Vanja Haberle is a computational biologist and a postdoc in the lab of Alex Stark. She works to reveal the secrets of transcriptional gene regulation through mining and integrating high-throughput functional assays and -omics datasets. After seven successful years at the IMP, Vanja is looking for new opportunities to develop her career.
Can you describe the scientific journey that led you to the IMP?
I studied molecular biology in Zagreb, Croatia, where I acquired very broad knowledge in biology and biochemistry. After completing my bachelor’s degree, I did a two-year master’s programme, and during the second year, I specialised in computational biology and bioinformatics. While I was looking for a lab for my master’s thesis, Professor Boris Lenhard offered me an internship in his lab at the University of Bergen in Norway. There, I got to experience a completely different setting and had the opportunity to work on cutting edge genomics projects from the beginning, which I then used for my master’s thesis. During that time, I developed a keen interest in understanding the rules of transcriptional regulation and decided to apply for a PhD position in this purely computational research group.
Two years into my PhD, I moved with the Lenhard group to MRC LMS and Imperial College London. Moving to an environment with a stronger focus on biomedical research gave a new angle to our fundamental research and opened new opportunities for collaboration. Towards the end of my doctoral studies, I read a fascinating paper from the group of Alex Stark at the IMP and decided to invite him to be my PhD thesis examiner. That’s how I met Alex and learned more about the functional genomic approaches that his lab developed to pinpoint the rules of sequence-encoded gene regulation. I was attracted by the innovative approaches, intriguing scientific questions, and an environment of closely collaborating experimental and computational scientists, so I decided to join his group in 2015. I’ve had a very successful postdoctoral experience since then, tackling important questions in regulatory genomics through several collaborative projects.
What do you want to do next?
I’ve been in fundamental research for eleven years now, driven by my own curiosity, pushing the boundaries of knowledge, with only occasional glimpses of translational potential of my results. What I’m starting to miss is an applied context to my research questions and a more immediate impact of my research results. That’s why I'm considering moving to Research and Development in industry, either in a pharmaceutical or a biotechnology company. I could imagine working as a senior computational biologist who leads a team of computational scientists and high-throughput data analysts, and who coordinates computational efforts to leverage large-scale functional and -omics datasets for drug development.
Regarding the location of my next career step, I would like to stay in the DACH area, so either Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. My level of German allows me to have everyday conversations, but for professional communication I would much prefer an English-speaking work environment.
What is your approach to science?
What I learned during these years of fundamental research is how to be critical and sceptical of my own data and results. It’s easy to design your experiments or your analyses in a way that will affirm your hypotheses and fit your story, but that’s not how research should be done. Science is about challenging possible explanations rather than trying to confirm them.
If you were to lead a team, what would be your priorities?
I think establishing good communication and clear information flow within the team needs to be a priority to make sure our work is efficient. Losing important pieces of information through ineffective communication can waste a lot of time. I would also want my team to feel comfortable enough to seek help and advice from their colleagues, and to approach me with whatever questions they may have.
Your next job might entail mentoring more junior employees. In your opinion, what is good mentorship?
During my postdoc I had the opportunity to mentor interns, master’s students, and junior bioinformatics staff. I have learned a lot, but it was certainly outside of my comfort zone and I still want to work on my mentorship skills. What I think is important is to find the right balance between providing enough guidance through concrete and constructive feedback to keep one’s work on track, and giving mentees enough freedom to explore and develop their own ideas to feel that they are making a meaningful contribution. Striking this balance is tricky, because it depends on individual needs and wants. That’s why it’s important to establish good communication from the start, so that you can figure out what your mentees need to reach their full potential.
In your most recent Nature publication on the co-factor dependencies of human enhancers, you collaborated closely with your co-first author Christoph Neumayr, and with a long list of other authors. How important is collaboration to you?
All the projects of my scientific career were collaborations, either within my group, with individuals from other groups and institutes, or within large collaborative consortia. This allowed me to work with scientists from very diverse backgrounds and taught me how to concisely communicate research ideas, analyses, and results. As a computational biologist, I think effective collaboration is crucial, because I rely on people to perform experiments and collect the data that I use, and they rely on me to analyse and interpret their data. I’ve always wanted to be involved in the project conception and the experimental design from the start, to understand the data, to determine the appropriate analysis strategy, and to make sure the experimental setup allows us to address the posed question. Collaboration has been instrumental for the success of all my scientific publications.
What have you learned about yourself during your time at the IMP?
These seven years have been quite eventful, first with the birth of my son, but also with the changes that the Stark Lab has experienced over time. I have learned that I'm a very resilient person and can adapt to challenging circumstances. I’m also very reliable: when I commit to a project, I do it properly and see it through to the end, because that’s how I work.
Published in June 2022.