Location: San Francisco, USA
Claudia Petritsch graduated from the University of Vienna. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and later at the Department of Physiology at the University of California, San Francisco (UCFS). In 2003, she was appointed group leader at the Ludwig-Maximilian-University, Munich, Germany. Two years later she moved back to San Francisco and joined the Dept. of Neurosurgery at UCSF as associated researcher. In 2008 she was appointed Assistant Professor. Her lab is currently working on asymmetric division of stem and progenitor cells and tumor heterogeneity in brain cancers.
YAAC: Dr. Petritsch, thank you very much again for supporting the Young Alliance with this interview and thank you for choosing this location (sunset with view of golden gate bridge, park and San Francisco skyline). The view is breathtaking! During their career, many of our readers consider research possibilities in the US. Now, you have moved around quite a bit during your career. You graduated from the University of Vienna and then moved to UCSF for your postdoctoral research. Could you comment on pros and cons for cancer research in the US.
Claudia Petritsch, Ph.D.: I think that in the US there are more people competing for the same pot of research money. In a sense, this can be a good thing and a bad thing.
YAAC: You mean, it can be a healthy challenge, too?
Claudia Petritsch, Ph.D.: In my case, it made me think harder about my science and it helped me to improve my grant-writing skills a lot. However, young researchers shouldn’t underestimate that in the US it is very important to be connected with other researchers and it can take a while until people in the research community get to know you. I took a risk by leaving Munich and returning to the US. At UCSF I accepted a research position that was lower than my previous appointment. Initially, there was only one student helping me to set up my entire research.
YAAC: You mentioned risk. What was your motivation to take that risk? Are you a risk taker or was it personal reasons?
Claudia Petritsch, Ph.D.: During my career, I switched model systems quite a bit. From yeast to human cells to drosophila then back to the mammalian system. That was risky. My latest switch was motivated by the realization that I had reached an intellectual dead end with the model system that we were working on. Back then, I had just read Dr. Arnold Kriegstein’s paper reporting that 90% of the radial glia in the rodent brain undergo asymmetric division. I just knew I had to apply my knowledge from the Drosophila system to the mammalian brain and to a translational area. Suddenly, there were so many new things to be learned. Indeed, within a few years, my student and I discovered that a highly abundant progenitor cell in the brain undergoes asymmetric cell division and that this process is deregulated in cancer. My philosophy is to work on questions that are exciting, and rather big and whenever a question starts to get too narrow to move on. But don’t get me wrong, I also know many researchers that have worked on one model system their entire career and definitely have a much longer publication record than mine (smiles).
YAAC: Thank you for already answering part of the next question I had in mind. Cancer researchers in the very early steps of their career often have a hard time figuring out if they are cut out for a career in science. How would you help young researchers to decide if they want to pursue and academic career.
Claudia Petritsch, Ph.D.: They should ask themselves if they have a big question that is driving them and also be tenacious enough to pursue their quest.
YAAC: Let’s talk about ups and downs in science. What has been the happiest moment in your career?
Claudia Petritsch, Ph.D.: We had been working on a new model system to study asymmetric cell division in cancer. Once it was finally established, and we made some pretty astonishing discoveries, I experienced one of the happiest moments in my career. I still get excited every time I think about it. And then of course, there is the joy when a large grant or a paper gets accepted. At this point in my career, I feel very responsible for the career of my trainees, I therefore derive a lot of joy from their successes as well.
YAAC: Can you also recall some darker moments, when experiments were not working and projects not moving along? What kept you going during this hard time?
Claudia Petritsch, Ph.D.: I vividly remember a period of 3 or 4 years during my times as postdoc, when things were just not moving on. What kept me going…I owed it to myself and to my husband, who was very supportive, and thought that I should not quit with the answer around the corner.
YAAC: Was being a women in science ever a disadvantage?
Claudia Petritsch, Ph.D.: (smiles) From my experience, women, who are planning a family, have it harder in research. For instance, starting a family and setting up a research group at the same time can be extremely challenging. I had my kids during my postdoc time and so did many of my colleagues. My male and female colleagues with young children were all sleep-deprived for several years. My advice to young academics is to time their family plans as well as possible and to hang in there and not to get discouraged from pursuing their dream job. In my opinion there will be a huge increase in female professors over the next two decades for reasons, that I have no time to get into.
YAAC: Unfortunately, time is running up. One final question: If you could go back in time and talk to yourself, early during your career, what would you say? And what final advice do you have for other young cancer researchers?
Claudia Petritsch, Ph.D.: I would have told myself to consider a MD degree in addition to my research career. Working with brain cancer involves so much knowledge about human disease and a medical background would have come very handy. But that would be very personal advice, of course. I recommend young researchers to look for several career mentors and if possible find a true champion. Such a person has absolute faith in you even in tough times and sticks out the head for you. I was lucky enough to have such a person at one critical point in my career. I would also advise young researchers to build a network of colleagues, who are at a similar level in their career. And most importantly, always work on a question that excites you!
YAAC: Dear Dr. Petritsch, thank you very much for sharing your experience with our readers. We wish you all the best for your future work.
(This interview was conducted by Benito Campos on behalf of the Young Alliance Against Cancer)
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