“Freedom comes with responsibility” – Career path of Qiaolin Deng

Name: Qiaolin Deng
Did PhD at: Karolinska Institutet, Sweden
Current position: Associate professor at Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, KI
Interviewed by: Alexandra Jurczak

It’s a gloomy February afternoon when I head towards Biomedicum cafeteria to meet Qiaolin Deng. As much as I feel tired with the short days and lack of sunshine I am soon to be positively charged with the energy that beams from my interviewee. Qiaolin greets me with a warm smile and sparkling eyes. It’s a very exciting time in her career.

Just before Christmas Qiaolin Deng has been awarded one of the most prestigious Swedish grants – the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation Fellowship. The five-year grant will allow her to continue her groundbreaking research on the biological function of germ cells. In her work she aims to understand how environmental factors can affect the maturation of these cells and why does this process sometimes goes wrong and result in germ cell tumors. “Wallenberg Fellowship comes in good time and allows me to be more daring to do risky projects in the upcoming years” she says. But Qiaolin has been extremely successful with the funding since her early post-doc years. With starting grants from both the Swedish Research Council (VR) and Swedish Society for Medical Research (SSMF) she has established her lab in 2015, just 5 years after receiving her PhD in the Department of Cell and Molecular Biology (CMB) here at KI.

PhD hardships

After completing her medical school in China, Qiaolin came to Sweden where she trained in stem cell and developmental biology, which at that time was an upfront research area receiving a lot of attention and funding. Looking at Qiaolins career and more than 20 publications, some of them published in high-ranking journals like Science, Nature medicine, Nature Biotechnology and Cell I am surprised to hear that she had doubts about pursuing a research career. “At the beginning of my PhD studies, I was very fortunate to have an exciting project during which I discovered a transcription factor essential for the development of midbrain dopamine neurons. But at the end of my PhD I felt burned out. I had spent two years creating a conditional mouse line, which resulted in a very mild phenotype and that was extremely discouraging.” As much as she wanted to try microarray, a novel genome-wide approach to understand the phenotype of the mouse, due to PI’s concern she ended up running tedious immunostainings that only allowed studying few marker genes at a time. “I felt that my daily work was just repetition and I lost my passion for science. Meanwhile, I also started to doubt if I have the right qualities to become a good scientist since I was lacking confidence in writing and giving talks. Therefore, I felt that I was not able to compete with others”. Qiaolin admits that at that time PhD students didn’t have a mentor as it is required now at KI and she had to look for advice among her lab mates and postdocs. Luckily enough, her passion for science was soon reignited when she met Rickard Sandberg who just came back from MIT and was establishing his lab at Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. He introduced Qiaolin to single-cell RNA-sequencing. “I knew that if I wanted to continue in science I had to learn tools to study global regulation of gene expression in embryonic development. This is what truly fascinated me and I thought single-cell sequencing was the revolutionary method”.

Time of constant progress

Qiaolin talks about her time as a post-doc with a big smile on her face. “I couldn’t be happier as a post doc as every day I was learning something new and making progress”. Apart from gaining research experience Qiaolin was also applying for grants that would cover her salary. “My advice, if you decide to do a postdoc, is to start applying for your own funding as soon as possible. This is the time when you can get most input and advice from your PI about your application as you both share the mutual benefit in receiving the funding. Later on when you want to become independent you are on your own”. During her postdoc Qiaolin worked hard also on developing skills that she believes are indispensable in future scientific career. “Once you commit to academic career, you need to be diligent and put your whole heart into it; reach-out to people to get inspired and stay open-minded.” But the key to success according to Qiaolin lies in the way you handle failure. “You will be facing rejection all the time, either from funding agencies or publishers. It will feel like a slap in the face but you need to get used to it. Don’t take it personally and never doubt yourself or your work, instead take the feedback, pep up yourself and try again.”

Enjoying the freedom

Qiaolin has been a PI for six years now and although she still experiences imposter syndrome from time to time, the funding made her much more confident and positive about the future. When I ask her what does she enjoy most about being a PI she says: “The freedom of making decisions in general. I can decide what kind of research I want to do but I can also allow myself to have good and bad days and stay at home if I need to recharge”. But being a PI also comes with challenges like hiring the right people. “During these years I have learned that the most important thing is to build the relationship with your team, feel that you can trust their work and also make sure that they get along with each other, otherwise you waste a lot of time and energy solving conflicts. You can teach someone the technique but you cannot change a person”.

At the end of our talk I ask Qiaolin about advice she would give to PhD students who hesitate about the career path they should choose after graduating. “If you feel you have ideas that you want to implement in science, go ahead and apply for a postdoc. Despite you may not end up becoming a PI, you still learn transferable skills through writing grants, supervising students and running projects independently. It will allow you to explore new knowledge and reflect on your choice, you will never waste what you learn”.


Photo: Provided by subject, used with subject’s permission.

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!


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