Mehrta Shirzadian is an applied mathematician and a student in the Vienna BioCenter PhD Program, working with Francisco Balzarotti to take super-resolution microscopy to the next level. As the end of her doctoral studies draw near, she is open to work and keen to explore new opportunities in the fields of data analysis and data visualisation. Her goal? Tell scientific stories through art and technology.
How was your path to a PhD?
From a young age, I was very good at maths and received a lot of encouragement to continue my studies in that direction. I enjoyed it and it was easy for me, so I kept following this track. I did my bachelor’s in computer science, and while I was studying, I realised that I enjoyed approaching the world from different points of view, not only from a hard science perspective. I considered studying philosophy, though in the end I went into mathematical modelling, which I see as another way of answering the big questions of life. I’m originally from Iran, and my interest in philosophy, European cinema, and literature has sparked my desire to experience life in Europe, so I started an Erasmus Mundus master’s in mathematical modelling, which allowed me to move around in several European countries. I conducted my master’s research in population genetics, in Vienna. This experience made me want to stay in academia in Vienna, so I applied to the Vienna BioCenter PhD Program.
What does your lab do?
I’m in the lab of Francisco Balzarotti, which is quite unique on campus, as it focuses on the development of super-resolution microscopy. Groups like mine are usually embedded in physics departments and don’t get to experience the application of the technologies they develop. But here at the Vienna BioCenter, there’s a lot of researchers tackling biological questions, so we can team up with them and see our work applied within a very short time. We’re taking super-resolution microscopy to another level of precision, to visualise tiny details inside living cells. This is impossible with any other technique.
What is your PhD project about?
There are many ways to build a super-resolution microscope, but it’s a complex and expensive machine. The goal of my project was to create a catalogue of all the different parameters that need to be considered in this process, and to develop a software to screen more than a hundred possibilities to make an informed decision based on desired functions. This allows you to decide how to adapt the machine before spending lots of money to build it. The algorithm I developed results from a full study of the performance of the machine and can also be used to analyse the data collected with the microscope. We’ve been able to generate images of unprecedented precision, so I’m very excited to see the algorithm used by other researchers.
What are your learning highlights?
It’s hard to summarise all the things I’ve learned building a complete software package – it’s a lot. I’ve expanded my knowledge of programming languages to Python, and I’ve benefited from working alongside biologists, and now I know how to run basic molecular biology techniques in the lab.
I’ve also been a PhD representative for more than a year, so I’ve gained a lot of organisational and community-building skills. I was also involved in organising the VBC PhD Program Symposium, where, in addition to a lot of organisational tasks, I had the opportunity to curate my first art exhibition.
Soft skills shouldn’t be underestimated. Figuring out what I like, what I need, and setting boundaries were crucial steps in my PhD experience.
What’s something you’d like to do in the future?
I have solid expertise in data analysis and data visualisation. I’d like to combine this knowledge with my passion for storytelling and arts in general, extracting the stories that the data were collected to tell. This could be with biological data or other types of data. Data visualisation has a subjective component that I enjoy exploring: the way you tell a story depends on your imagination and your personal signature. I’ve been involved in several media art projects that you can discover on my website. I find the combination of art and technology very inspiring.
What kind of job do you see yourself in?
I imagine working as a data analyst and visualisation specialist for a medium-sized company. The company should be big enough that processes are already set up, but small enough that personal interactions and productive relationships with coworkers are easy to build. I enjoy working alone, but I thrive in collaborations, so working in a team that provides constructive input would be great. I enjoy sharing my work with others, either through supervision or in giving talks, and receiving input from colleagues. Exchanging knowledge with others is something I value very much. I draw inspiration from my work environment and my colleagues.
Interested in Mehrta’s profile? Contact her at mehrta.shirzadian[at]imp.ac.at.