“Think of your professional plans as an iterative process: maybe the first job won't meet all your expectations, but you can get closer to the job of your dreams little by little.”
Nicolas Alcala obtained his PhD in Life Sciences at the Faculty of Biology and Medicine (FBM) at UNIL in 2014. Since 2020, he is a researcher at the International Agency for Research on Cancer / World Health Organization in Lyon.
Thesis title: The Measure and Dynamics of Genetic Diversity in Structured Populations.
GC: Can you introduce yourself in a few words?
NA: I am a researcher at the International Agency for Research on Cancer which is attached to the World Health Organization. I did my Master's degree in an engineering school (INSA) in Lyon, then a PhD in the Department of Ecology and Evolution of the Faculty of Biology and Medicine at UNIL from 2010 to 2014. My thesis focused on the genetic diversity of populations. After obtaining my PhD, I went to Stanford University in California for a postdoc fellowship. I then did a second postdoc from 2017 to 2020 at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon before being hired there as a scientist.
Why did you choose to do a PhD?
During my Master's, I wanted to move towards a doctorate. What stimulated me was the fact that I could go to the frontiers of knowledge and move towards what had been unexplored rather than applying methods that had already been developed and proven, as one can do in an engineering profession. I was sure that I wanted to do a doctorate, but strangely enough I didn't yet know exactly what field I wanted to work in. I told myself that I would find it very difficult to find the same intellectual challenge outside of academic research or outside of a field very close to research - like R&D in some technology companies that do fairly fundamental research.
Did you have a career plan during your PhD?
My thesis supervisor, Professor Séverine Vuilleumier, helped me anticipate my next steps. She explained to me how careers are built. Her guidance opened my eyes to what an academic career is, especially internationally. Before that, I was mainly interested in doing a thesis to do research. My thesis director advised me to think about a postdoc during my thesis and to find a position in a research institution of the highest level in my field. I found my postdoc position one year before the end of my thesis. I knew at that time what was waiting for me after the PhD, but I was not yet very sure about the possibilities after the postdoc.
What are your main missions and how would you describe your role?
As a researcher at the International Agency for Research on Cancer, I work on the genomics of rare cancers, in particular rare lung tumors and pleura cancer. I am mainly interested in the heterogeneity and evolution of tumors: what are the processes that cause some tumors to grow very slowly and be very homogeneous, with cells with very similar morphologies, while some will grow very rapidly and be very heterogeneous. I’m a computational biologist, which means that I use computing tools to process and analyze data and answer biological questions.
What do you like most about this job?
The intellectual satisfaction and public utility of my work. It's a great source of satisfaction to be able to reconcile high-level research, in the latest advances in science, with a field in which I feel useful and where research is produced that is not only fundamental, but also has direct applications.
Tell us about the path that led you to your current position?
I left for a postdoc at Stanford University in 2014. Networking, especially during conferences, was very important in getting this position. My thesis supervisor was very insistent that I present my results and meet other researchers at conferences. It was at a conference in the United States that I met the members of the laboratory where I did my postdoc. I was able to learn about the activities of the laboratory and the possibility of doing a postdoc. I then contacted the person in charge of this laboratory to submit a project for a mobility grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). I didn’t get the funding at the first attempt. The head of the lab nevertheless wanted me to come; he invited me to apply for a scholarship from Stanford University, which I obtained. I was then able to extend my stay thanks to a mobility grant from the SNSF.
After two and a half years of postdoc, my wife and I wanted to come back to Europe and find a place with professional opportunities that suited us both. We were keen to come back to Lyon. I got in touch with people from my network. Among them was Matthieu Foll, who is a former postdoc I had met during my time at the Doctoral School. He recommended I apply to the International Agency for Research on Cancer where he was working. I was hired to do a second postdoc, and then I got the job I currently hold. It has been the informal contacts with people I met during my thesis or postdoc that have allowed me to advance and move on to the next stage of my career.
What advice would you give to a doctoral student or post-doc preparing for the next stage of his or her career?
My first piece of advice is to try to keep in touch with the people you've met during your career and to avoid losing those ties. I felt like I didn't know how to network. But I did it without realizing it. The contacts with people I met during the PhD (for example at the Doctoral School or at conferences) were decisive in the construction of my career path. It is important to take care of your contacts so that the people in our network have a good opinion of you in terms of skills and behaviours. My second piece of advice is to undertake a thorough reflection to understand what interests and motivates you. For my part, I have tried to combine the technical and technological appeal with the usefulness I perceive in what I produce. My last piece of advice is to think of your professional plans as an iterative process: maybe the first job won't meet all your expectations, but you can get closer to the job of your dreams little by little.
Published on 12 April 2021