Meet Our Expert is our newest interview series where you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Elaine recounts her life story starting from her younger self, a little Hong Kong girl who traveled halfway around the world to come live in the Netherlands. She shares personal anecdotes including how she overcame the Dutch language barrier from a young age, her love for drawing as well as her fascination for space, meteorology and architecture. Read the full interview to find out how she ended up choosing biomedical sciences for her studies, how Cergentis came across her path and what the company represents to her.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Elaine and I’m from Hong Kong. I came to the Netherlands together with my parents and my sister when I was 11. So, I lived here already for very long! I won’t say how long, because then you will know my age! [laughs] I’m joking. When I came here, I joined elementary school but didn’t speak a word of Dutch. At that time, there was not that much diversity in the Netherlands as now. It almost never happened that a kid didn’t speak Dutch at a standard elementary school. Those were tough times at the beginning for me. Fortunately, I met great kids and amazing teachers at the school. They were really willing to teach me everything!
I started reading kindergarten books, to learn simple sentences and words. So basically, after 2 years at the elementary school, I was ready to go to high school. Still, it was tough! My Dutch-Chinese dictionary was my best friend! [laughs] I had to translate every word first to Chinese to find out what the text said. Then, I would do the test at school. In the end, it turned out fine. Math was never a challenge for me, because in Hong Kong the level was higher. So, that was good. Only things related to language were tough. But I survived! [laughs]
After high school, I went to Utrecht University to study biomedical sciences.
Was science always on your radar since you were little?
Yes, I was always interested in science subjects. From space to animals, I want to know how nature works. That has always been a part of me. Actually, when I was a kid in Hong Kong, I got my first library pass and went to the library when I was 6 years old. I remember the first book I picked, it was something about the biology of bears! About how they live, what they eat, the regions they live in, etc. It’s funny, I always remember that! [laughs] My parents also took me to science museums, like space museums, in Hong Kong. They were really nice! My interest also started there.
Was it difficult to narrow down to a specific science concentration at university?
Well, I have a broad interest, so it was difficult! Actually, at the beginning of high school, I thought I wanted to be an architect. Since I’m interested in all the beta subjects, I picked all the science-related subjects and because I love drawing, I also picked drawing/art as an exam subject.
Maybe I was interested in architecture because I missed Hong Kong. Because the architecture in Hong Kong is well known of course. It is so beautiful! Back then, I thought “maybe I can also design skyscrapers here in the Netherlands!” [laughs]
I also thought about studying meteorology and how the Earth works. That’s also very interesting! But I went to the universities’ Open Days and decided that I wanted to study living things. Finally, I picked biomedical sciences, which turned out to be a really good choice!
After completing your master’s studies, you then moved to Amsterdam for your PhD. Can you tell us about that experience?
Yes, I did my PhD in Amsterdam at the University Medical Center. I worked in the Heart Failure Research Center, focusing on the molecular biology of heart development in Phil Barnett’s lab. More specifically, I studied the molecular biology underlying the development of cardiac conduction. I studied the protein-protein but also DNA-protein interactions important for the regulation of genes that are, in turn, important for the development of the conduction system. So, it is kind of the architecture of the genome. If there are defects in those interactions, these can then result in congenital heart disease with arrhythmias. The main proteins I investigated were T-box factors, which are transcription factors. So, that was my main subject. I also helped set up techniques like ChIP-seq in the lab.
Actually, during my first master’s traineeship, my research was on protein oxidation in endothelial cells. A topic that was then related to cell ageing. After that, I did a traineeship in finding polymorphism in ALS. So first, I did protein research and I thought I had to do something with the genome for the second internship. So, for my PhD studies, I told myself “OK let’s do both!” [laughs] That is, to bring the protein and the genome together, to identify enhancers for example. That is what I like. In the end of course, I got more into insights into embryology and, I also learned a lot about the heart development. I’m really glad I had that experience!
How did you become aware of Cergentis?
Actually, I knew about Cergentis from an old colleague at AMC and that colleague knew that Irina [Scientific Account Manager] got hired by Cergentis. Irina and I were both PhD students in the Heart Failure Research Center. For a while we even shared a bench! [laughs] That colleague also knew that Cergentis had new vacancies back then. Since I had finished my PhD, I contacted Irina again. She was very glad to share her experience with me, about her interviews with Cergentis, and stuff like that. In the end, I also applied and got hired.
What particularly attracted you to Cergentis?
I knew that I wanted to find my future career in a company setting. Not because I don’t like the research at universities, but I wanted to find and do something that would have a more direct effect on people. So that’s what attracted me to Cergentis. Although Irina had just started back then, she could already tell me that it was a totally different organization in the lab [at Cergentis]. That it is very well organized. She was very positive about that, and I wanted to experience that too!
Can you explain to our readers what your current role is at Cergentis?
I’m a project scientist in the Service team. When I started here, I was in the lab full-time. I processed samples with TLA, performed the sequencing, etc. But after a couple of months, Max van Min (co-founder) asked me if I wanted to learn how to do the analysis. I was excited and wanted to learn how to do the entire process, from the start until the end. I really liked the combination of lab work and analysis. So then, 50% of my time I was in the lab and the rest of the time I was writing reports. But the last 1.5 year or so, my tasks and responsibilities shifted more towards analysis. Eventually, I stopped working in the lab because there was more help needed with analysis.
Given the growing adoption of TLA in genetic research, our company has recently witnessed a rapid expansion. How did you personally experience this change, and how did your responsibilities evolve over the years?
This change happened gradually. When the pandemic first started, I also helped in the lab, but it is not my main task anymore. At first, I thought I would really miss it. But I’ve been doing analysis full-time for some time now and I’m also responsible for mapping the sequencing data and performing the first QC step on the data. With my new and current responsibilities, I now feel more like a bridge between the lab and the analysis. And that’s what I like! I’m also involved in the improvements of many topics related to analysis. That’s also very exciting!
We are also automating many things now with the bioinformatics team. I’m glad that I can be part of it because I can also grow in that! I like putting forward new ideas, help improve things, and hopefully translate my ideas into reality. That is actually what I like to do.
After so many years at Cergentis, you must have acquired a lot of expertise not just in terms of TLA itself but also with regards to genetic insights on different cell lines, transgenic (animal) models and various gene editing tools/systems!
Indeed, I’ve been working at Cergentis for 4.5 years now. After all those years, you know certain integration techniques very well. For instance, when a PiggyBac is involved in a project, I know that there will be many integration sites in the genome!
Back then, when I worked in the lab, we got a request from a new customer to analyze yeast samples. We had not done that before, so we had to set that up. That was very very fun to do! Fortunately, I successfully helped optimizing our TLA protocol to analyze yeast samples and the project turned out good. We were not only very happy, but the customer also kept sending us more samples because the yeast-TLA protocol worked so well! That was very rewarding for me, to see that we had not only gained a new, but also a recurring customer after that!
Can you briefly explain how TLA compares to other conventional approaches?
With TLA, we can detect all structural variations and also sequence variations in the vector. Also, within the region of the integration sites, we can detect at base-pair resolution where the vector has integrated in the genome and also, all the structural rearrangements that are caused by the integration. That is what distinguishes TLA from other techniques. TLA is so precise and you can answer so many questions in detail!
Also, we can characterize cell lines, transgenic models, and can also find fusion genes in leukemia patients! So TLA has relevance in cancer diagnostics too. It is truly amazing how TLA can and is so broadly applied! We keep doing new things for our customers and help them as best as we can, if they have genetics-related questions that they are still trying to find answers to.
Can you tell us about the work culture here at Cergentis?
It feels like a second family for me. Really. I’m so grateful that Cergentis has a supportive and flexible culture. For example, all the schools were closed during the pandemic, and I have 2 young kids of school age, as do many colleagues at Cergentis. So, we had to homeschool our kids and work. Of course, both things are important. Cergentis gave us the flexibility to take care of the homeschooling first and understood how important this was.
Also, we had to work from home and therefore did not see our colleagues that often anymore. But when you do get the chance, it is still like old times! It feels like meeting up with old friends! Friends that you can always go back to, and it will always feel the same!
During the lockdown, did you revisit any old hobbies or develop new ones?
I like drawing and try to pick that up. Again, things related to creativity, that is what I like! What I also enjoy, now that it is possible again, is to go on outings with my family. For instance, I take our kids to science museums because I used to go when I was a kid myself and it was so amazing for me!
With the COVID vaccination speeding up, what are you most excited about when borders re-open?
Traveling of course! Without all the restrictions and all the stress. I also hope that the kids won’t get COVID, since they are not vaccinated yet. I also hope that people from other countries, especially the ones that (almost) do not have access to the vaccines yet, will also get the chance to be vaccinated.