by Chloe Steen, University of Oslo
I have always wanted to go abroad for research. I did not know where, or when, I just knew that I wanted to experience a lab in another country, see how they worked, organized their projects, and their everyday life in the lab. Even though I have international experiences in my education, all of my research experience was from labs in Oslo.
When NORBIS posted that they would award travel grants for research stays abroad to its PhD-students, I immediately jumped on the occasion. One of my co-supervisors, June Myklebust, had previously mentioned Stanford as a possibility, as she had been there as a postdoc herself. We reached out to Ash Alizadeh, an assistant professor who is famous for the seminal paper that first showed how whole-transcriptome analysis can reveal new cancer subtypes, which revolutionized cancer research. This paper was from his PhD, and very strong research has also come from the research group that he leads, with particular emphasis on circulating tumor DNA. He was very positive to have me as a visiting PhD-student, and this was the start of a great collaboration.
Before starting, many logistical details needed to be settled. I applied for funding from NORBIS on the February 15th, 2017 deadline and I was notified that it was granted mid-march. My supervisor Knut Liestøl strongly suggested that I made a pre-visit to Stanford before starting a six-month-long stay. I went there in the end of June, and was there just in time to receive the paperwork I needed from Stanford to apply for a visa interview at the American embassy (the DS-2019). I was also given a Stanford account, and could do all the training required before starting in the lab, so that I could hit the ground running as soon as I got there on September 1st.
When I arrived at Stanford, I was immediately involved in a project studying deconvolution of gene expression profiles in cancer samples. This project was in collaboration with Aaron Newman, a previous postdoc in Ash Alizadeh’s lab, who had recently been made faculty, and co-mentored me during my stay. My first task was to write code for a new bioinformatics tool they were developing. This turned out to be one of my main projects while at Stanford, and I learned a lot from it.
The main challenge was to keep touch with my supervisors in Norway. We managed to have regular Skype meetings, but the time difference with Norway (nine hours) made communication a bit challenging. But as long as you have agreed on a clear plan with your supervisors before leaving Norway, this should not be too much of an issue.
On the other hand, I received very close supervision from my mentors at Stanford. As a full member of the lab at Stanford, I had weekly progress meetings with my mentors, and I participated in the weekly lab meetings, journal clubs, and social events. Two weeks before the end of my stay, I gave a presentation to the research group summarizing my accomplishments during my six months at Stanford.
I was worried going abroad would delay my research, that I would spend time waiting for things, and that settling in a new lab would take some time. It was not the case at all, and it is due to three main reasons.
- The pre-visit a couple of months before helped a lot to get practical matters out of the way. In addition to take care of paper work, I also took advantage of that week to look for housing for September.
- The US is known to have longer work days than Norway. Indeed, my colleagues would rarely leave the lab before 6pm.
- People are very efficient, and won’t keep you waiting. Projects move forward at incredible speed. They have to if you want to do top science.
Overall, I couldn’t be more happy about my experience at Stanford, and I am extremely grateful for the financial support from NORBIS. I recommend anyone who is doing a PhD to consider a stay abroad, and being a member of NORBIS is a great way to make it happen.