a suitable and clinically-relevant combination of small molecule drugs to target medulloblastoma. Enjoy the interview with Gintvile and get inspired.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I did not think of pursuing a career in science until I was in the second year of high school. I think the reason for that is the fact that all my family members have careers in arts and humanities, and as a child I was never actually introduced to the world of science. However, when I was 16 and started thinking what to study after I’m done with high school, I realised that I am very interested in and very good at biology, especially, the molecular side of it. One of the biggest inspirations to go for it and pursue a career in biosciences was, and still is, my biology teacher at high school. She decided to teach after receiving a degree in microbiology; thus, she was especially interested and excited giving lessons about the molecular machinery of the cell. Because of her I chose to study molecular biology and to become a scientist.
Who are your role models?
The most important role models for me are the women of my family, my mother and my grandmother. They kept their heads high even during the hardest times, they taught me how to read and write when I was very young, and they always encouraged me to pursue my dreams and to have an informed opinion on everything. I am extremely thankful for the opportunities my mom and grandma gave me. Regarding the role models in the world of science, I was always very fond of the work done by Marie Sklodowska Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Barbara McClintock. I think these women were both amazing scientists and inspiring leaders.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
I studied BSc Genetics at Vilnius University (VU) in the capital of Lithuania. During that time, I became stregthened in my goal to become a scientist, learned a lot, both in the studies and in life. I volunteered for numerous organisations, helped to promote life sciences at schools, studied abroad (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) and found amazing people who taught me a lot. One of them was Prof. Dr. Juozas Lazutka, a programme leader of the BSc Genetics course. After my BSc studies, I decided to continue my studies in Germany at Heidelberg University. The decision to leave my country was determined mainly by the fact that I wanted to pursue another specialty and it was not offered at VU. At Heidelberg University, I studied Molecular Biosciences with a major in Cancer Biology. The programme partner is the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ). Here I learned a lot, tried a few different fields in cancer biology, did an internship abroad (Karolinska Institute, Sweden), published my first paper and enjoyed the scientific environment provided by the DKFZ. Therefore, I decided to stay here for my PhD as well. After my MSc thesis internship in Epigenomics and Cancer Risk Factors division, I realised that I would like to do research in a more translational, more clinical topic. Thus, I am currently working in the Clinical Cooperation Unit Pediatric Oncology in the group of translational brain tumour modelling in one of the best teams I have ever worked in, led by Prof. Dr. med. Olaf Witt and PD Dr. med. Till Milde.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I think the coolest project I have worked on is my PhD project (current). It is very challenging both in methodical and biological point of view; however, it is also very rewarding since the drug combination I am researching could eventually be used in clinics.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
Currently, the main short-term goal is to finish my PhD studies in 2019-2020. Afterwards, I would like to stay in research and get a postdoc position overseas, preferably in paediatric oncology. Eventually, I would love to have my own research group and to return to Lithuania to contribute to the scientific world there.
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
Besides the more official accomplishments, such as achieving academic degrees or seeing my publication printed, I always feel very proud when the experiment I have been optimising for weeks or months finally works. In my first year of PhD I have been working on one particularly tricky co-immunoprecipitation protocol for a couple of months, and in the beginning of this year, it finally worked and showed exactly what I wanted with almost no background signal. Even though it is just a tiny detail of my work, I still felt amazing when I saw that complex of proteins
What is a “day in the life” of Gintvile like?
I am a morning person, so I wake up at 6 am every morning and walk to the lab. I get there at approximately 7:30 am, check my emails and start some experiments I planned. My colleagues come to the lab at 8-8:30 am and then we all get our morning coffee and talk for ten minutes. Afterwards, I proceed with planned experiments for that day or go to a course (currently, I am learning a FACS technique). I usually plan a few experiments in parallel, so I would not lose time during incubation periods. At noon, all the lab goes to lunch together. In the afternoons I work in the cell culture room. We have many meetings (group, division or others) on different days of the week so the routine is sometimes different. Also, every week I have a personal meeting with my team leader where we discuss the results and prospects of the project. I am also involved in some student activities at the DKFZ; usually after work (at 6-7 pm) we meet to discuss the organisation of some events. I usually get home at 8-9 pm every day, cook dinner and lunch for the next day and do sports before I go to sleep. I think the fact that every day is different and the possibility to make your own schedule are the things I particularly enjoy being a scientist.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
I enjoy organising various events and contributing to the PhD student society at the DKFZ. This year, I was elected as a member of the DKFZ PhD student body representing structure, DKFZ PhD student Council. Here, we are trying to improve the life of PhD students at DKFZ and serve as a connection between the students and the management board. Also, we are organising various events for PhD students. This year, I am leading the student team organising our summer retreat. Also, I am managing the team organising the 6th Heidelberg Forum for Young Life Scientists, a conference which will be held at the DKFZ on 6–7 June 2019.
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
If you dream of having a career in science, the best advice for you is to never give up and go for your dream. The life of a scientist is difficult, but also very exciting and rewarding. And being a woman in science could also pose some difficulties, but you have to believe in yourself and fear nothing, and, most importantly, forget the ticking clock that so many people try to impose on you. Don’t follow somebody else’s route – make your own, after all, your job is to make yourself happy and to realise your dreams.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
The field of physiology and medicine is extremely broad and thus it is difficult to pinpoint exact advancements that are going to be the next breakthrough. However, I believe the next great development brought by science to clinics is the implementation of personalised medicine to the everyday clinical routine. The concept of personalised medicine is not new, but there are still many challenges to overcome and many questions to be answered. Currently, there are various clinical trials that involve targeted medicine stratified according to the molecular patterns in various cancer entities. And since cancer is one of the main health issues in the world, the success of such trials would make a huge impact on society.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
In science, there is a very interesting situation of gender distribution in different levels of education. Starting with undergraduate levels until PhD studentships there are usually more female scientists working in biosciences compared to male. However, at later stages the numbers drastically change and usually it is due to the age. Most frequently, people finish their PhD studies in their late 20s or early 30s and this is also the time when most people choose to start a family. And despite many improvements, especially in the Northern European countries, providing opportunities for a more efficient work-life balance, many women still decide to stop their career for a while to raise children. The problem here lies in the fact that scientific positions are very difficult to get back to after a few years. I think if the job security during maternity leave would be improved this could be circumvented. In addition, anonymised job applications would be advantageous here. And finally, some women are convinced by society that simultaneously raising children and having a successful career is next to impossible. To my mind, with the help of employers, such beliefs could be broken and we, women, should encourage each other that nothing is impossible.