Dr. Mihaela Bozukova & Jason Müller: Bioinformatics

Bionformatics is a diverse and exciting field: We chat with CGA PhD candidate Jason Müller (class 2020) and CGA alumni Dr. Mihaela Bozukova (class 2017) about their experiences.

How did your interest in bioinformatics show, when has it started and what did you do to develop your skills during your studies? How did the idea evolve, to combine bioinformatics with ageing research and which role did the CGA play in this?

Mihaela: For my master thesis, I worked in an interdisciplinary research laboratory that combined molecular and computational approaches to tackle epigenetic research questions. This sparked my interest for bioinformatics and led to my decision to pursue an interdisciplinary research project during my PhD. The CGA provided me with the unique opportunity to combine my interests for epigenetics and ageing research and acquire the bioinformatic skills required for addressing my research questions.

Jason: When I enrolled in the bachelor program in biology in 2014, I was not really aware that the field of bioinformatics existed. The point when I switched to bioinformatics was when we were offered enrolling in a specialized degree program with a focus on computational biology during the bachelor in 2016. Since I have always been interested in computer science and was curious about what I would learn, I spontaneously decided for this degree program. During my studies, I participated in iGEM alongside my courses to improve my computational skills. But of course, I also focused on bioinformatics projects during my bachelor and master thesis. At that time, I knew that my interest lay in method development and its application. Ageing research seemed to me to be the ideal interface between the two worlds. On the one hand, we need new tools to analyze the large amounts of data such as transcriptomics or metabolomics data. On the other hand, the knowledge we gain from these analyses is extremely important for our society, since the ageing process affects us all. The CGA enables me to work precisely in this interface.

Mihaela, how did the CGA support you to develop your expertise in the area of data analysis?

Mihaela: Tackling the research question of my main PhD project required both wet- and dry-lab work. Trained as a molecular biologist, I first had to learn the bioinformatics basics to be able to perform the computational analyses myself. In this endeavor, I was in the fortunate position to have the support of both my supervisor Dr. Peter Tessarz and the CGA. The statistics course offered by the CGA provided a solid foundation. Additionally, the CGA travel grant allowed me to participate in bioinformatic courses, where I learned the necessary skills for analyzing the data.

Wet lab or dry lab? Where do you feel most comfortable and why?

Mihaela: Transitioning from wet to dry lab certainly has a steep learning curve. After overcoming this initial hurdle, I now feel very comfortable in front of the computer and do not miss the pipettes. Personally, I enjoy debugging code much more than troubleshooting wet-lab experiments.

Jason: Definitely dry lab. Don't get me wrong, I worked in the wet lab for quite some time, and I enjoyed it at that stage. But since I have a fondness for programming, I knew that my potential lay in the field of bioinformatics. There are just so many things we still need to explore with computational tools, even in existing publicly available data. I feel like the possibilities are endless.

What do you consider the biggest benefit of our interdisciplinary work environment?

Mihaela: The research institutes affiliated with the CGA bring together researchers from a variety of disciplines. This interdisciplinarity creates a creative working environment which is ideal for learning new skills through sharing knowledge among peers. This provides new perspectives and ideas for your research.

Jason: In my opinion, the biggest benefit is the direct exchange between scientists working on different projects. Although COVID-19 had a big impact on our communication, we keep seminars and meetings alive online. However, as I started my PhD during the pandemic, I look forward to the time when you can have a quick chat with other CGA students and colleagues about our work over a coffee.

Jason, in your opinion, what are the advantages performing a bioinformatic project within the context of the CGA? Are you happy with the supervision and career advancement opportunities in this special field?

Jason: I think the CGA offers a unique working environment in ageing research. The biggest advantage is that we have a lot of techniques and expertise on campus to generate a lot of data in the wet lab and then analyze it in the dry lab. It was important to me from the beginning to be in a bioinformatics research group since I was sure I would learn the most there. Therefore, I am very happy with my supervision. I also like the freedom I have in my choice of additional workshops and courses.

Jason, would you recommend bioinformatic researchers to do their PhD at the CGA? What do you consider most special about it?

Jason: I would recommend the CGA program to all bioinformaticians who have a strong interest in interpreting biology through data analysis. I think the number of very different projects and the diversity of data offers something for every researcher interested in ageing research.