In Meet Our Expert you will get to meet the talented people behind Cergentis' success on a personal level. In this interview, Maya reveals how her fascination for regenerative medicine brought her to Northern Europe, speaks honestly about her experience in academia and opens up about some personal hardships. She also discloses the steps she took to better transition to industry and describes some of the most pressing genetic QC challenges in biomedical research!
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I grew up in Mallorca, in the mountains. At the time, we were one of the only English “lot” living there, but it has since become a popular place. I'm the eldest of three kids and our parents put us straight into the Spanish public school system when we were very young, which made blending in very easy. Back then, I was already instinctively playing that role of the big sister. That’s also how I would describe my personality: proactive. I like to initiate and turn ideas into reality. This startup mentality isn’t just limited to professional settings but also applies to social contexts.
It sounds like a multilingual upbringing! Was there one main spoken language within the household?
It depends. My parents moved to Spain in their mid-20s. My mom was an English teacher, and my dad was getting into the hospitality industry (I think!). That impelled him to speak Spanish much more. By the time my mom got pregnant, my dad was already somewhat fluent. So, we normally speak in Spanish with him but would speak in English with our mom. Although she understands it perfectly, we “make fun” of her whenever she speaks Spanish [laughs]. She’d make small mistakes, like misusing the definite articles and such. Since I’ve moved to the Netherlands, I speak English much more with my parents. But to be fair, it also depends on the topic. If I’m talking about Cergentis or my PhD thesis, then I’d do it in English. But if I’m talking about my holidays in Mallorca, then I’ll probably speak in Spanish.
What or who influenced you to study science?
I guess I was the first in my family to get the biology spark! Looking back, I had 2 teachers who particularly influenced me. And my circle of friends at school also really liked biology. By the time I turned 17/18, I really knew that biology was it for me. However, the Balearic Islands are quite small, so their university offerings were very broad. At least, that was the case until 2010.
Funny anecdote, I was actually a bit of a “rebel” at school [laughs]. For instance, whenever teachers would tell us to go out to recess, I would sometimes still roam around the corridors, which wasn’t allowed. But thank God I did that, because on my good friend’s study table, she had printed out a lot of different degrees in Barcelona. I started being nosy and came across biotechnology. There, they had subjects like tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, stem cells, novel vaccines, etc. I immediately found it super cool and decided to pursue that at the University of Barcelona!
From a small village to Barcelona, how big was the change? Was it difficult to adjust?
Still to this day, Barcelona is one of my favorite cities! I think it has a nice vibe! It wasn't that much of a shock for me because we traveled a lot when we were younger, be it to Hong Kong, Beijing, Madrid, Rome or New York. So, I already had a feeling of what big cities are like. Besides, my parents also lived there for a while, and we'd been several times to Barcelona to visit my parents’ friends so I was already familiar with the city. Living there was just so much fun!
At the time, my college mates still lived with their parents. I was the only friend that had her own apartment. So that was super cool because everyone was coming over all the time to get away from their parents! [laughs]
You also went on an exchange during your studies. How did that come about?
After 3.5 years in Barcelona, I thought it would be nice to do the practical part of my bachelor thesis in another country. More specifically, I wanted to find something related to tissue engineering and iPS cells. And northern countries are known to have top-notch research. So, I did my internship at KU Leuven in Belgium. After my graduation, I decided to go back home for a gap year.
Can you tell us more about your gap year?
I got to work as a financial advisor at OVB Allfinanz España. I went into finance because I thought it was important to know how to manage money. Next to that, I also decided to study German because I thought I would end up in Germany for my master’s. During that year, I also did a postgraduate degree in Business Innovation, Management and Biotechnology. So, what initially started off as a “gap” year actually turned out to be very productive! With that said, I knew that I wanted to start a master’s the following year.
Can you tell us about your graduate studies?
During my sabbatical year, I came across a website that lists all the master’s programs in the world. I filtered and was left with KU Leuven, Manchester University and Utrecht University. Because I had already been to Belgium, I removed that option. And because my family is originally from England, I wanted to go for something different. No one in my family had ever been to the Netherlands! The program I ended up enrolling into was called: Regenerative Medicine and Technology. For me, the idea of regenerating organs for humans to overcome heart attacks or brain injuries is just fascinating.
Since the program is jointly offered with Eindhoven University, I got to follow a Biomaterials course there as well. It’s very interesting to learn how scientists are exploring different materials for hip replacement, and to see how biomaterials are being applied in medical settings to support, enhance or replace damaged tissue or a biological function. In the end, I did my major internship at the UMC in the field of maxillofacial bone regeneration and performed my minor internship in Geijsen’s Lab at the Hubrecht Institute.
How did you pick your favorite lab for your PhD? And how was your overall experience?
When I was finishing up my master’s, I asked Niels Geijsen if he could introduce me to different groups. To learn more about the different kinds of research taking place there. I also knew that I wanted to focus either on brain or heart research. Back then, I was already very impressed by the work done in Eva van Rooij's lab. So, when she gave me the opportunity to do my PhD there, I knew the experience would be worth it! Another reason that made me search for a PhD position in the Netherlands was because I had met my current partner during my studies.
However, halfway through my PhD, as with most students, I went through a big dip. On a personal level, I lost my grandfather. Whether you like it or not, if you have an extremely demanding job like a PhD, your personal life will also be affected. But once you’re halfway, you just end up motivating yourself and keep going. The final year was beautiful because I felt like I was becoming an expert in the field! With that said, I felt that the immediate impact of my research was very small. Once I knew that research isn’t what I wanted to do, I started participating in a lot of extracurricular activities. Such as, being involved in the Hubrecht news, which is communication writing. I also followed project management courses on Coursera.
When did you first hear about Cergentis and what caught your attention?
The Hubrecht Institute organizes meetings every Thursday with people from different labs. 3D and 4C were mentioned during one of those talks and Wouter de Laat’s group also had a couple of interviews. So I knew about Cergentis, but I didn’t know about the International Sales Manager vacancy until Allan La (Cergentis' Scientific Content Marketeer) informed me! I was keen to find a role that involved communication. Allan convinced me to visit the office and I think the first person I met was Petra. For me, the most important thing in a job is the people and the company’s mission. When I went through the interviews, I really liked Wietske (Marketing Director) and Martijn (Sales Director) and the team was very friendly! Of course, the technology and the fact that a lot of Cergentis’ customers are pharma companies, was very much in line with my own interest to move closer to processes of getting medicinal products to the market and patients. And here, Cergentis is, literally, doing the genetic quality control of the products that pharmaceutical companies want to get out! It’s really amazing how Cergentis gets a bird’s-eye view of the cell line development work and is in touch with all the top pharmaceutical companies in the world.
What are your responsibilities here?
I started as an International Sales Manager, where I was mainly involved in introductory meetings with potential customers. My role was to listen to what customers need and carefully assess how we could best support them. At Cergentis, we’re not interested in selling just for the sake of selling. Our goal is to generate meaningful data and insights for our customers. A few months later, I slowly transitioned into account management. I currently act as Sales & Account Manager and primarily focus on nurturing good relationships with existing customers. In short, I act as their first point of contact. This role also involves updating our customers on any news and developments, and informing them of any new offerings that might be relevant to their work. Also, I’m primarily focused on cell line development- and cell & gene therapy-related projects.
What are some of the current major genetic QC challenges in cell- and gene therapy?
A huge challenge, in general, appears to be the episomal copies that are related to AAV. Here, customers usually want to know if the presence of plasmid DNA will interfere with TLA analysis and how we will be able to discriminate true genomic integrations from non-integrated ones. For that, we have put in place some strategies that allows enriching for relevant TLA templates only, prior to sequencing. We also often get asked whether our assays can generate meaningful data on bulk transduced (mosaic, heterogeneous) samples, what the sensitivity and specificity of our TLA-based approach is, etc. That’s where it becomes a bit more challenging because it depends on the project and the question(s) you want to solve. Therefore, for our cell & gene therapy-related projects, we typically end up providing even more tailored services based on our customers’ immediate needs.
Can you describe the work culture here?
It’s really nice to be in an environment where you do not get frowned upon for asking naïve questions. The saying “no question is a stupid one”, that’s how you feel at Cergentis. People here are very open. You can easily talk to anyone about anything and everyone is willing to help. At the beginning, I have to admit that I didn’t expect to be able to work right next to the CEO! I actually thought that it was so cool! The fact that there is a flat organizational feeling at Cergentis, helps create a more friendly and open culture.
While you’ve only been here for 7+ months, you’ve already witnessed so many company developments! Can you share with us your personal impressions?
It’s exciting! The recent acquisition by Solvias for instance means that there will be more opportunities! Both on a personal/professional level but also at a company level. We’ll be able to learn new things. That’s also very much in line with the mentality here at Cergentis. Everyone always strives to improve and provide better services for our customers. We pay attention to our customers’ pains and do our best to come up with solutions. Our recent ddPCR offering is a perfect example!
What are your hobbies?
I read a lot of books. I go for runs and enjoy going to the gym. During COVID lockdown, I also did watercolor painting. Though since the restrictions lifted, I stopped doing that. I also like going to the movies and even have an unlimited pass for it. I’m actually a big Avengers and Marvel fan! Besides that, I enjoy traveling, doing digital wine tastings with my brother and sister because they both live abroad. So we like doing that every now and then to catch up and stay in touch.
Our readers do not know but you are also part of the social committee at Cergentis this year!
Like I mentioned in the beginning, I like being proactive. I like to help organize events, help find restaurants for dinner, bring everyone together and help us get to know each other outside of work!