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, Melinda reveals why she decided to come to the Netherlands for her higher education and elaborates on her decision to join Cergentis (back then, a startup) to embark on its exciting journey! Melinda also shares about her recent promotion, how the lab is adapting to our growing customer base to adequately supply the increasing demand and adoption of TLA-based solutions in genetic research, and talks about her beautiful home country, Indonesia!
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Melinda and I come from Malang, Indonesia. I moved to the Netherlands for my bachelor studies at HAN University of Applied Sciences in Nijmegen.
At first, I wasn’t per se interested in science. But the more I studied it, the more I got interested. Actually, both my sister and brother studied business and economics, so I’m kind of the “black sheep” of the family, you can say that [laughs].
How did you decide to come to the Netherlands for your higher education?
There used to be an education fair at my high school in Indonesia. And this university was one of the exhibitors and had a major that I was interested in: Life Sciences. Back in high school, there were 3 choices for specialization: science, social sciences, or language studies. And I was in the science stream. That’s why I wanted to apply and try getting an interview. In the end, I was accepted, and I moved here. It was the English version of the Dutch program and apparently, I was part of the second-generation cohort! In the end, it turned out to be good choice!
Representatives from other universities must have also been present at that fair. What drew you specifically towards Nijmegen and the Netherlands?
Yes, there were other choices [apart from the Netherlands] like Germany, Australia, and Indonesian universities of course. One of the reasons I was interested in the Netherlands was because my sister was already here for her studies. So, I got a “reference check” from her, and she told me that the Netherlands is nice! At that time, science was not developed in Indonesia, so I thought that this opportunity was interesting and decided to try.
Was the thought of moving abroad scary at first?
At first yes. But the things is, that same [university recruitment] agency - that was advertising Dutch higher education - was also selecting students from different cities that were also interested in that same program. So then, I had the chance to meet other fellow students and we became friends! We came here as a group. It was also nice to meet students from other countries when I arrived here!
Can you tell us more about the internships and research experience you had during your studies?
I did a minor internship in virology in Nijmegen, and went to Australia for my major internship to do plant biology research. I did that final internship at the ANU (Australian National University) in Canberra.
Because my study was in life sciences, it was very broad. So, you could pick whatever you wanted/were interested in! Now, I think they offer more specialisations. But at that time, they just made it general.
Once you graduated, what did you decide to do next?
After that major internship, I was also interested in staying in Australia because it was nice! But I needed to graduate back here [in the Netherlands]. Once you graduate here as non-EU citizen, you can get a “Zoekjaar Visa”: a 1-year visa to look for a job. I then looked around and applied for jobs, also in Australia, but eventually ended up getting a job at UMC (University Medical Center) Utrecht, at the Department of Experimental Oncology, in the group of Prof. dr. Rene Medema. So, I moved from Nijmegen to Utrecht, and worked there for about 4 years. That was my first job, and it was fun! I learned a lot.
At some point, my former boss [Rene Medema] was offered a position as Director of Research at NKI (Netherlands Cancer Institute). He moved the whole lab and I eventually decided to join them. After moving to Amsterdam for some time, I later came back to work in Utrecht again [laughs].
When did you become aware of Cergentis?
Because I had been working in academia for a while, I was interested in finding out how it would be to work in a commercial setting. Where the work and science are more directly applicable. There are, of course, a lot of discoveries in academia, and you get to try and experiment with many things which is interesting and nice to do. However, here [at Cergentis], the work we do is directly applicable to our customers’ needs. This direct usability is also a good thing! So then, I was looking around and happened to find Cergentis. I then applied and have been here since!
Can you briefly describe your role at Cergentis for our readers?
I started as a Product Developer/Research Technician, mainly processing samples. So, I do all the lab work. Over time, I started helping Petra (Operational Manager) taking care of the lab, like ordering lab supplies.
I also do chemicals and waste management, which are also important to do for the lab. Recently, in January 2021, I also became Lab Manager.
How did Cergentis and your responsibilities change over time?
In my first week, I actually helped packing the lab and moving everything from the old building to the new one [LSI, Life Sciences Incubator, in Utrecht]! Back then, our team consisted of about 12 people.
It was exciting to join a company that was just starting up. I like the fact that Cergentis is a spin-off of the Hubrecht Institute. I thought it would be a nicer environment to start in: a small semi-research company, that has a specific mission and a focused goal, and where the result is directly applicable to the customers’ needs.
At the time, I was also working on different kinds of optimization for our TLA protocol.
But we now have much more customers, and therefore have more samples to process. About 2 years ago, we bought robots to automate steps in our TLA protocol, in a way that would be more robust and that we could then process more samples. That really helped with handling the bigger flux of incoming samples! We also got an additional sequencer (NextSeq), so that we can process more samples and generate more data. At the same time, we continue optimizing our TLA protocol, to always make it better and more efficient.
At the moment, we are busy preparing for the audit, towards getting accreditation for the ISO17025 certificate.
Do you enjoy having much more colleagues in the team now?
I enjoy it! It’s a good thing that we get more colleagues! That means that the company is doing well and that it is growing. So, it’s also a chance to get to know more people and in a way that’s also a good environment to work in!
Speaking of work culture, can you describe the atmosphere at Cergentis?
In the past, our analysts used to also work half of their time in the lab. Now, because we are growing as a company, they are more focused on the analysis. But we are all still working in the Service team, so we still have meetings together. We still talk and collaborate and work towards the same goal. To deliver the TLA reports to our customers in time. I think we are good at collaboration and have good teamwork here!
I recently found out that Indonesians celebrate Independence Day every year, on the 17th of August. Can you tell us a little bit about what Indonesian people usually do on that day?
It’s an important day where many people gather to celebrate. It’s a national holiday and it’s a good day in a way. If you are attending school, then it’s mandatory to go to the commemoration ceremony. On that day, students need to go to school in the morning, but after the ceremony you can go home. We used to have inter-class competitions on that day! It’s more like a “game-style” competition, which also includes sports, for all ages. In the neighborhood, sometimes you also have your own celebrations.
What do you miss most from home?
Food! And my family of course! [laughs] But because there are many other Indonesians in the Netherlands, Indonesian food is not that difficult to find here. Only certain things are. For example, I like nasi padang, which are like different sorts of dishes that they put together as a meal. It’s like “dim sum” but the Indonesian way and you eat it with rice. The main dish is rendang, which I think is the most popular. It’s like spicy marinated beef, but I can also find it everywhere here.
Besides Bali, what other places would you recommend people to visit in Indonesia?
Well, I’ve been willing to go to Papua! It has nice corrals, beaches, etc. But Indonesia is super big, so traveling [the country] takes some time. In Java or Bali, the transportation is good and well-arranged. But in some other areas, it’s not really that great... If I could go somewhere in Indonesia, that’s where I would want to go! Or the Komodo National Park/island. They also have a nice beach along the ocean! So those are a few places where not too many people go to in Indonesia. But then, even I haven’t been there yet! [laughs]
Did you pick up any hobbies or develop new ones during the COVID lockdown?
During the lockdown, I bought myself a guitar. I could play but not really well. [laughs] I did that for the first 2-month, but then I gave up. [laughs]
I also like to cook! I spend more time cooking in the kitchen lately. I like to cook everything! Before that, I didn’t really have time. Only in the weekend. But because you couldn’t really go anywhere during the lockdown, I just went to the grocery stores instead [laughs]. I would buy anything I wanted and would cook it. If it’s Indonesian food, then it takes a lot of time. But I don’t mind spending time on that!
What are you most looking forward to when borders will re-open?
Going home for sure! Unfortunately, the situation is not great at the moment… so hopefully it will improve soon.