10 years CGA: Faces of our programme

The year 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of the CGA as a joint venture between the International Max Planck Research School on Ageing and the CECAD Graduate School.

In this special CGA Story we take a look behind the scenes of our graduate programme and talk to some of the students, alumni and faculty members - our faces of the CGA. Check out our short interviews, which will be published regularly over the coming months and in which our members share their thoughts and insights, their hopes and aspirations, and how they look back on their time at the CGA:

Syed Musa Ali, CGA Master Fellowship Programme

In addition to the PhD programme, the CGA also offers a Master Fellowship programme for students with a BSc degree who wish to start their MSc studies in Cologne and are interested in the field of ageing research. One of our Master Fellows, Syed Musa Ali, who was awarded a CGA Master Fellowship in 2023, talks about his application, his first months in Cologne and his experiences as a CGA Master Fellowship holder:

1. Could you tell us about your experience of transitioning from a bachelor's degree to a Master programme at the University of Cologne? How were your first months in Cologne, could you share some memorable moments?

Transitioning from a bachelor's degree to a master's program at the University of Cologne was both exciting and challenging. Academic demands increased, needing higher levels of critical thinking and research skills. My first months in Cologne were spent exploring, adapting to a new city, and making friends. Discovering the city's rich history and taking part in cultural events such as the Cologne Carnival, were all memorable experiences.

2. What motivated you to apply for the CGA Master Fellowship Programme? After a few months as a Master Fellow, what are some of the key benefits and opportunities you’ve enjoyed as part of the programme? Can you tell us about your involvement in scientific and social activities within your mentor’s group?

I applied to the Cologne Graduate School of Ageing Master Fellowship Programme out of my passion for studying ageing-related diseases and my desire to contribute to the field. As a Master Fellow, I've gained access to cutting-edge research resources, networking opportunities, and mentorship from esteemed faculty. Within my mentor's group, I've actively engaged in scientific discussions, research projects, and social activities, fostering a dynamic academic environment.

3. How has this involvement shaped your understanding of ageing research and potential areas for future PhD study? What are your plans for your next steps during your Master studies and perhaps beyond?

My involvement in the Cologne Graduate School of Aging has deepened my understanding of aging research and has illuminated potential avenues for future PhD study, focusing on understanding and enhancing stem cell function in aging. During my Master studies and beyond, I intend to further explore this area, aiming to contribute to advancements in understanding and potentially intervening in age-related functional decline in stem cells.

4. What advice would you give to future Bachelor graduates who are considering applying for a master's degree and finding a suitable programme? Do you have any advice for students considering applying for the CGA Master Fellowship Programme?

For future Bachelor graduates considering applying for a master's degree, I advise looking for programs that offer opportunities for research, networking, and personal growth. Specifically, for students considering applying for the CGA Master Fellowship Programme, I recommend emphasizing your passion for ageing research and highlighting any relevant experiences or skills. Additionally, be prepared to engage with faculty and peers, as collaboration and actively participating in research are key aspects of successful application for the fellowship.

Daria Wnuk-Lipinski & Lucie Stamm, CGA Alumni Mentoring Programme

The CGA supports its doctoral researchers throughout their PhD. Along the way, one of the most pressing questions is: What comes next? To facilitate this decision and give the doctoral researchers a glimpse into life after the PhD, the CGA offers a mentoring program: CGA alumni  coach current CGA researchers. Daria Wnuk-Lipinski (doctoral researcher of CGA class 2019) and Lucie Stamm (alumni of CGA class 2013, product manager at Miltenyi Biotech) participated in the mentoring. This is what they say about it:

Daria, why did you decide to join the CGA mentoring, and why did you choose Lucie as your mentor?

Daria: I decided to join the CGA mentoring program to gain insights into life after completing my PhD. The program offered a unique opportunity to learn from someone who has walked the path I’m embarking on. I picked Lucie as my mentor because her role as a product manager at Miltenyi Biotech resonated with my interests and career goals. I was eager to learn more about aspects like the role as a product manager at Miltenyi Biotech, the application process, and the company itself. This exploration aimed to help me better understand this career path and find out if it could be a suitable option for my future career steps.

Could you describe your CGA mentoring process? What is different for you now after the mentoring with Lucie?

Daria: The mentoring process involved written interactions and meetings where Lucie shared her experiences, offered guidance, and helped me explore potential career paths. In addition, Lucie also connected me with another colleague in the company who works in a field more closely related to neuroscience. This gave me an additional resource to reach out to for insights. After the mentoring, I feel more confident and informed about my career choices. Lucie’s insights, along with the opportunity to connect with her colleague, have given me a clearer perspective on what to expect and how to prepare for life in industry after my PhD.

Lucie, how did you feel when Daria approached you for the CGA mentoring? Why did you accept to become her mentor?

Lucie: When Daria approached me and asked if I could mentor her, I felt honored. I remember very well how I felt during my PhD project and how valuable tips and insights from more advanced or former PhD students were for me. This is why I was happy to be Daria's mentor.

Not too long ago, you were a doctoral researcher at the CGA. How do you think an alumni mentor could have helped you at that time?

Lucie: When I was a doctoral researcher, I knew well about career options in academia but not so much in industry. What different jobs are out there for biologists and how does the day-to-day business look like? Talking to someone from that field would have helped me to not feel so intimidated and also to start growing a network outside academia.

Do you have any tips for future CGA mentors or mentees who would like to participate in the future?

Daria: Be proactive and open. Take this opportunity to learn about the job market and gain insights from people already working in your field of interest. If you’re unsure about anything, don’t hesitate to ask for help. The mentoring program is a great platform to explore and find a job that truly matches your interests. My goal was to learn, grow, and make informed decisions about your future career path.

Lucie: My advice would be to use every opportunity to connect and to grow your network. Whether as mentee or mentor, it is very helpful to stay well connected with your CGA students because you share so many experiences.

Thank you for your insights, Daria and Lucie!

Carien Niessen, Co-founder and Head of the CGA from 2013 - 2018

What was your original vision for the CGA?

The original vision was to establish a graduate program that provides broad interdisciplinary training on the biology of aging and aging-associated diseases that attracts the best students from different disciplines and different places of the world. Now that I see how the CGA has developed and what has been achieved over the last 10 years, I am really proud and happy that I was able to help with the first steps, set the direction and share my vision.

Looking back, is there a special or funny anecdote about CGA from the early days/years?

One thing I always liked and thought was special and worked from the start was the recruitment week: Students who came from all over the world enjoyed the program and quickly bonded through the PI poster session, the BBQ and the evening social events.

I also enjoyed hearing what the students were doing and what their backgrounds were. Some of them had interesting hobbies, e.g. being a radio presenter and connecting communities, being very good at parcours, or enjoyed other exceptional leisure activities.

Another time, I joined the group of students during the recruitment week for the Dom rooftop tour - it was amazing! However, when we arrived, we found out the lift was out of order, so we had to climb the stairs. It was a struggle, but eventually, we made it to the top, where we enjoyed a magnificent view of the city.

Julia Zielinski & Daniela Morick, CGA Coordinators

Daniela, you started working as a CGA coordinator in 2014, Julia in 2019. Can you share some memories from your past years in the programme?

Daniela and Julia: For us, the most memorable moments with our students are when they start, at the CGA Welcome Days, when we get to meet all these excited, diverse and super interesting people from all over the world. Throughout their PhD projects we have numerous valuable interactions with the students and classes such as individual counseling sessions, networking BBQs or summer parties. Another highlight for us is also the Graduate Symposium, where we have the opportunity to see these same students, now as independent researchers, each with unique talents and stories to share. One class created a custom-made quartet game for us, which consisted of a card for each class member showing off their abilities and superpowers. Not only was it a truly kind gesture but also a really enjoyable game!! Overall, it is always amazing and heartwarming for us to see our graduating class and we are so proud of all our students, especially on THEIR graduation day.

What motivates you most and what do you enjoy most about your job? Have there been times or occasions that you would like to forget?

Daniela and Julia: Well, let's start with the things that can sometimes be really difficult: as coordinators, we sometimes feel like jugglers who have to keep one ball in the air after the other. Not letting one of the balls slip out of our hands is a real challenge and can be overwhelming at times... On the other hand, there are several situations where we can assist and support our students: Moments when people leave our office with a smile on their face, relieved and confident to take their next steps, those moments really show us that our work has meaning and purpose.

Do you think you need specific skills and interests to work as a coordinator in science management? What would you recommend to a student interested in this type of job?

Daniela and Julia: We think it helps not to lose your head when there are several events to organize, a million projects in the pipeline and you have to manage different deadlines with different people at the same time... haha! Knowing the scientific landscape in Germany and Europe also helps a lot, as does staying curious and eager to explore new ways of thinking and learn from other people. In general, it helps to be emphatic, diplomatic, patient and understanding when managing projects with PIs, students and other coordinators. A job in science management, especially as a graduate school coordinator, has many facets and you can be very creative and really use your individual strengths for this kind of work: You need to organize events and manage projects, take care of public relations, support students in organizing their curriculum and also mediate in conflict situations. In addition, it is a good feeling to have a colleague who has your back. We think you can best focus on your strengths and interests by sharing the work, just as we do.

Harshita Kaul, Class of 2019

It's been 4 years since you started your PhD at the CGA. Do you still remember how it felt to start a new life in a new place, city and even country?

The sheer combination of emotions that I went through while starting the new phase of my life felt so alive that I still remember and revel in it today! I was excited about starting a new adventure to unravel the depths of science. There was also the feeling of being the “garlanded heifer”, a poetic term W.H. Auden uses to describe a cow that is decorated and waiting to be sacrificed to the gods. Maybe you know this very feeling? It’s when you have voluntarily signed up for a journey of sacrifice and you know that while the start is exciting, the ride will be rough and tough, and yet, you walk through it with confidence and smiles! My eyes sparkled with the dream of doing great science. Of course, there was a hint of fear and anxiety lurking, wondering “what if this doesn’t work out?”. Leaving my comfort zone and getting used to a whole new culture was also unsettling. For example, my typical Indian nods used to confuse people who weren't sure if I agreed with them or disagreed! In the midst of all these emotions, what was grounding was the realization that people were basically nice - they're just different and have different ways of expressing themselves. CGA's support system was a big grounding force since I had so many more colleagues and friends who were all going through the same experiences.

You must have experienced a lot over the past few years: Would you like to share some funny moments, some hiccups or lessons learned?

Yes, absolutely! For me, the funniest moments were when I very confidently said “I think I am doing this experiment for the last time!” … And then I kept doing it over and over and over… Also, I ended up laughing about working with fat tissue – that squishy jelly mass would randomly fly out of tubes during homogenization and stick to me! Bloopers like these have plagued my PhD!

For me, the PhD journey has been as much about philosophy as it has been about science. What I learned was to let go of expectations and let the project lead the way instead of me dictating what it should be. In the end, I must humbly admit, I had a very fulfilling experience during my PhD. The thing that worked for me was adaptability to failure and strategizing at every step to brighten the small light that showed up. Usually, the results were completely different from what I expected, but at each step, I found something new to chase. Interesting discoveries came our way when I did that fearlessly, without losing sight of the bigger picture. In the end, I can testify that science responds once you've tried everything you can and have not given up. I basked in this purity of scientific justice when all the dots got connected in the end, almost magically. To make sure that I stuck on until the end, having a Plan A, Plan B,… and Plan Z always helped. I believe that a PhD can break you to the core, until you only have upwards and onwards to go. It definitely takes its toll on your psyche and then again moulds you into a balanced state. Ultimately, a PhD can also be a beautiful saga about embracing light and darkness alike!

Now you are about to graduate: congratulations! What are the next steps for you, do you have any plans? Also, if you had to start your PhD all over again, knowing what you know now: What would you do differently? What advice would you give to new PhD students, sharing your "almost-graduate wisdom"?

For the next phase of my life, I'd like to work in public health and policy design, something that combines my scientific passion and community-based work. It's my dream to be able to engage with grassroots health issues and develop human-centric solutions.

In all honesty, I wouldn't change anything about how my PhD journey turned out. Looking back, it was a fairly balanced PhD journey for me, with a genuine acceptance that lows and disappointments are a very integral part of the process. Finding your individual work-life balance is definitely something I would advise new PhD students. Exploring the diverse aspects of your personality helps maintain sanity. In some cases, it's hard to maintain a "balance" and I believe it's also okay to give your all to one or the other, as long as the tough phase is followed by a rejuvenation phase.  Work-life integration can work great too. At least it worked well for me and helped me maximize my output from any activity or experiment.

As a PhD student, I think it's important to acknowledge and "feel" all the feelings that come up during your journey - no matter how intense these emotions are. Awareness about the fact that there will be unhappy moments can prepare you to face it with strength and to stay as detached as possible, while keeping the ball rolling. And I must mention, this learning is an iterative process and it can take multiple trials to get ingrained into your system. A very relevant piece of advice I want to share is to remember that our PIs are humans too. I have seen a lot of PhD students struggle because they are affected by the behavior of the PIs. Letting go of the expectations of how your PI should behave goes a long way. Being compassionate and honest with them and accepting them with their flaws helps maintain a detached and elegant demeanor. I know this isn't talked about openly a lot and it might be an unpopular view. But this detached outlook allowed me to appreciate people for who they are, set healthy and professional boundaries, and maximize the output of our interactions, all while maintaining empathy and love. I find this particular piece of "almost graduate wisdom" the most relevant to keep in mind during the tough PhD times. Ultimately, the PhD journey is about managing our emotions and aligning with a balanced and better version of ourselves vis-à-vis science! Realizing this was a great highlight of my PhD.