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Meet Our Expert: Irina Sergeeva

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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 these interviews, we discuss about the common challenges our customers face in genetic research and how we strive to support them to the best of our abilities. Besides, we also touch upon life, job responsibilities, career developments, corporate culture, vision and mission, etc. In this pilot interview, dr. Irina Sergeeva (our Scientific Account Manager, responsible for the analysis of all projects related to Genetically Engineered (Animal) Models for both our academic as well as commercial customers) shares her personal story and gives an intimate account of her journey at Cergentis.

 

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m Russian and I came to the Netherlands to do a PhD in Amsterdam. When I arrived, I wasn’t really thinking about the next step. My parents were actually expecting me to come back home at some point. But that never happened. Instead, life happened: I got married, started a family and got 2 kids. Also, when I got the job I like at Cergentis, I ended up staying. So me and my family are quite settled for now.

What motivated you to study biology?
It was kind of a natural step after studying at the Faculty of Biology, at Moscow State University. The question was: whether to do a PhD in Russia or abroad, and not whether to do or not to do science.

At university, I specialized in molecular biology. I like learning about all the biological mechanisms, how a cell works, etc. Everything is so complex and interesting, so there is a lot to learn!

How did you come across Cergentis?
During my PhD, I got to use 4C. As you know, 4C is kind of the “mother” of TLA. So, I got acquainted with the people in Prof. Wouter de Laat’s lab at Hubrecht Institute. With that, I got to meet Petra Klous (Operational Manager) and learn more about the technology itself.
Shortly after, Cergentis was founded and this was truly eye-opening, to see how an entire company could be organized around a single technology, and how it can be used in so many different applications. To me that was like “Wow! That’s so cool! I want to do that!” [laughs].

I invited Wouter to be part of my PhD committee. The day before my defence, I remember being nervous and scared of the questions that he would ask! [laughing] It was very important to me to make a good impression in front of him.

I ended up staying another two years in the same lab right after my PhD. Eventually, after applying for a job at Cergentis, I got invited for an interview by Max van Min (co-founder of Cergentis). It was the first and the only interview with a commercial company I had and it turned out to be a good match.

Can you tell us a little bit more about your transition from academia to a commercial company?
Personally, the transition was a big step. I think this is true for many PhD students, who finish their studies and are thinking about their next step. When I was accepted at Cergentis, it was a big win for myself. It was sort of a confirmation that I could do this transition.

I remember my first days in the lab here [at Cergentis]. Although the lab equipment were exactly the same as in any university lab, the feeling was somehow different, as if I’m standing one step higher.

Can you describe your role at Cergentis?
I have been working here for 4 years now. There has been quite some professional development since, and the transition was also quite smooth. I started full-time in the lab, doing the service projects, processing the samples until the sequencing stage. Then, Max suggested me to learn the analysis to understand how that works. I slowly started getting a few pilot projects as a SAM [Scientific Account Manager]. I always used to say that I didn’t want to give up the lab work, but at some point, there was this realization that I could maybe be more useful with the analytical part.

What do you enjoy most about working at here?

I still find it fascinating that one technology can be used for so many different applications, for example transgenic animal models, cell line development or cell and gene therapy. We can solve quite a lot of different questions with TLA. From academic questions to the ones that big pharma companies have. It’s never boring here! Every day is different and interesting.

And of course, the colleagues also play a big part. And to see that we are rapidly expanding, also gives a good impression that the company is doing well. Which also means that I am doing a good job.

Can you share with us an interesting project that you worked on?
Where to start! It’s difficult to choose, but there is one I can think of, where the feedback actually came in a bit later.

So, we’ve been helping a customer with their cell line development for several years now and would receive, every now and then,  samples from them. Each time, it was exactly the same cell line, which they modified in a specific way. The thing is, because of confidentiality and legal matters, we don’t always know what the end product is. In this case, we read in the newspaper that this cell line was actually used for the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. I wasn’t aware that I was working on the development of vaccines! So that was like: “Wow! That is so rewarding!” [laughing]. Learning about the type of impact of our work, during the project or after, gives a good sense of motivation and excitement.

Based on your experience, what are the biggest challenges that our customers typically face, in particular for projects related to genetically engineered animal models?

I would say there are 2 type of requests from our customers. Sometimes our customers want to develop a new cell line or a mouse line and they want to immediately see if their modifications/transgene are as expected. Other times, our customers already work with a model (animal models, cell cultures, etc.) and they see that something is wrong. They see unexpected phenotype or the system they are employing is not working. In which case, they then turn to our TLA analysis, which helps to check what is happening. In both cases, we can show if everything is correct and help them confirm or reject their hypothesis. An example of what can be challenging is for instance: transgenes integrating in an unexpected genomic location, or a genomic rearrangements occur during integration. Also, deletions of the endogenous genes or an important part of the transgene might happen. Sometimes, we see some unexpected presence of other transgenes too, or even unexpected integration of E.coli sequences! On top of that, many people use our TLA technology to help them design a genotyping assay because they need to genotype the mice and be able to distinguish between the homozygous and heterozygous animals. TLA reveals that in some cases such genotyping assay is not possible due to the nature of transgene integration.

Can you describe the work culture at Cergentis?
It’s very friendly and it feels like a family!
What is nice about Cergentis is the way we help each other. We are a team of about 35 talented, knowledgeable people who are willing to share their expertise. Which is really precious! This is how it should be in a family/team, but is not a given everywhere.

Many of our readers are not aware of this but next to your duties as our SAM, you and Judith Bergboer (our Head of Services) are also responsible for our social activities this year! What made you decide to take on this challenge? And how important (would you say) are these social interactions and activities, especially for a firm that is rapidly growing, like ours?
Actually, I am a bit of an introvert myself and don’t really like to organize these kinds of activities! So I don’t know why I volunteered! [laughing] But I feel that everybody should do it at least once, to experience it. And to make this challenge more fun, my idea was to pick good company and to invite Judith.

For me, those events are important. I think it’s needed for both the current team members and new colleagues that recently joined to become a part of the Cergentis family.

 

 

 

 

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