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Alumni Stories: Joanna Kwiatek
“I believe that you must always have an open mind and be open to the various possibilities that life gives us. I would like to mention one more event that made a lasting impression on my life. It was a microscopy conference in Germany at the end of my Master's programme. There I met people from the research group in which I later did my PhD in Australia. The trip gave me the opportunity to take the next step on my career path. That is why I encourage you to be open, to be active, both in the university and non-university circles. (...)”
Name: Joanna Kwiatek
Place of residence: Highland Park, NJ, USA
Job position: PostDoc
Field of study: Biophysics
What are your best memories from studying at the Jagiellonian University?
For me, the Jagiellonian University is, above all, Alma Mater, which I always have fond memories of, because that's where I met fantastic people, wonderful scientists. I met a group of friends with whom I have contact till this day, even though we have scattered all over the world. However, whenever I think about the Jagiellonian University, two events come to my mind that are related to my studies. First, my time in the Nobel Biophysicists Research Club. This was a very dynamic time, thanks especially to the Jagiellonian University’s Student Body and Council of Research Clubs. Thanks to this cooperation, we gained funds for organizing conferences, student exchanges and trips. It was fantastic and I encourage everyone to be active in research clubs.
And the second such memory is student research projects initiated by our dean, professor Wojciech Francisz. They made it possible for us, freshly baked scientists, to apply for funds to conduct a scientific research project. With my group of friends, we filed an application and set out on an independent adventure with science under the watchful eye of our research supervisor, professor Dobrucki. When the idea for the project emerged, we had to file an application, calculate the project budget and start the research. It was then that an independent path in my career began. I felt that this was what I liked, what gave me joy, what I would like to do.
I would just like to ask about a turning point that started your professional career. Was that work on this project?
Yes, it was a milestone. I felt that we’d created something for which we were responsible. We cannot get bored with it after a week. You have to finish it, submit the accounts, write a report, you have to present your results to the research board later. We took it very responsibly, seriously, and had a lot of fun at the same time.
So, in your case, your education had a huge impact on your career development?
Definitely, yes. The fact that we started working in the laboratory from the first year taught me my way around the laboratory, a skill that I still have till this day. Knowledge of the ins and outs of laboratory work, independent design of experiments, scientific analysis from an early stage in college education. All of this definitely helped me in my career and gave me a solid grounding for what I do now. The number of things I learned over the last 5 years is amazing.
What are you doing now?
I am currently working as a PostDoc at Rutgers State University in New Jersey. My main area of interest is the metabolism of fat in cells. We use yeast as a model organism. I look at both the biochemistry and the biophysics of protein, which is responsible for regulating lipid metabolism in cells.
I am a biophysicist by education, but I have slightly shifted my career path towards biochemistry and a strictly molecular approach to studying cell processes. This also shows that education at the Jagiellonian University gave me an opportunity to change my research field. It also shows how interdisciplinary science is and how it is becoming more and more difficult to define the boundaries between the fields of study. All the processes we study require a very complex approach.
What are your biggest challenges?
Actually, challenges happen every day. When you work with living material, be it yeast, human cells or larger organisms such as mice or rats, the daily challenge is whether the cell culture/organism will grow or survive. So, the big question is: will I have research material on which I can carry out the actual experiment?
When it comes to long-term career challenges, one of them is no doubt the next stage in my career, which is to carry out completely independent research, putting myself in a position where I will be a mentor for the next generation of students. And it is the students who will do research under my supervision.
What is success for you?
This is a difficult question because we can define success either in the context of an academic career or in a personal context. I think success is a sense of both professional and personal fulfilment. I asked myself this question: Do I feel like a fulfilled, successful person? I think that my research trip, which has taken me around three continents, has definitely been a success. After doing my Master's degree at the Jagiellonian University, I did my PhD in Australia. It is for sure my great personal success, because I somehow opened myself to this journey around the world.
Another success was to make contact with great people of science all over the world, to meet a group of great friends.
Coming back to the challenges, I always joke that my biggest challenge is to win the Nobel Prize. Nobel has been with me since college, because the Biophysics Club I used to be part of called Nobel. And now everyone asks me when I will get this Nobel Prize. Of course, the Nobel Prize is the Holy Grail for any scientist. A prize that is extremely difficult, but not impossible to get.
What advice do you have for people who are just entering the job market?
I believe that you must always have an open mind and be open to the various possibilities that life gives us. I would like to mention one more event that made a lasting impression on my life. It was a microscopy conference in Germany at the end of my Master's programme. There I met people from the research group in which I later did my PhD in Australia. The trip gave me the opportunity to take the next step on my career path. That is why I encourage you to be open, to be active, both in the university and non-university circles. For example, the European Union has many projects aimed at young people, at students, giving them the opportunity to travel and gain research experience. I would definitely suggest openness and curiosity, because curiosity is the most important thing in a scientist’s life.
Also, big benefits come from all kinds of opportunities that we can use to gain new skills, to learn to work in a different environment to the one we are used to. I can see that working in various international teams, with people from different cultures, with people from different specialties, broadens the mind amazingly.
How do you imagine the Jagiellonian University’s cooperation with its graduates?
I am very happy that the Jagiellonian University is taking action to build a community of alumni. I just stumbled across the Graduate Stories series and I think this is a fantastic thing because there are so many graduates and they are amazing. However, I also think that it would be fantastic to create a database of graduates that would bring together people from similar faculties, with similar specialties, so that we could get to know each other. The fact that we studied at the Jagiellonian University does not mean that we all know each other. While I was reading graduate interviews, I thought oh, this person was a lecturer in my department, but I don't know him at all, and now he does such wonderful things. It would be great to connect.
Speaking from the experience with my university in Australia, when I completed my PhD at the University of New South Wales, the Alumni Association there got hold of my e-mail address and reached out to me with an offer of joining their organization. And from time to time I get a newsletter from them, telling me what is happening at the University, what are the achievements and successes, and a plan of workshops and online lectures in which graduates can participate.
I think that by joint efforts we can create a network of contacts that will prove to be fruitful in the future.