“Learn by doing and do what you love”

Name: Katja Petzold
Did PhD at: Umeå University
Current position: Associate professor at MBB, Karolinska Institutet
Interviewed by: Joanne Bakker

Katja Petzold, associate professor at Karolinska Institutet, is so enthusiastic about her science, that it is actually hard to talk about her career path as a scientist without discussing what she loves to study: the function and structure of RNA using nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy.

Katja’s mother was a teacher in mathematics and physics. “I was able to be in the physics lab a lot and test things and play around.” Katja already knew she wanted to become a biochemist at the age of 16. “I liked chemistry a lot and biology was interesting. I like to use chemistry to explain biology. Biology itself is a bit too undefined for me, while physics is a bit too theoretical, so biochemistry falls somewhere in between.”

Find the science to fall for
Katja also knew she wanted to be a scientist, but did not find her field until she fell in love with NMR spectroscopy during her master thesis in Umeå, when a guy in the same department offered to help her try out an NMR experiment. “We performed the most simple experiment and that showed us directly what the difference was and explained it, not just that we had a difference but also why. He got me hooked, and I was thinking: well, that’s the method.”

They asked some more detailed questions to another NMR specialist in Umeå, who coincidentally was looking for a PhD student at the time and offered her the position. “He wanted to look at RNA using NMR. It was something completely different and almost no one was doing that.”

Katja finished her PhD in the exact standard amount of time. She laughs when she reveals her secret. “NMR is so well understood, on the quantum physics level, that you do not need to repeat your experiments: the results will be the same if you start with the same parameters. Before we do the actual experiments, we have to think about a lot of things, and after we analyze the results for a long time, but we can do the experiments themselves faster.”

Take the opportunity
During her PhD, she got the chance to try out NMR on many different samples, from cheese to fish to Helicobacter pylori, helping to grow her method development skills. Being the only one in the lab working on RNA, she wanted to learn more about it, so she arranged a postdoc position in Michigan.

While writing grant applications to bring her own money for this position, she first went for a year to South-Africa, where her boyfriend (now husband) did a postdoc. “I only wanted to go if I would have something to do, and luckily, they were looking for someone to build up the NMR facility, because they just got one. In turn, I learned a lot about drug development. I am still collaborating with those people, I loved it there.”

Prove them wrong
Katja has come a long way to get where she is now. “When you see my CV, it looks really good, but there is a lot of disappointment and pain behind that, which is not visible.”
She follows the Nobel Prize website on Facebook, which sometimes has short videos of Nobel Prize winners saying something inspiring. “They always say persistence, persistence, you need to be persistent.”

And if Katja is one thing, it is persistent. Even when she only got into university in the second round of selection, it turned out to be a great Biochemistry program; when her postdoc supervisor went on a sabbatical right after she joined the lab, she managed to start up her project somehow anyway; and when trying to return to Europe and preferably Sweden to open her lab at a time of no available positions (because of changes in funding and recruitment), eventually, Katja could join KI in 2014 as one of the first externally recruited assistant professors. “When people tell you no, just consider that the opinion of this person is no, it doesn’t mean that it is a no overall.”

Katja has found her own way of dealing with failure. “One of the things why I managed to overcome it easily, I only work with things that I like, that I am interested in, even if it is hard. I am so curious, I really want to solve that puzzle. I really want to change the world.”

Surround yourself with the right people
Getting funding for her lab was a challenge in the beginning, as well as finding her place at KI. “I did find people at KI who are interested in sharing, otherwise we would be really isolated, since we are pretty much the only people doing what we are doing. We do collaborate a lot with people from many other universities too.”

But the biggest challenge was perhaps finding good people. “It is not easy, but I was lucky. I had an amazing first postdoc, an amazing first PhD student, I could have had much worse first recruitments.” Interestingly, the lab consists now of only female postdocs, and up until recently, only male PhD students. “It’s funny isn’t it, we make jokes about it in the lab. There is no intention behind it, I do not select for gender at all, but maybe there was a bias in application. A lot of the women have kids, I have a child myself. I think I am very perceptive and supportive about that, and I try to further them how they want and need it.”

Her largest success is again her team. “The people in my lab, how they work is really amazing.” Her lab members come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from a molecular biologist to theoretical physicists, chemists and biologists. “In this way, we can use small, short and good ideas from many different environments. We work with really complicated systems. We like that, and if people ask if we’re crazy, we say yes. If you know enough NMR, there is always a way to do it. We got funding to work on the long-term goal of biological applications, and that is super exciting for me. Life is good as a scientist.”

Want to find out more about the research of Katja Petzold? 
Check out her lab’s website or find her on Twitter.

This career portrait was originally written for the PhD course “Career skills for scientists”, organized every spring by KI Career Service. As explained in the introduction post, all participants in the course interviewed PhD holders with an academic or a non-academic career. Keep an eye on the tag #CareerPortrait for a selection of these portraits. Get inspired and learn more about your options for your post-PhD career!

Photo: Gunnar Ask via KI mediabank
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