PostDocDay 2020_header

Postdoc Day: “Young people are making the future”

More than 150 postdocs and senior Ph.D. students from across the capital joined for a virtual Berlin Science Postdoc Day to present research, build skills and network. Emmanuelle Charpentier, who shares the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, was the keynote speaker.

Many Nobel Prize winners were once postdocs, too.  “I was exactly like you, I had my uncertainties, I was thinking that it might be too difficult,” Nobel Laureate Emmanuelle Charpentier told postdocs during the Berlin Science Postdoc Day, held virtually on November 13.

The Berlin Science Postdoc Day is an annual event organized by members of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC) and Leibniz Institute for Molecular Pharmacology (FMP) Postdoc Association, and the MDC Postdoc Office. The event aims to bring postdocs together to share their work with each other through talks and posters, helping to build a strong postdoc community within the city.

“Berlin has more than 50 institutes conducting research with many postdocs as crucial drivers in the engine of this work,” said Dr. Jean-Yves Tano, the scientific coordinator of the ASPIRE program at the MDC Postdoc Office. “If Berlin wants to be a strong scientific place, you need to have the people who are doing their science being connected and networked, so that the information can flow between your scientists.”

A Nobel guest

The event also features soft skills workshops, networking opportunities and a talk from an innovative researcher. Charpentier, a microbiologist who heads the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, had been scheduled as the keynote speaker before the Nobel Prizes were announced in October. While other commitments almost prevented her from attending, she rearranged so she could do an hour-long Q&A session, introduced by FMP Director Volker Haucke.

Charpentier said that she often questioned if she should stay in basic science or go into biotech or the pharmaceutical industry. But she loved being in the lab and studying bacterial pathogens, so remained focused on basic research. This research ultimately resulted in the 2020 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for co-developing genetic scissors, called Crispr-Cas9, that can edit DNA and RNA with great precision. “It is very transformative,” Charpentier said of the discovery. “But one should not forget that initially it was pure basic science on an aspect that was not that fashionable or of interest.”

She also discussed the rapid transition from postdoc to group leader, and how almost overnight, scientists must be ready to manage funding and people. But even small labs with limited funding and junior researchers can make significant discoveries. “This was the stage I was,” she said, noting she worked with a master’s student and Ph.D. student in her lab on the research that led to the Nobel Prize.

“Always have the notion young people are making the future,” she said. “Soon you will have to tell the people you are training ‘you will have to make the future.’ And if you are at the early stage of group leader, they can make the future with you.

Sharing research

After the keynote, researchers from twelve institutes, including MDC, FMP, Berlin Institute of Health, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, and Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin, presented talks and posters via a virtual conference platform. The audience could listen to the talks on the main stage, and in the expo, step into individual poster booths and talk directly with presenters. Participants could choose to network by being randomly paired for a five-minute chat with another attendee, and easily arrange side calls. 

Izabela Kowalczyk, who is finishing her Ph.D. at MDC and Freie Universität Berlin, said she really enjoyed the virtual experience, even despite having technical difficulties with her poster presentation at first. “It’s nice to see this interaction can happen online, we can be active, talk to each other, discuss,” she said.

Presenting like a pro

During a skills workshop, digital presentation coach Matteo Cassese explained nine secrets for turning all those zoom calls and virtual presentations into a “full on production.” He offered practical tips on lighting, laptop camera angles and microphones, which when used means “already you are in the best class of presenters,” he said.

He also showed how presenters can write notes, equations or pictures like a real “chalk talk” using either paper in front of a camera, or a drawing application on a tablet piped into the presentation screen. And, if you aren’t going to show off your actual home or office, he suggested using plain colored backgrounds. “Please don’t zoom from space unless you are an astrophysicist,” he joked.

Get involved

The organizers were pleased with how smoothly the online event ran, though they do hope it will be the first and last time they have to meet virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic. They hope to see the event and the MDC-FMP Postdoc Association continue to grow. Tano, from the MDC Postdoc Office, noted that while there are about 350 postdocs at MDC and 100 at FMP, more postdocs from FMP are involved. “We need more people to join, especially from MDC,” he said.

Berlin Science Postdoc Day 2020 was sponsored by Bayer AG, Thorlabs, Inc. and New England Biolabs. Thanks to their support, substantial awards were given out for the best talks and posters.

Best Talk Award Winners


1st place – 1000 Euro prize
Dr. Domenico Azarnia Tehran

Postdoc at Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP)
“The Alzheimer risk factor CALM tunes synaptic plasticity by subtype-selective sorting of glutamate receptors”

2nd place – 500 Euro prize
Dr. Anne Merks

Postdoc at Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)
“Vangl2 couples changes in nuclear mechanics to muscle development”

3rd place – 250 Euro prize
Dr. Léo Guignard
Postdoc at Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC)
“On the morphological invariance of ascidian embryogenesis”

Best Poster Award Winners

Four awards for best poster were given, with a 500 Euro prize from sponsoring institutes MDC, FMP, Berlin Institute of Health, Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, for future conference travel or online courses.

Dr. Juliane Glaser
Postdoc at Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics (MPImg)
“Expression of an endogenous retrovirus in the developing mouse limb drives severe malformation”

Dr. Marijn Kuijpers
Postdoc at Leibniz-Forschungsinstitut für Molekulare Pharmakologie (FMP)
“Neuronal autophagy regulates presynaptic neurotransmission by controlling the axonal endoplasmic reticulum”

Dr. Álvaro Fernández Ochoa
Postdoc at Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and Berlin Insitute of Health (BIH)
“The MSTARS concept: Multimodal clinical mass Spectrometry to TArget treatment ReSistance”

Izabela Kowalczyk
PhD Student at Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) and Freie Universität Berlin (FU)
“Integrity of the stem cell niche in the developing brain – mechanisms shaping the neural tube”

Text: Laura Petersen


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