Career profile

Rita Santos, EMBL-EBILife as a PhD student

"When I was searching for PhD positions, I was looking for something applied. I was always interested in drug discovery and my Masters was a bit like that: understanding the techniques that went into it and the computational aspect rather than the experimental, which I’d already covered in the biochemistry course. I also like to work in a team, and this is definitely an area where there is room for it."  Rita Santos, student in the EMBL International PhD Programme 

Q&A with Rita Santos, a student in the EMBL International PhD Programme

Q: When did you start at EMBL-EBI?
A: Well, the first three months of our PhD we spend in Heidelberg, Germany to meet our fellow students and get an overview of what is done in EMBL. I came to the EBI in January 2011, to start the 3.5-year-long programme. I am in my third year of my PhD, so I’m about to finish writing my thesis.

Q: What is a typical day like for you?

A: Honestly, there is no ‘typical day’ for me. Most of what I do centres around the projects that we have on at that time; normally my tasks can take a couple of weeks to see through. So I work on those, go to meetings or do some work on small, parallel projects. If you only consider my two main projects, my days are spent mostly going through emails, reading articles to find and extract the data I need, and analysing gene expression data.

Q: What do you like most about working at EMBL-EBI?

A: The EBI is a great place to work: it’s very friendly, and people always smile at you. It’s very laid back as well, so you don’t feel confined by a lot of rules and you have an opportunity to meet people from different departments in a very natural way. You’re exposed to a lot of things and can make a lot of friends who have different skill sets – and people are normally very happy for you to approach them. In other places I’ve worked, people are more focused on their groups, so they don’t share as much. I think here we definitely have a good place where people naturally interact and I think that’s very valuable. I also think the campus is beautiful, and weather-wise, since I am from Portugal, I find that Cambridge is surprisingly nice, as it doesn’t get very cold and every now and then you get some sunshine.

Q: What did you do before you came to EMBL-EBI?

A: I did my Bachelors degree in Lisbon, in biochemistry. Then I moved to Amsterdam to do my Masters in Drug Discovery and Safety, specialising in Computational Medicinal Chemistry and Toxicology. From there I did a three-month internship at BASF, a big chemical company in Germany. After that I went to Croatia for 6 months to do a small research project, just because I wanted to pause a little bit after my Masters and make sure I really knew what I wanted to do. I searched for PhD programmes, applied here and when I was accepted I moved to Heidelberg to start the course, then came over to Cambridge.

Q: What attracted you to the programme?

A: When I was searching for PhD positions, I was looking for something applied. I was always interested in drug discovery and my Masters was a bit like that: understanding the techniques that went into it and the computational aspect rather than the experimental, which I’d already covered in the biochemistry course. I also like to work in a team, and this is definitely an area where there is room for it. I was doing a lot of Google searches to find PhDs that interested me and, after a few searches, I saw there were open PhD positions at the EBI. I decided to click and explore further. The programme seemed very appealing, one where I would be part of a nice community.

Q: What advice would you give for someone applying to the programme?

A: I think that time management is very important, and if you do a PhD at Cambridge there are small courses to help you with this. I think ‘useful’ advice depends on the project you do, so for example if you have to handle a lot of data it might be useful to do a course on how to handle data quickly. It is hard to know exactly where your PhD is going, but if you do have a good idea then learning as much as you can about your area is certainly an advantage. It would at least help you to figure out where things can go wrong so you can analyse flaws in your own data.