After four years in the lab of David Haselbach, Katarina Belačić recently finished her doctoral studies at the IMP. Her career will take a new turn, as she will start working as a scientist for a start-up company in the outskirts of Vienna in Klosterneuburg. She tells us about her project and her transition from academia to industry.
What’s your story?
I grew up in the Croatian countryside, surrounded by nature. I think this is where my love for biology blossomed – my fascination for living things started early. In high school, I had the opportunity to dive into it and discovered the field of molecular biology. What got me hooked is the level of details that you can reach by studying the living world at the smallest scale. I’m also a very practical, systematic, and meticulous person, so science suited my character. I went on to study molecular biology as a bachelor’s and master’s in Zagreb and did my master’s thesis project at the IMP with David Haselbach. I realised very early on that the environment at the IMP and the Vienna BioCenter suited my scientific ambition, so I decided to pursue my PhD here.
What were your first weeks like at the IMP?
They were very exciting, but also – to be honest – very challenging, first because I had never worked in such a big and international scientific environment, and second because I was very new to wet lab work. My time at the IMP taught me that I can achieve more than I initially think myself capable of. My experience is that students here are trained and supported to do things they thought might be impossible. This, in my opinion, is the main driver of outstanding scientific work done here on campus.
What was your main motivation to push through difficult times?
I’m a stubborn person – giving up on something I started is never an option for me [laughs]. It was also important for me to remind myself that my very specific project is part of a bigger picture that contributes to a fascinating field. This always helped me stay motivated. As a scientist, you quickly learn that big discoveries aren’t the product of a six-month project, it’s the accumulation of knowledge from many people and projects.
When you started your PhD, did you already know what would come next?
I had no idea. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to do a PhD, but I loved what I was doing: the dynamic of it, the surprise factor of what I could discover, the focus I needed for these intense four years. Half-way through the PhD, I started considering a career in industry.
You have spent four years in the lab of David Haselbach through the Vienna BioCenter PhD Program. What was your PhD about?
My research topic is in the field of protein degradation. In eukaryotic cells, the proteasome complex represents the main proteolytic machine that degrades regulatory and damaged proteins. So, when the proteasome malfunctions, proteins that are destined for degradation accumulate, and many things go wrong. That kind of dysfunction is associated with neurodegenerative disorders, for instance. In my project, I wanted to understand how cells cope when the proteasome is malfunctioning. I focused my research on the structure and function of a protein that was found to bind the proteasome under these conditions.
What does this protein do to the proteasome?
The proteasome has two states: the ‘substrate accepting’ state, in which it binds proteins that need to be degraded, and the ‘processing’ state, in which it actively degrades proteins into small peptides. We found that this protein stabilises the proteasome in the ‘substrate accepting’ state, indicating that the protein regulates the early stages of protein degradation – it could possibly chaperone the proteasome under harsh cellular conditions, or recruit additional regulatory proteins to help the proteasome degrade certain substrates.
You recently defended your thesis. Have you been job searching yet?
Yes, I started networking through LinkedIn and setting some job alerts. The first challenge was to know what the possibilities are for a PhD graduate. I also had to learn the names of different industry positions and what their roles in the company entail. That’s not something you're familiar with or exposed to in the academic world. I’m also a member of the Austrian Association of Molecular Life Sciences and Biotechnology, which collects advertisements for open positions and offers many opportunities for networking, company visits, and career advancement. It’s a major source of information for early-career life scientists in Austria. The advice I got very early on and want to share with my fellow PhD students: efficient networking is key to landing your next position!
How has the search been so far?
Successful! I knew I wanted to go into research and development. I went to a few interviews to see what different industry jobs entailed. The picture of a job one gets from a job description doesn’t always match the actual job. In the end, I decided I would keep working in the lab – to get a feeling for how things are done in industry before I move in the direction of management positions – and took on a Scientist position in product discovery and development at a start-up company called VALANX Biotech. The company is based at the IST cube, the incubator of the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, and is creating a platform to produce proteins that can be modified to accept specific conjugates reliably. This can be useful for pharmaceutical companies to design reproducible protein drugs. I’m very excited for this new chapter in my life and look forward to new challenges.
Are you the kind of person who projects themselves into the future?
Yes, I am definitely of the planning, constantly re-evaluating type. But it’s not always clear what the future holds. I think that striking a balance is key, because overthinking and overplanning can make you miss interesting opportunities. I am still mostly a planner, but I am also learning to keep an open mind for the unexpected, leaving some room for improvisation when promising opportunities appear on the horizon.
Published in October 2022.