Dagmar Zigackova PhD, currently a postdoctoral associate at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven (USA), successfully completed her PhD studies at the Masaryk University at the end of 2019, right before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. Dasha (as her Czech and American lab colleagues call her) studied under the supervision of Prof. Stepanka Vanacova, research group leader at CEITEC MU and a member of the prestigious European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO). During her PhD studies at CEITEC, Dasha investigated molecular mechanisms and the physiological role of RNA modifications in eukaryotic cells. Her PhD research focused on the processes of RNA degradation. Now at Yale, Dasha studies the mRNA processing in mammalian cells in the Karla Neugebauer lab.
Yale University is a private Ivy League research university that is the third-oldest higher education institution in the US. Yale’s central campus covers 260 acres in New Haven, Connecticut and includes buildings dating back to the mid-18th century. Around one in five students is international, and more than half of all undergraduates receive scholarships or grants from the university. Four Yale graduates signed the American Declaration of Independence, and the university has educated five US presidents: William Howard Taft, Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Twenty Yale alumni have won Nobel prizes, while 32 have won the Pulitzer Prize.
Read the following interview with Dasha Zigackova to find out what opened the door for her to a postdoctoral fellowship at one of the world’s best universities and how Masaryk University, CEITEC, and her supervisor, Prof. Stepanka Vanacova, prepared her for her research career at Yale.
Did you always dream about a research career? Was a postdoctoral fellowship a clear choice for you after your PhD?
I've always been fascinated by the design of living organisms. Therefore, it wasn't hard to decide to study molecular biology and genetics for my bachelor's and master's studies and then PhD in biochemistry. My path wasn't that straightforward, though. I decided on a postdoctoral position in the last months of my PhD studies. And I confess that I had moments when I wanted to leave academia. I think most PhD students probably know what I'm talking about. Also, there are other jobs I would enjoy doing. For example, I worked full-time for one year in a Christian non-profit organization which was a great experience, and I also considered pursuing that line of work after my PhD. But I am happy that I stayed in science. I would miss being a researcher. And I am very grateful for the exceptional opportunity to be at Yale and work on discoveries that can help others.
Why did you apply for your postdoctoral fellowship at Yale?
The main reason I chose Yale was my advisor, Prof. Karla Neugebauer. I knew she was an excellent RNA scientist and a good mentor. Another factor was that Yale has a large RNA center with many of the best RNA scientists in the world, so it is a great place to learn from the best and to make new contacts. I also felt that New Haven, where Yale is located, had many of the amenities of a big city while still being an affordable place where I could have a decent life with a postdoc salary. It’s also on the East Coast, which is more convenient for travelling back to Europe and has a European vibe. I always say that New England is America for beginners. I wanted to go to the US because it was a country where I could imagine living long-term. Many of the values the country was founded upon are aligned with my values, so I knew I would find like-minded people. It was also important to me to speak the local language to be able to be a part of the local community. I knew that I was likely to spend at least a few years doing my postdoc, and I wanted to be able to live fully during that time, not just working and waiting until I could move somewhere else.
How did you prepare for the interview, and what steps did you take to secure the postdoctoral fellowship in the Karla Neugebauer lab at Yale?
My original plan was to attend conferences and try to find a new position through the connections that I made there. That didn't happen because of Covid, so I had to choose another approach. I had an advantage in that my PhD advisor, Prof. Stepanka Vanacova, supported us in attending conferences, so I already knew about many good scientists in the RNA field. One of my colleagues drew my attention to Prof. Karla Neugebauer. As I have already said, I knew she was a great scientist, and my interests and experience matched her research. I knew two people who used to work in her lab, and I asked them to share their experiences with me. Everything looked good, so I sent her my CV and a cover letter. To my surprise, I received a very positive response the same day, and she asked for my recommendation letters. But, after that, I did not hear back from her for several weeks, so I began to send out more applications. She got back to me eventually apologized for not responding earlier and she wrote that she was still interested in interviewing me. She offered a time slot for an online interview, either about one hour from when I received her email or the next day. It was a bit crazy, but I agreed to call that same day. That means I had less than one hour to get ready for the actual interview at Yale. At least I was very authentic! It went well, and I was offered a postdoc position within the next two weeks, following a couple more calls and my talk in front of the whole lab and other members of the department. I also had a chance to talk one-on-one with everyone in the lab. Everything was over Zoom because of the pandemic, and I'd never visited Yale in person before I started my postdoc.
What would you say was the key to your success? What opened the doors to Yale for you?
It’s a bit funny to me to call it a success because once I started my postdoc, I felt a bit like I was starting over. “Successful” is not exactly how I feel most of the time. But, of course, being at Yale is a huge privilege, and every step forward is a success. To answer your question, I believe that one of the most important factors was my PhD advisor, Prof. Vanacova, who is a respected scientist in the RNA field. Her past students had been accepted to prestigious universities, such as Columbia or Karolinska, and I also had her full support. I assume that she and others gave me good recommendations, which I am very grateful for. In addition, my current advisor visited CEITEC a couple of years ago. Therefore, she had a good idea about where I was coming from and that Prof. Vanacova and CEITEC provided high-quality research training. And, of course, I assume that my experience and publications were important. I think it was all of it combined and lots of prayers.
Were you not afraid to join such a prestigious institution with such a resonant name? Would you say that the Masaryk University, CEITEC, and your PhD supervisor prepared you enough for a postdoctoral position at the world's leading research university?
In some sense, it's still hard to believe that I am at Yale. When I started to think about a postdoc, I definitely felt like I couldn't apply to such a famous university. I thought that my CV wasn't impressive enough. Though I had some good publications, I've never done, for example, any internship. I enjoyed science and worked hard, but I also had many other interests and rich social life. I didn't view myself as an ideal candidate for a postdoc at a prestigious institution. But I knew that I should at least try to apply. And I received many positive responses. And to the question, if I was prepared for Yale, I would say that yes. I didn't feel like it was totally different from the world I came from. There are differences between Yale and Masaryk University for sure, but it's not necessarily in the quality; it's rather the quantity. Just like at Yale, we had all modern equipment available at CEITEC, practical soft skills workshops, and great invited speakers- only not so many. And Prof. Vanacova has always had many connections with other top scientists from all over the world, and she led us to be more oriented toward international science. Therefore, coming to Yale was fascinating, but I didn't feel like Alice in Wonderland. And, of course, not everything works perfectly at Yale. For instance, Yale is very decentralized, which means that individual offices and departments within Yale sometimes don't communicate with each other. One example is that almost two months after I started working at Yale- after I had received my ID card, salary, gone through all the required training, etc.- I received an email from one of the employment offices saying that they were going to terminate my contract. They thought I hadn't arrived in the country. Everything was clarified, and it's just a funny story now.
What is it like to be a postdoc at Yale? Do postdoctoral researchers in the U.S. have better conditions than postdocs in Europe/Czech Republic?
I can only speak for Yale, postdocs working elsewhere in the US might have a very different experience. Yale offers an overwhelming number of opportunities for development. We could spend every day listening to interesting talks and attending workshops on all sorts of topics. Yale also organizes many events about job opportunities in the industry. We have a very active postdocs association organizing social events, which makes it easier to make new friends. As postdocs, we don’t have a cohort like students, and it can be difficult to find friends because people at Yale are not usually very social. Postdocs at Yale are not expected to know everything; we are still considered trainees. Which provides more freedom to learn new things without the fear of failure. But still, it can also be hard, you have ups and downs just like anywhere else. Research is not easier just because you are at Yale. In terms of finances, being a postdoc in the US can be challenging, especially in the big expensive cities. Most postdocs are paid from governmental NIH grants, and their salaries are based on the NIH guidelines. This means that postdoc salaries are mostly the same all over the US, even though the cost of living can vary dramatically. And the prestigious universities are usually in expensive cities. International postdocs cannot apply for most US postdoc grants, so there are not many opportunities to get your own funding. And the few postdoc grants that international postdocs are eligible for are then very competitive. But I don’t think that postdocs in Europe have more options either. One difference that I sense is that US universities are more ideological and quite strongly present certain values, as opposed to Czech universities that focus solely on education most of the time. And what might be inconvenient is that many US employers including universities offer a lot less vacation days compared to what we are used to in Europe.
Where do postdocs from Yale usually end up at the end of their fellowship?
It varies. Some get their funding and faculty positions and start their own research groups; others do another postdoc. Most leave academia for various reasons. The number of academic positions is very limited, and it’s not a type of work that most people would want to do long-term. Also, the industry and private sector pay much better and usually offer better work-life balance. Some people do one postdoc because it helps them find a good industry job. Some people become lecturers and educators or researchers in research centres outside academia. The majority of people continue working in some way in the field of their studies. Scientists nowadays have many options, at least in some parts of the world.
And how about you? Do you already have visions and dreams about what would you like to do after your postdoctoral fellowship?
It would be great if I could continue in my research to get as far as possible in the project. But we all go where the doors are open in the end. This doesn't mean we should not have plans, but we also need to be flexible. I like many aspects of academia, but it's not that easy to get a more permanent academic position. I can't predict how well my research is going to go and if I will be able to get funding. On the other hand, now is a great time for an RNA scientist to find a good position in the private sector. I can imagine working in a smaller biotech company. Many of them do very interesting research or methods development. And I must say I sometimes miss the teamwork aspect that the private sector offers. I'm also getting a college teaching certificate because I would like to be involved in educating a new generation of scientists in some way. I still have enough time to decide so I’m trying to enjoy my postdoc and get the most out of where I am right now. We are constantly reminded in academia to plan for the next step, which makes sense because we can't be PhD students or postdocs forever. But this can also create an impression that where we are now is not good enough and the goal of life is to take the next step in your career, which is not true. I don't want to worry too much about the next step while at the same time I want to be realistic and responsible about my future.
Tell us more about your current research topic. What are you investigating in Karla Neugebauer's lab and why is your research important for society?
I work on how red blood cells produce haemoglobin - the molecule that carries oxygen. My lab has recently discovered a new type of gene regulation that affects haemoglobin on the level of messenger RNA (mRNA). mRNA is a transcript of a gene from DNA that serves as a template for protein production. All mRNAs need to be processed before they can be used for protein production. The processing mostly happens within a few seconds after mRNA is formed, which is astonishing because it is a very complex mechanism. However, it turns out that only half of the haemoglobin mRNAs are processed, and the other half are not processed at all. This phenomenon was described as “all-or-none” processing. It is striking because the whole point of these cells is to produce haemoglobin. It’s also exciting because haemoglobin production is a process essential for life, and we are the first ones who observed this aspect of the process. In my project, I am trying to figure out why this is happening and how individual mRNA processing steps are regulated and interconnected. Part of my work also deals with a common type of blood cancer, myelodysplastic syndromes, caused by mutations in mRNA processing factors. I collaborate with haematologists at Yale, and we aim to understand better why these mutations lead to cancer, which is essential for the development of efficient therapy and prevention.
What do you consider the best thing about doing research at Yale?
Apart from the fact that being at Yale is simply cool, the best part is the people with very broad expertise and the connections I make. There is a surprisingly collegial atmosphere, I don’t feel much of a sense of competition. Everyone is usually willing to help. Another highlight from Yale is my advisor, who is a very inspirational scientist. She cares about our careers and lives, and she knows almost everyone in the field. I also appreciate that she discusses a lot of the lab decisions with us, and she lets us see things like grant writing and paper reviews, so we all have a pretty good idea about what it takes to run a lab.
What advice would you give to other students who dream about having a research career at the world's top research organizations?
They don't have to be afraid to try, even if they feel like they are not good enough. Many group leaders realize that fresh PhD holders are at the beginning of their careers, and it's unrealistic to expect huge accomplishments. I would advise trying to work on some collaborative projects because they are going to need recommendation letters, and it's nice to have them from someone outside your lab. And obviously, it's important to write a good cover letter and express how your personal research interests match the lab that you are applying to. Have someone experienced checking your cover letter. Networking can definitely help, but there is no need to obsess over it. I think that the most efficient networking happens quite naturally when we collaborate, offer help and ideas to others, engage in meaningful discussions, present our projects at conferences, and when we are interested in the work of others, and make friends. People will usually not remember you when you try to talk to them for 3 minutes during a coffee break anyway. I also recommend contacting former lab members and asking about their experience with the group leader. They greatly impact the whole experience. Another piece of advice is to be realistic in your expectations. A prestigious institution isn't necessarily a guarantee of top science and a great postdoc experience. Research can be challenging, and people will behave differently than you want them to, just like anywhere else. So being realistic and forgiving helps to prevent disappointment and allows you to appreciate the new workplace. My last piece of advice would be not to have a research career at a prestigious institute as a goal in itself. That would be a waste of time because it's empty on its own. Use it to reach something bigger that goes beyond yourself.
Dasha is an RNA scientist with a PhD from Masaryk University received for her work in the lab of Prof. Stepanka Vanacova on mammalian RNA turnover. Currently, she works as a postdoctoral associate at Yale School of Medicine in the lab of Prof. Karla Neugebauer, where she studies the processing of mRNA in mammals during red blood cell development and in blood cancers. She spends most of her free time at church, with friends, or compensating for her love for food by working out.