🕒 12 min
In this month’s Presenting alumni section, we are welcoming Jelena Tica, an inspiring molecular biologist, scientist, traveler. Starting October 1st, she will be working for Johnson & Johnson, on clinical trials testing the Janssen Ad26.CoV2.S COVID-19 Vaccine. Besides her exciting career path, we will also look back at Jelena’s experience as S3 project leader and organizer.
Jelena, welcome, and thank you for taking your time to do this interview. Firstly, could you help our readers get to know you by introducing yourself?
Currently, I am making up excuses to see people because as an extrovert I miss human interactions weakened due to the pandemic. Other than that, I am in the process of packing and moving since I will soon relocate from Belgium to Heidelberg, Germany. From October 1st, I will be reunited with my partner in Germany since my new job will be home-office based and I will be working with the team mostly based in Belgium. In my spare time, you can find me barbequing on the riverside, trying to run/do sports, reading a fantasy or Sci-Fi book as an escape from reality or can’t find me at all because I’m travelling.
Education: Molecular and Computational Biology VS Junk DNA and mobility of the thumb
Was there a specific event that made you choose molecular biology for BSc, or have you always been interested in biology?
My fascination with nature dates back to childhood, and I have always been gravitating to biology. As a kid, I would love watching documentaries and just mixing up random things around the house to see what will happen. The first time I got introduced to genetics in high school, I remember instantly running to my mum and telling her exactly that was what I wanted to do! The lessons that inspired me were about the Philadelphia chromosome and Cri du chat syndrome, both being genetic disorders. Since then, whenever somebody asked me what I will study, the choice was molecular biology. Besides biology, I was also curious about mathematics and medicine, so molecular biology seemed to be a perfect combination of all my interests. Later during my studies, my fields of interest narrowed down to virology, cancer biology, genetics and computational biology.
- High school: 2001-2005, Gymnasium Jurja Barakovića, Natural Sciences and Mathematics secondary school, Zadar, Croatia
- BSc in Molecular Biology: 2005-2008, University of Zagreb, Faculty of Science, Croatia
- MSc in Molecular Biology: 2008-2011, University of Zagreb, Faculty of Science, Croatia
- PhD in Molecular Biology with specialization in Genetics/Genomics: 2011-2016, Joint PhD degree between EMBL and Heidelberg University, Germany
- Postdoctoral researcher: 2015-2016, group of Dr. Jan O. Korbel (EMBL Heidelberg, Germany) focusing on cancer biology
- GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Vaccines:
- 2016-2018, Associate Scientist, Future Leaders Program, Belgium/Singapore
- 2018-2021, Clinical Research & Development Lead (CRDL) for Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) Vaccine, Belgium
- Janssen pharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson (J&J): October 2021, Study Responsible Scientist for COVID-19 Vaccine, Janssen pharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson, Belgium/Germany
You mentioned computational biology, and that was actually the field of your PhD. Could you tell us more about it?
My PhD came in naturally like it usually does after MScs in natural sciences. Though even then, I saw myself working ultimately in applied sciences, particularly something related to medicine and disease prevention. I obtained my PhD and a postdoc at EMBL (European Molecular Biology Laboratory) in Genome Biology Unit and Heidelberg University in Germany focusing on the project of investigating structural variants in different genomes with computational methods (thesis title: Investigating origin and functional impact of genomic structural variants with next-generation sequencing). We were focusing on sequencing cancer cells of patients with colorectal cancer and pediatric brain tumors (primarily medulloblastoma), but also on genome-wide sequencing of non-human primate species. After parts of programs for recognizing sequences were coded, important mutations/variations in cancer genomes were analyzed, as well as variations of evolutionary interest (if there were any). For example, we were comparing healthy human genomes with those of chimpanzees, orangutans and macaques and if the differences could link to behavioral changes, such as known differences in the mobility of the thumb between primates and humans.
Wow, sounds pretty cool! So, what was your every day like back then?
My daily obligations included lots of coding and collaborating with our colleagues from Germany and the USA. Most of the time I was working on an innovative program for exploring “junk” DNA – highly repetitive heterochromatin sections, poor in genes and scattered throughout the genome, known as well as transposons. As those sequences are repetitive, the sequencer can easily get tricked and skip many repeats because the sequence has already been noted. Our program was developed combining traditionally used short sequences and pioneering long sequences in order to determine the primary structure of “junk” DNA and any accompanying extra DNA that transposon may have had picked and taken to another location by accident (a process known as transduction). Although its name doesn’t refer to it, this DNA is extremely important for finding variations between species, along with discovering unique rearrangements in tumors. The name of the program developed during that time is TIGER (Transduction Inference in GERmline genomes).
From Academia to applied sciences, from GSK to Johnson & Johnson
Usually, after earning a doctorate, researchers pursue a career in science. When did you decide to leave Academia?
Besides being occupied with the computational part of my PhD, I was included in other projects that helped me broaden my knowledge and soft skills. Organizing PhD symposiums got me in touch with managing finances for the first time. I also had a teaching aspect in my extracurricular activities, as I introduced new PhD students to the world of genetics and genomics. By taking part in the organization of the Heidelberg Forum for Young Life Scientists, another opportunity arose – meeting experts from various areas of studying, from physics and artificial intelligence to medicine, getting a chance to collaborate with an interdisciplinary team. Moreover, I developed a range of soft skills and had the possibility to encounter the world outside of Academia which is when the idea of engaging in applied research to solve practical problems, emerged.
What was your first job?
Once I realized that working in the industry was my goal, I sent out approximately 60 job applications in that field! One of them was a two-year Future Leaders Program in a pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) Vaccines located in Belgium, which coincidentally happened to be my first job. It actually consisted of three jobs, the first one is chosen for you based on your affinities, the other two are of your choice.
In the beginning, I was working as a Value Strategy Manager for early/discovery Vaccines projects (before entering pre-clinical research). Briefly, my team and I were determining the value of developing a vaccine for a particular disease based on its epidemiological, medical/clinical, financial and social significance.
After one year, I wanted to explore late-stage development or work on marketed products so I became a Medical Affairs Manager for Respiratory portfolio, and this position was in Singapore. My job was to engage physicians to try our medication as a therapy for their patients with asthma/COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) that were not well controlled on their current therapy. Specifically, I was focusing on a monoclonal antibody for treatment and control of severe asthma, which has fewer side effects than traditionally used corticosteroids and provides better life quality.
Lastly, I went back to Belgium to work as Junior Clinical Research and Development Lead (CRDL) for Older Adult Vaccines, focusing on leading clinical trials for a vaccine against Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) in the older adult population. After this two-year program ended, I continued working on the last project for three more years.
I believe many of our readers aren’t really familiar with job interviews, and you’ve had an unusual one. What was it like at the GSK interview?
Well, typically in industry after going through a selection process, you’ll be having a job interview with a hiring manager and HR (human resources). However, for the Future Leaders Program in GSK, which is a competitive fast-track leadership program, meant to attract talents with no or limited experience, the interviews are conducted in several stages ultimately ending with the Assessment Center. Before the interview itself, a CV and motivational letter were required, followed by aptitude and mathematical tests. Afterwards, I had a telephone conversation with HR, followed by being invited to a two-day Assessment Center (“boot camp”), where twelve of us were invited. During the first day, the accent was on teamwork and getting to know each other through a group assignment. The next day consisted of five different tasks, two of which were group projects, followed by a role-play (for example, simulating an issue between a manager and employee), a presentation on a pharmaceutical product and lastly, there was a classic interview. Altogether, while the time differed from person to person, the whole interviewing process, from the moment I sent my initial application, took approximately six months. All in all, it was a great experience for me and, once again, I knew that was what I wanted to do – work with people, and contribute to society in order to bring medications and vaccines that are needed to improve global health.
No doubt you had an amazing experience. What are you doing now and why did you want to change your previous job?
In a couple of days, starting October 1st, I will be working remotely as a Study Responsible Scientist for COVID-19 Vaccine at Janssen pharmaceutical companies of Johnson & Johnson. My job will be to design the study, its protocol, medical and logistic aspects, define inclusion/exclusion criteria (who can or can’t take part in the study), work on result interpretation and ultimately with regulatory bodies (such as FDA or EMA) to bring the safe and effective vaccine to the market… My main motivation to take this job was my desire to actively contribute to easing the coronavirus pandemic.
Looking back, you had so many amazing experiences, working on interdisciplinary projects and jobs, living in different countries, getting to know several cultures. If you could, would you change anything on that path?
I would not change a thing because it was all a part of getting to know myself and learning what I want to do. Even though I don’t work in Academia anymore, in retrospect, if given a choice, I would absolutely decide to do my PhD again. It might have not been my calling ultimately, but it helped me realize what I love doing now!
Summer School of Science
During your PhD, you took part in S3, in 2014 as a project leader and in 2015 and 2016 as an organizer. How did you join the Summer School?
Unfortunately, I hadn’t been a participant of S3 as a high school student, and I only heard about it later during my studies. One day, on a bus to EMBL in Heidelberg, a mutual colleague introduced me to Matilda Maleš, who was also a Croatian PhD student in the same department as I was. At the time, she was already a participant and a workshop leader at S3. As her PhD project was mainly experimental, and as you know my PhD research was mostly computational, she suggested that the two of us should team up and be project leaders together, combining the two disciplines. And so, we lead the following project together: Exploring the genome architecture with next-generation sequencing for S3++ participants.
Surprising how small the world is. For the following two years, you and Matilda were S3++ organizers. Did you like that experience more than being a project leader?
It was definitely more demanding: in terms of time, responsibility and stress. You have to find reliable project and workshop leaders and lecturers, who should be excellent scientists and motivated to teach young people at the same time. There are problems that need to be solved on the spot and you have to act quickly. For example, we had some quite bizarre situations, such as taking a technician to a hospital for an unexpected head injury or an unexpected peanut allergy that required medical attention.
Although as an organizer you spend less time with the participants than as a project leader, it all compensates by interacting with them after the project work is done for the day. Even before the actual School takes place, the interaction exists through interviews and the selection process. Also, you have to cope with lots of paperwork, from collecting signed parental consents, having contracts for health insurance for each participant, to preparing and printing newsletter booklets. Once again, it comes with great responsibility, especially with respect to finding financial grants – which I have never done before. You start by searching the internet, sending requests, and in that process, you learn a lot. Matilda and I managed to get a grant from Amgen, a biotechnology company that offered funding for science schools. I remember us filling in loads of forms, explaining where and how the money will be spent in detail. Even though we had to reapply, this grant actually lasted for the next couple of years and served the organization as one of the main sources of funding.
In the end, being an organizer is more fun, but at the same time more exhausting. However, I have to emphasize that without the S3 experience, I would not be where I am today, and I do not think I would have had the chance to work as a clinical lead COVID-19 vaccine. S3 pushed me to explore my limits, challenged me in a different way than my academic work and it taught me valuable lessons which still support me in my day-to-day work: patience, empathy, determination and teamwork.
If you come back to S3, in which role would you see yourself?
I would like to be a mentor to young people who need support with their choice of studies or career advice, or to help organizers or project leaders with problems I had struggled with during the Summer School organization.
If I had to choose between being a project leader or an organizer, primarily due to the volume of my work nowadays, I would choose to be a project leader – it would give me a chance to reconnect with young talents and a chance to teach again, which is a very rewarding experience.
As we are closing to the end of this interview, what advice would you give to your 10 years younger self?
Don’t be afraid to dream big and keep trying no matter what!
I am pretty sure that by now you have successfully inspired our readers to explore what they love. Thank you for sharing your story with us, Jelena!
Have a question for Jelena? Ask in the comments section and Jelena will be more than happy to discuss anything with you!