Episode #47: Interview with Erik Alexandersson


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DSC_2646In this episode, Tina Persson interviews the associate professor Erik Alexandersson from the  Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp (SLU).

Erik has a background in plant molecular biology, and he is currently studying the interaction between potatoes and pathogens, as well as potato defense mechanisms both in the laboratory and in the field. He is also leading a project on biofortification of cassava. Half of the time Erik is the director of PlantLink – a collaboration between Lund University and SLU created to strengthen plant research in Southern Sweden. For a couple of years, he had also worked as an in-house editor at BioMed Central publisher in London before he decided to come back into the academic career.

Erik will reflect on his career choices and discuss with Tina how the series of life events may lead to the job of your dream and what do you need to sacrifices to get it.

“Dare and make the step, and move between environments, and going between countries. Because, I think, you learn and develop so much from seeing different systems. So if you have the possibilities, do not hesitate. Make a move!”

Dr. Erik Alexandersson

Transcript

Tina: So hello everybody out there in the world! This is Tina Persson, founder of PhD Career Stories. I have a pleasure here today to interview associate professor Erik Alexandersson from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences in Alnarp. Erik is also coordinator for an organisation called PlantLink and I have the pleasure to meet Erik in Gothenburg at a SEB conference. I got very interested in your background, Erik, as you have a mixed background as a researcher, freelancer, editor, and, I know, you’re traveling a lot around the globe, particularly to Africa. But to you now, Erik. Could you, please introduce yourself to our followers?

Erik: Many thanks, Tina, for having me. Yes, I have a bit of a mixed background. I am not sure if I see myself as mixed and so much as a globetrotter, as you introduced me here, but I call myself “molecular biologist” with a great interest in plants, so combination is “molecular plant biologist”. It is something I’ve been interested in already since my undergraduate studies, which I did at Lund University and also at McGill in Montreal, Canada, which was a very important year for me. We might be able to come back to that later. And then went on to do a PhD in Biochemistry at Lund University. Actually, it’s a subject a little bit outside of molecular biology, but still with a clear focus on plants. Sometimes find things you’re really interested in, which might be in other subject areas; a little bit outside of your subject area, you think you’re interested in.  After that, I took a break from academia and went to BioMed Central, which at that time was the biggest open-access publisher in the world. I was based as an in-house editor in London for two years, and after that, I got an opportunity to go back to academia. I got a stipend to do a postdoc at Stellenbosch University in South Africa. So ok, you’re right, I’ve been back and forth a little bit. I should just say, that I did my master project thesis in Denmark as well, so I’ve even been there.

Tina: Thank you. Listening to you, you have been back and forth in academia. Could you talk a little bit about that? What feelings are connected with that? You left academia – why? And then you came back?

Erik: After I did my PhD, I was not a PhD “catastrophe”, if you say so. I was fairly well planned during my PhD time, and I had a good project to work with and great PhD colleagues, so it was not problematic for me to defend my thesis at all. I even had a little bit of time in the end, a bit more time than usually many PhD do, as I realised afterwards, to sit down and write up my thesis. It, maybe, became a bit too thick, and I am not sure how many has that did afterwards, but for me, for my personal level, I think that time was important. I even took a day off every week to sit down and write it, outside of my usual PhD office, and then wrote more intensively during the last bit.  So I had a little bit of time to reflect what to do afterwards, which might be a bit more than usually. So, I started to think and one appealing option for me then was to become an editor, apart of the writing process, I guess. It hasn’t been so difficult for me to write up manuscripts, I realised from the feedback I got from my supervisors. So, even if I’m slightly dyslexic and I am not the best speller in the world, written language is not that complicated for me. So, I decided to look around for open positions. I also applied to completely different positions, more into biochemistry and medical side of  private industry as well, and also other postdocs. At that time, there were lots of postdocs out there, and I got offered a couple of different postdocs, but I took it a bit careful, not to say “yes” too quickly. Then I got invited for an interview in London at BioMed Central, and on the day I got an offer for a postdoc, in which I was fairly interested in, at the same time I got an offer from BioMed Central to go to London. No, I didn’t toss a coin, really. I wanted to try something outside of an academia, so I went for that editorial job in London.

Tina: That’s interesting. As you know, I’m coaching PhD students and I’d say, the biggest mistake you usually do – you’re too quick. And now I heard, that you reflected a lot – you’ve applied for postdocs, you’ve applied for editorial and you made a choice here. Do you remember – you wanted to perform or to try something outside of academia – what feelings were connected to that decision? Did you make any kind of risk analysis of that decision?

Erik: Not too much, to be honest. One thing, which was appealing with editorial job, at least I told myself that at the time, was that I could easily opt out of it and go back again. Of course, I was in a lucky position – I had been successful in a couple of postdoc applications. So in that sense, I thought, it was not too dangerous to try this. Simply, I felt at that time it was a more exciting option, to get outside of the lab because I’ve done quite a lot of pipetting during my PhD studies already, so I thought it was time for something else.

Tina: So if you now look back to the editorial job you did – because that’s the job that obviously many of the PhDs and postdocs would like to do –  if you would help others what skills are necessary to have to like to work as an editor, move into an editorial world.

Erik: I think, you should have general passion for written text and for communication, but I don’t think you have to feel that you have super good skills in it, to be honest. I liked to write and I also liked, or I realised that I always prefer to take science into written text, rather than lectures maybe. I was that throughout my undergraduate studies as well – I liked textbooks quite a lot. Of course, it’s nice with the lectures as well, but for me, it was more private space to take information. So I always found it fascinating that you can communicate – as I realised there are also boundaries, what you can communicate as well in written text – but I also found it fascinating with that way of publishing, and then I liked the whole new concept of open access and digital revolution. It was still actually quite early on, so we’re talking now 2007. You easily forget it’s only ten years ago, but Internet was in another … I mean, Facebook just came out then, social media was really in the infancy, and as was communication in science as well. I was also fascinated about that, that’s another reason I took that.

Tina: Thank you for sharing that, because we’re divided – certain people like to write and read, and then we have people like me – I listen and talk.  Obviously, that’s why I perform podcasts. So, that could maybe be a tip for the followers we have – do you prefer to read or do you prefer to listen? So that’s interesting, how science can appeal PhD students and what PhD students can do that like to talk and go to lectures. Any tips there? What do you think, if you speculate for the future, now for open science? And what you, as an associate professor, need to reach out to the public?

Erik: I think, we have to polish, if I think a bit more broadly for academia research, we should remember that a lot of research goes outside of an academia – sometimes we tend to forget that in academia that. We think we’re the only providers of research in the world, and that’s absolutely not true. Both in private companies and NGOs and whatnot there, it’s also research going on there. So your question now was that?

Tina: Yes, reaching out. You like to read and write, and then we have people who like listen and talk. Do we reach those people in science?

Erik: No, and I thought here is that we definitely need to get better at it from academia side, and we need to polish off those skills, that was my thought. Because today there are more traditional media, they don’t have the resources any longer to have science journalists alive. I think it will be more and more up to us to more directly communicate with the general audience and with other stakeholders in society, and we just need to get better at that. And that is probably more outside of the traditional written media. Definitely, I think, podcasts, for example, will be very important to reach out to new listeners and those who are interested, and other type of media.

Tina: Yeah, I was thinking about social media. We know that fifty percent of the professors today are on social media.

Erik: It is amazing. Is it that much?

Tina: Yeah, fifty percent. How much are you on social media?

Erik: The Plant Link, which is a research network between Lund University and our university, SLU here at Alnarp. I have, I mean, I run that twitter account and also our facebook account. So you can say that… I am, as a person… That is fully enough. (Laughter.) And I have an old account, but that is the problem with the egg, still on Twitter… If that still exists, that symbol. And I am not sure, I have not tweeted the last year probably, from my old accounts. So I am… I really feel that my limit for my interactions on social media

is completely fulfilled through my work with Plant Link. (Laughter.) And, I do, I put all the communication I manage to do outside of my research, there. I put all of my efforts in there.

Tina: Yeah. I would like to go back now because then you performed a postdoc. You decided to go back to academia again. That step, what happened there?

Erik: Yeah, what happened there? Umm, I mean, I enjoyed my life as an editor in London, definitely, and another thing that this also different from academia is that there are, at least within that company, there were many different steps where you could advance, and actually quite quickly. I mean, we are talking about a few months here and you be like in a new position. Or ask for taking over the responsibility for certain journals and so on. There was a flexibility within that private enterprise that I have not seen in academia.
I mean, when someone performs well in a certain position, they could reshuffle quite quickly and I have seen… I think that is a thing I have really learned from that time, that is that people can perform really poorly or really well, and be the same person. It is more a matter of which position or which responsibilities… Or I mean, if taking care about the blog or the podcast, which is now out, they did not have a podcast at that time, but sooner things or in more traditional, yes, taking care about the manuscripts and then reviewing and making sure that the review process of the manuscript went on smoothly.
I mean, the same person performs very differently and in academia, it is difficult in academia in that way, I think, that you cannot shuffle people around. If you start with a master project or a PhD project… I mean, you have to stick to that project. You cannot just jump to completely new questions or change the system so you see. But still, I saw that in the postdoc project, I mean another one, I wrote the application, together with a professor, myself so of course that was something that was close to my heart, so I felt at least a degree of independence, or the ability to actually stear that project to what I wanted to… I felt curious about that area,… and in this case it is systems biology, which was also quite hot around 2008-2009, and still of course very important, but I think it was still a more used term at least at that point, to try to combine different types of molecular biology and make one consensus, a system, out of the whole thing.

So I could steer it into that area because I was curious. In fact, I was an in-house editor working with a journal called BMC Systems Biology at the time, then we got funded as well so I felt that, I mean, I must take this opportunity. And one more thing, I mean, I have a hobby as a wine taster, so this project was in wine systems biology in South Africa. And I mean, I could not say no that. (Laughter.)

Tina: Of course not. Wine taster! So, coming back actually, because we need to make a start to wrap up, but I have a few questions left. And that is, it seems for me when I listen to you and the first time I met you, that you are kind of following your dream. Or are you living your dream?

Erik: Umm, yeah. It is a good question. I mean, I would say I do not plan so much ahead to be honest. And I do not see myself as a person reflecting so much back. Well, I do reflect back, but I do not think so much what type of different options I had. I mean, what would happen if I had taken up that postdoc position for example. When I had the possibility to choose between the postdoc and the editorial job. And I never reflect on that, in that sense. Still, I realise that a lot of the things I did as an undergraduate student, even in high school you do special, what do you call it, a project work in the end, and some of the things I am doing research in today, and working with today, are actually things that I can see I was already interested in and did smaller projects in, at that time. And that is quite fascinating. And I do not know how that happened, to be honest! But I have a project right now, in biofortification, adding nutrients in different ways to cassava, which is a very important staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa. And I know that I wrote a project about that when I was at McGill, in Montreal, but actually did not realise and did not fully remember until I got, I received that grant last year. And then I actually went back and looked and found the title, and yes, it was a project that is actually similar to what I am trying to achieve in that [this current] project.

Tina: Seems to be maybe a lot of unconscious here.

Erik: Yes, somehow. Yeah.

Tina: Unconscious planning.

Erik: Yeah.

Tina: And just back… Today, on a scale 1-10, how much do you have your dream job, do you think?

Erik: Well I definitely have my dream job, I must say. If I want to complicate, we move towards the end here…  I have a dream job on paper, but then of course life in academia is not so golden, always. I mean, you need to find your funding all the time and I am one hundred percent externally, so I need to find my funding both for my own salary and also of course for the PhD students in the project.

Tina: Yes, you have a group, you have a responsibility.

Erik: It is a very small group, I mean right now it is just one PhD student. But still, I mean, that is a very important responsibility. And to be able to find the resources that are needed for that, it is hard work.

Tina: Is that anything… Because I know how you are traveling a lot, particularly to  Africa… We do not have time, then I have to come back and interview you again here, but is there anything that you have sacrificed? Because remembering now, I am a career coach, many of the PhD:s that I am coaching, maybe have a feeling of, you know “I can get everything”. You know, the good job, perfect job in academia, and then I have family and good salary and, yeah, you know Instagram and Facebook life. So if I put it now to you, Erik, is there anything you feel you have sacrificed to have the job you have today?

Erik: Yes, I sacrificed a lot, I think. (Laughter.) On both sides. I mean both in academia and in private life, I would say. I think a lot of people have this picture of themselves, that they are going be really Mr and Mrs Perfect. Which is extremely difficult to achieve, and lucky for me I must say, I never had that dream picture of me, I think, to be able to achieve everything. But still, of course, I need to remind me about this classical good enough. There is sometimes you just have to go for, or sometimes… I dare to say most often even, you have to go for good enough, for because there is simply not enough time for that, to make it perfect or as good as you want it to be. And you need to sacrifice things. And I mean, I am not saying that not even doing this good enough, but just things that you cannot do at all. Unfortunately.

Tina: Priorities.

Erik: Priorities, yeah. And then some things will just be under the threshold, and they have to go away.

Tina: Um, that is it. So, just to wrap up the interview here, Erik, I have one last question and that is the same question I ask everyone. You know, that you share your three most important tips that you have learned so far in your career, to the PhD:s that we have here globally, even from Africa, where I know you visit a lot. The three most important career tips.

Erik: Yes. My three most important tips… The first would be, as we talked about already, is to really follow your passion. Because, we just mentioned this as well, that you need to do some sacrifices. And if you are doing sacrifices you are choosing not to do some things that you would like to do. And then you really need to work with something that you like. I mean, you do not have to really burn for it every day, but in the long run, it is something that makes sense for you, definitely.

The second advice would be to find a daily routine. During my PhD time, I found a very nice balance between doing more theoretical work and reading in the morning, because as a person worked better doing that in the morning and for as much as possible trying to do more practical things when I was more tired in my head. And I sometimes today, actually miss that. I do to little practical work in the lab, I feel. But you have to adjust it, and you can always find, try to find, listen to your own body to find different balances on what you are working with.

And then, finally, of course, to dare and make the step and move between environments and going between countries. Because I think you learn and develop so much from seeing different systems. So if you have the possibilities, do not hesitate. Make a move!

Tina: Yeah, make a move! So thank you very much, Erik. It has been very nice talking with you here. So to the followers here, that was Erik Alexandersson, associate professor at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. Thank you very much!

 

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