Name: Linnea Eriksson
Did PhD at: Department of Clinical Science and Education, Södersjukhuset,
Current position: Clinical Trial Manager, Diamyd Medical AB
Interviewed by: Urszula Rykaczewska
Her first dream job was to become an archeologist and live the life of Indiana Jones. After realizing, that what she has known from books is not even nearly as exciting as she thought, she wanted to be a veterinarian. Currently, Linnea Eriksson holds a Ph.D. degree in Medical Sciences and works as a Clinical Trial Manager, but all of the above seem to share at least two common features: genuine interest in science and a wish to make a real difference.
Early career and a PhD
As we sit over a cup of tea in the headquarters of Diamyd Medical AB, Linnea comes back to the very beginnings of her professional career with that special sparkle in her eyes, reserved for people who truly love what they do.
‘The idea to study Biomedicine and go into research came very naturally to me, since from high school I was interested in natural sciences, biology and chemistry’. Why diabetes? ‘It was spanned over and connected to so many other disorders, that numerous courses during my studies mentioned. That’s how it attracted my attention.’
She applied for the summer internship at the Department of Clinical Science and Education at Karolinska Institute, where she later stayed to do her master thesis project and eventually also a PhD. It took her 4,5 years to obtain a PhD degree. She admits that it was not an easy time. She had to change supervisors several times and her group was experiencing serious financial struggles.
‘I learned how to be independent quite quickly. I couldn’t rely on my supervisors, because they were constantly changing.’
What she remembers now are those long hours spent in the lab, sometimes with the necessity to stay overnight.
‘Now you are thinking, I would never do it again, but to be honest, it’s something that sticks in your mind and you can recollect it later with some sort of nostalgia’.
She starts to laugh when asked what would she do differently now.
‘I definitely could have been more effective. I could reduce my hours and still get the same results. But I didn’t have my own family, so coming home was not so urgent.’
A PhD shapes who you are
She is convinced, that doing a PhD was a good decision.
‘You finish your studies and you are sure that now you know everything. And then your PhD happens and in the end you are painlessly aware that you know absolutely nothing.’
Despite many struggles, she admits, that her PhD studies shaped her into a person she is now: confident, independent and able to critically review scientific reports.
‘It’s a learning curve. You read a lot and you develop critical thinking. You train your presentation skills and gain more and more confidence while being questioned. Everything has its purpose’.
She compares doing a PhD to childhood and adolescence.
‘In the beginning you rely very much on your supervisors. You believe in everything they say. Then comes the ‘teenager period’, when you do not trust them at all and question everything they say. Finally, you grow up and become aware that maybe they don’t have all of the answers, but you can still benefit from simply talking to them.’
Postdoc on a silver platter
She didn’t plan to continue her scientific career. She got married and for personal reasons didn’t want to leave Sweden.
‘I said to myself: I will not do a postdoc unless someone puts it on a silver platter, give me money, give me a nice group and an interesting project. And I still don’t know how, but everything aligned perfectly.’
Her group received funding for a collaborative project with the Vascular Surgery Group, in which she was actively involved through one of her PhD projects. As a continuation, she was offered a postdoc position. She remembers the transition being relatively smooth, but still full of new challenges.
‘As a PhD student you are protected and secured with money. As a postdoc you have to collaborate, establish your own networks and attract the funding, which is not an easy task.’
Being a supervisor was also a new experience for her.
‘You suddenly have to teach someone else, but it’s amazing how much you learn yourself in the process.’
Her postdoc lasted 2 years and towards the end the question ‘what’s next?’ came back. While on maternity leave, she decided to think it through and make a decision, whether she would like to stay at academia or go to the industry.
Diamyd Clinical AB
She left Karolinska Institute in 2017 and joined Diamyd Clinical AB as Clinical Trial Manager.
‘I was never interested in specific molecular mechanisms and very basic research. For me it was always about the disease and more translational side of research. I wanted to make a real difference for patients.’
She heard about Diamyd from her friend and, since clinical trials fit perfectly with her interests, wanted to give it a try. She recalls, that the company was not at all looking for someone like her at the time, but she sent her CV anyway.
‘I didn’t have any previous experience in the field. I called the responsible person with a question, whether I should even apply with my background. Encouraged, I sent my application and they must have reconsidered who they were looking for, because even though I didn’t check all of the boxes, they hired me.’
She enjoys her work very much. Her company licensed the rights to a molecule discovered at UCLA many years ago and they are currently running clinical trials to test its application in Type 1 diabetes. Although she is not doing hands-on research any more, she feels directly connected to science.
‘Project management is what I do. It’s much more administrative work, since everything has to be in accordance with local and general regulations. But it’s very rewarding to see, that it can directly benefit patients.’
What is most difficult for her? She answers with a smile.
‘Sometimes it can very frustrating, when we want to check something quickly and it’s not possible. I know I could just go to the lab and have a result in an hour, but then I realize: hey, I do not have a lab anymore. Old habits die hard.’
She does not regret leaving academia but she admits it was hard.
‘While you’re in, you feel it’s a safe option. Alternative is so scary and unfamiliar’.
‘Make strategic choices and in advance put yourself in the best possible position. Take courses, collaborate, create networks. If you feel you want to stay, do it. But if not, don’t be afraid to leave. You will be surprised with what you can achieve when challenged.’
Photo: Banner photo by Johan Ohlsson, profile photo by Linnea Eriksson
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 tags #careerportrait, #InsideAcademia and #OutsideAcademia listed below, for a selection of these portraits. Get inspired and learn more about your options for your post-PhD career!