Why we research

Laura de Rooij

Choosing research: from high school hesitations to scientific inspirations

Why do I want to be a researcher? A question I have repeatedly asked myself over the past couple of years. And a question that dates back to my final days of high school, which were dominated by indecisiveness and a strong aversion to pretty much anything school-related. Not so much in line with starting a life-long career of learning and discovery, I know, but it is nevertheless how it all started.

I grew up in a relatively small town, where becoming a scientist was not among the possible career-paths laid out before me in school. High school mainly left me confused about what I wanted to become. No topic or direction particularly stood out or felt exceptionally inspiring. I however loved cooking, and was quite good at picking up new languages, so for a long time I considered the hospitality industry for my future career. But the hierarchy and work culture did not seem to match with me. Somehow, without knowing what exactly made me realize this, I found myself intrigued by psychology, particularly the intricate workings of the brain. But, as an introvert, I did not want to be in a profession where human interactions would take center-stage. My grades were good, so many people suggested I should just become a doctor. When thinking about it, I found medicine and the human body not even that uninteresting. If only I could take my medical degree, but do something else with it than becoming a physician? Then, two months before the new academic year would start, I made up my mind and signed up for a degree in biomedical sciences, and this was one of the best decisions I ever made. I transformed from being totally uninspired by school, to someone dragging heavy study books (jokingly referred to by my parents as my “bibles”) with me wherever I went. I intended to soak in all there was to learn about how the cells in our organs work, what goes wrong with them in disease, and how scientists had gone about discovering potential remedies for all sorts of illnesses.

But as exciting as the theoretical part of my studies was, laboratory rotations were the absolute highlight of my degree. Learning directly from PhD students and postdocs, witnessing their devotion, struggles, and successes, was lifechanging. Continuing in academia was a no-brainer for me, as I simply loved to do research, and I knew I would have the patience, resilience, and curiosity to lead my own research direction one day.

Along the way, I have worked in many different research environments all over the world. I see this profession as one were moving around a lot is valued, and I would strongly advocate to embrace this. Particularly for those who lean towards the shy and more introverted side, such as myself, frequently changing your environment, having to prove yourself over and over again, and establishing connections with as many new colleagues and peers as possible, is essential to get your name out and to make the most of your time as a young scientist in training. The dynamics of such a trajectory will enrich your view of the world, of different countries and cultures, and most importantly, of yourself as an individual and a scientist. In the best-case scenario, you even get to surprise yourself a little as you go. During my undergrad, for instance, I was 100% sure I was going to dedicate my career to cancer stem cell biology. Now, more than 10 years later, I find myself studying the intricacies of our blood vessel endothelium, and I would not have wanted it any other way. The key here is to be brave, to be open to opportunities on your path, and to give it your all.

To illustrate this further, I would like to look back at my postdoctoral studies, mid-way through. Having focused on medically oriented research projects for all of my career thus far, I found myself wondering (a lot) whether my work will ever see the light of day in the clinic, whether I will one day help an actual patient. I had just shifted my research focus from cancer to the cardiovascular system, and was working on dissecting endothelial cell gene expression at single-cell resolution in human biopsy material. Fantastically interesting, but it just seemed so far removed from a therapy for patients in the clinic. And then came the pandemic. Suddenly, I went from working on a cell type that not many people seemed to care too much about, to a cell type that was at the center of a life-threatening disease. I found myself walking in the ICU, communicating daily with physicians, and immersing myself in infections disease biology. It was a lot to take in, but it felt so much closer to patients and daily clinical issues. Bottom-line: I believe the most interesting findings come when you, at least every once in a while, are open-minded enough to steer away from what you think you know best. You never know what you end up learning, and what kind of impact you get to make in a field where you least expected it.

Along the way, I also learned that an academic career is not only about science. Next to the many disappointing and difficult moments, where I thought my hypothesis may be wrong, my experiments completely failed, grants or papers got rejected for the gazzilionth time, there were those that came to rely on me for advice, for mentorship. People that got to a certain point in their career because of my help (at least in part). And this was not just about science, it involved students coming specifically to me with questions about how to improve their soft skills, how to prepare for a big meeting or defense because they liked the way I tackled these things, and questions about where I think they should go next in their career. What was most special about this, is that they took the advice I give them at heart. Seeing what became of these students and knowing that I played a part in their trajectory and decisions, even if it was only a very small part, has been one of the most rewarding aspects of being a researcher.

At the time of writing, Laura de Rooij is a Principal Investigator at the CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences.