Staying curious is key to thriving in the lab

Iris de Jong, MD — a PhD candidate and Fulbright scholar — explains why experiencing a wide range of working environments is so beneficial for researchers

By Libby Plummer - July 14, 2021
Iris de Jong in lab
Iris de Jong, MD, is a PhD candidate doing research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Medicine as part of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program.

Lifelong curiosity and a willingness to search for new perspectives are essential traits for a career as a lab researcher, according to Dr Iris de Jong, a PhD candidate with an MD currently working at the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Medicine. As she says:

The greatest asset you can have is knowing what you don't know.

Usually based at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, Iris is currently working in Philadelphia as part of the Fulbright Visiting Scholar Program. As a researcher in the field of liver transplantation, specifically the regeneration of extrahepatic bile ducts from stem cells in the peribiliary glands, Iris combined her PhD with medical studies, completing her MD in 2020.

“Scientists, and especially medical doctors, need to know a lot,” she said. “You have to read a lot — and knowing what you don’t know is really important. This makes you more conscious and eager to learn and ask questions.”

“I think I'm very academically minded — I really love to learn. What mostly drives me is my curiosity. Even when I was a child, I was already very inquisitive, and my parents had to actually set a limit on how many questions I could ask them in a day.”

Iris chose her research specialism after she met her current professor during an honors program that was part of her bachelor’s degree in medicine:

He told us about his research, and I was immediately intrigued by the combination of fundamental research in the lab and how it was applicable to the clinical situation. This really appealed to me.

"Without Fulbright, we would never have been able to travel to the US"

Iris de Jong pathology
Iris de Jong, MD, does research at Penn Medicine as a Visiting Fulbright Scholar.

The onset of the pandemic in early 2020 meant that Iris’s path to work and study in the United States was not an easy one. After a Zoom-based wedding in April 2020, Iris and her husband had planned to go to Philadelphia shortly afterwards for a year as part of the Fulbright program. Inevitably, their departure was postponed due to the Covid crisis, initially for an uncertain period.

After a stressful and uncertain time that involved staying in six different living accommodations, Iris eventually arrived at Penn Medicine in 2021, having received a 6-month extension of her PhD deadline to accommodate the delayed trip. Visas and other paperwork were arranged for Iris and her husband as part of the Fulbright scholarship, along with an appointment at the US Consulate in Amsterdam, which was allowed to go ahead despite others being cancelled due to changing Covid restrictions.

“Without Fulbright, we would never have been able to travel to the US,” she said.

So far, Iris has found lab life in the US to be incredibly rewarding and is particularly enthusiastic about the diversity of backgrounds among her colleagues:

I love the fact that I’m working with a group of people from different backgrounds. We have people that work in bioengineering who have more of a mechanical point of view, and people who are more into cell biology and know everything about cell behavior.

At this point, I’m the only medical doctor in our group, but that gives a lot of different views. I’ve learned a lot from them just by talking and testing the hypotheses that I have, which has been very stimulating.

Outside of the lab, socializing and networking has been limited due to the pandemic, but Iris has still been able to interact with peers in the same department during interdisciplinary meetings.

She also highlights the importance of seeking out good mentors:

I'm really happy with my mentor at the University of Pennsylvania. We connect very well, and most importantly, she always supports me in everything I say. As a young scientist, I don’t always feel comfortable with putting my ideas forward. We have meetings every week in which I present my results and future plans. She’s always open to discuss my hypotheses and encourages me to design experiments to test them. I’ve learned a lot from her already.

Asking for support is an essential part of life in the lab, particularly for early career researchers. Iris admits that when she first started as a researcher, she didn’t have many lab skills. “I managed by asking the right people for help and by reading a lot,” she said. “After you’ve worked in so many different labs, and read so many different articles, you can develop your own approach. But in the beginning, you don't have this context of what is possible.”

Learning to illustrate her research

This commitment to reading and learning has proven useful to Iris in the lab, and also in presenting her work. She’s particularly proud of a “snapshot” she created to accompany her upcoming paper in the Journal of Hepatology, published by Elsevier on behalf of the European Association for the Study of the Liver. The journal publishes infographics to illustrate complex subjects for its readers. Iris explains:

For one of my first publications, I wanted to make a cartoon to support my text, but I didn’t know how. So, I did an online course, trained myself, and practiced a lot so that I could draw it myself in Adobe Illustrator. This snapshot reflects both my creative and academic side, and its content is basically the framework for my thesis. It was accepted by Journal of Hepatology, which is one of the highest impact journals in our field. I am particularly proud of how my self-taught skill facilitated this publication.

Iris de Jong, MD, created this infographic for an upcoming article in the <em>Journal of Hepatology</em>. Click to view the PDF.

Confronting the unexpected

Naturally, life in the lab is not always full of such achievements, sometimes bringing disappointment.

Unfortunately in research, not all plans eventually end in a publication. In my experience, it turns out that sometimes a project just doesn’t work. Whether it’s because of external factors or because the results are not worth pursuing, I find it particularly hard to give up a project, especially when it’s part of a collaboration between labs.

Despite the occasional frustration, Iris is keen to highlight the rewards of gaining experience in different labs around the world and taking advantage of any opportunities or scholarships that are available. She has worked on a collaboration during a 6-month stint in Rome and took on a project with a group in Padua during her medical rotation there.

I learned so much from working in these different environments. It gives you a lot of options for what you can do to solve a problem or how to approach something, so it’s beneficial in developing your own way to do things in research. I actively steered towards going to work in the labs in Rome and Philadelphia, as I think working in different environments is really important if you want a career in research.


Libby Plummer
Written by

Libby Plummer

Written by

Libby Plummer

Libby Plummer is a freelance journalist and copywriter specializing in tech, science and space. Based in London, Libby has nearly two decades of experience working across a wide array of business and consumer publications in print and online, as well as working in several fast-paced newsrooms.

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