Spotlight on FMIers: the PhD reps

One of the missions of the FMI is to offer talented young scientists from all over the world the opportunity to engage in cutting-edge research and become future leaders in academia, industry and other sectors. The FMI’s PhD candidate body is represented by six representatives, who serve as a general voice for doctoral researchers. We spoke to the current PhD reps to learn about their work and activities — and what they enjoy the most about their role.

What is a PhD rep and how are they elected?
Romane Lyautey: PhD reps represent and support FMI’s PhD students, and work towards improving the social and scientific environment at the institute. There are elections about every year and PhD students can nominate themselves to become a PhD rep. There are six positions available and students vote for their representatives.

What are the key responsibilities of PhD reps?
Manu Halvagal: We meet with the FMI’s Scientific Advisory Board and with the director’s board. We also try to help build the PhD community: we organize lots of activities such as the PhD retreat and career events. We have a budget and we get to decide what is the best use of it. We’re also in contact with other institutes to organize shared events.

How do you support PhD students?
Carolin Warnecke: We act as a bridge between the students and the institute’s leadership. For example, last year we mentioned that when the canteen closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing construction work in the Rosental campus, PhD students had limited possibilities to get a hot lunch. The FMI’s leadership took this very seriously and now we have access to subsidized, take-away lunch on site at the Biopark Rosental Kiosk. This is a good example of how we relay students’ needs to the leadership of the institute.

Last year, PhD reps set up a workspace on Slack called Life@FMI to promote social activities and sport groups. Tell us more about it.
Alexandra Bendel: We thought it would be a cool idea to have a Slack channel as a spontaneous, informal way of interacting and connecting FMIers with similar interests.
Carolin Warnecke: The Slack channel may be useful for new PhD students to become aware of social events or activities happening at the FMI and beyond.

How do you work as a team and with others at the FMI?
Adwait Salvi: We are in constant contact with each other on Slack and we meet in person when we have to finalize something, for example the logistics of the PhD retreat.
Alexandra Bendel: We also meet about twice a year with the director’s board, which represents Dirk Schuebeler in front of us. We discuss what we’re up to and any issues that need to be brought to the director, such as for example the canteen situation. From time to time, we meet with [Guidance Counsellor] Piera Cicchetti. Since this year, we also meet with Dirk, because he feels it’s important to talk to us directly. One reason why our activities are running so smoothly is because the collaboration with the leadership and administration is excellent — they’re always super nice and helpful.

Every second year, PhD reps organize a PhD retreat. Tell us more about it.
Sucheta Ghosh: This year, the PhD retreat took place in Dijon, France, over three days. About 40 PhD students participated and they all gave a short presentation about their research. We had workshops on communication styles, interview preparation and storytelling, as well as scientific talks from both academic and industry researchers. We also did lots of social activities, including hikes and a wine-tasting event. The retreat really fostered interaction among students: those who, like me, started their PhD during the pandemic got to know a lot of people. It was also great to organize such a large event together with the many PhD students who helped us.
Carolin Warnecke: It’s amazing how the retreat brought our PhD community together.

In collaboration with other life science institutes in Basel, you also organize the "All institutes career event". Tell us more about it.
Alexandra Bendel: I’ve been helping to organize this event for two years now. The idea is to invite professionals with backgrounds in biology and career paths in non-academic fields — from management in industry to science communication. During the event, they tell the students about their work and career paths, and then there are discussion rounds. At the end of the day, we have an apéro to help participants build their network.

How can other students get involved in your activities?
Adwait Salvi: If someone has an idea, for example for a seminar, or wants to help organize an event, they can reach out in person or send us an email. For example, students can propose to invite an external speaker to the FMI, and we can help with paying for their travels.
Carolin Warnecke: Also, it would be great if other students could give us feedback on what we do.

What do you like the most about being a PhD rep?
Romane Lyautey: I enjoy organizing events and meeting with people: it helps me to get out of my comfort zone.
Alexandra Bendel: I like learning more about the organization of the institute and the kind of stuff that I’ll be confronted with when I’ll be higher up in my career.
Sucheta Ghosh: I enjoy teamwork, and attending meetings and planning events helps me to hone my organizational skills.
Adwait Salvi: I’ve also picked up new skills, such as how to tackle challenges as a group.
Manu Halvagal: Having a tight-knit scientific community at the FMI is really important, and I feel we can contribute to build this community — at least for PhD students of our generation.
Carolin Warnecke: We have a cool opportunity to shape the environment at the FMI and give PhD students a voice — I really like that.

To learn more about the FMI PhD and MD-PhD programs, visit­on-careers­/programs/

About the PhD reps

"We have a cool opportunity to shape the environment at the FMI and give PhD students a voice — I really like that."