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“We reached our aim to actually connect”

Two PhD candidates organised a symposium at the Faculty of Biology. Here, they tell us how it went and what they learned from the experience.

CIBSS recently grew with the addition of the Barbez, Hartman, and Kleine-Vehn research groups, which also strengthen the plant science community in Freiburg. In March, the molecular plant scientists at the Faculty of Biology held their first symposium. The special thing about it? It was entirely organised by two PhD candidates! Seinab Noura and Sophie Farkas had the idea for such an event and took matters into their own hands. Now the symposium is planned to take place annually, with different research groups taking turns each year.

In this interview with Michal Rössler from CIBSS, the two early career scientists from the research group of Prof. Dr. Jürgen Kleine-Vehn talk about their experiences of organising such an event, and whether they would do it again.

The two PhD candidates Seinab Noura (left) and Sophie Farkas (right), who organised the first Molecular Plant Science Symposium at the Faculy of Biology.

The two of you have just organised quite a big event. Can you tell me more about the event and why you wanted to make it happen?


Seinab: The aim of the Molecular Plant Science Symposium was to bring the community together, especially our peers. Even if we see each other very often in the hallways and during the seminars, there was too little exchange between the different research group members.


Sophie: Seinab and I attended a PhD conference in Prague in September and we wanted to organise something similar. Our plan was to organise an event only for PhD candidates, but there was a lot of interest from group leaders as well. So, we decided on a two-day event: one day only for PhD candidates, and another for everyone in the department.


CIBSS: How did that look like?


Seinab: On the first day, which was only for PhD candidates, we had round-table discussions with guests: group members talked about “Parenting in Science” and how they combine being a parent and a scientist at the same time. Another was about “Fantastic Grants and Where to Find Them” by two postdocs. And we had one discussion on lab organisation and one on how to start your own research group and laboratory.


Sophie: But this was just the first hour of the programme! We also had two poster speed-dating sessions. All presenters had a one-minute elevator-pitch and four minutes to discuss. Then the beeper gave the signal to switch posters – we really wanted this high-paced speed-dating dynamic.


Seinab: The rest of the day we had workshops. The first was about “Addressing Common Communication Issues in Academia” and it was via Zoom. The other workshop was “Communicating with Self-Confidence in Science.” For this, we invited two PhDs from Prague. They organised the conference in September which had inspired us for our event in the first place.


Sophie: The workshops were super nice. Especially during the second, the participants really opened up, and we reached our aim to actually connect.


Seinab: It broke the ice between everybody.


Sophie: The second day was quite straight forward. Every group within the department presented their research and we had another poster session. The keynote talk was held by Cyril Zipfel from Zurich. Afterwards we had a big party – there were 33 pizzas, only two and a half were left.

For such an event, especially with such different programme points that are spread over two days, there are so many things to be considered in advance. Did you know what you signed up for?


Both (laughing): No!


Seinab: We thought it’s going to be difficult… but not that difficult. It is literally exhausting! Especially because we had to organise so much ourselves.


Did you get support?


Sophie: We had two student assistants, Nicolas and Caro, who helped us during the event. They had everything under control while we were chairing the talks. And, especially during the week before the symposium, everyone in our group asked “How can I help you?”, so we got support from our colleagues. Our secretaries, Anja and Brigitte, also helped us navigate the German bureaucracy.


Seinab: Financially, we had support from our sponsors. CIBSS sponsored the keynote talk, the University’s PhD representatives financed the catering. Roth and the Kleine-Vehn research group funded the workshops. Biozym gave the three best poster awards and Eurofins Genomics the lanyards.


What did you yourself gain from the event?


Sophie: That if you need support, you need to ask for it. And I think we had and still have to learn that. We tried to take everything on our shoulders, to prove ourselves that we are capable to do it.


Seinab: Sophie and I really had each other’s back. Organising such an event is difficult, but it is a way to test how capable you are. It was a really nice experience, and it is so great to see that people are happy. It brought us joy to see them enjoy their time.


Would you do it again?


Sophie: Yes!


Seinab: Yes, definitely! Although is was a bit difficult, but it was worth the experience, and it was fun.


Do you have anything planned?


Sophie: Next year, the DOMPS Symposium is planned again – we want to make it a yearly event. It is already clear that another group will take over. We knew that this should be a recurring event, and that the responsibility would always switch between the department’s research groups. This way, we will finish our PhD before the round passes to our group again (laughs).


Seinab: And it will be easier from now on, because a lot of things are already established. For example, the website, the Twitter account and the connection with the sponsors.


How much time did you spend preparing the event?


Sophie: We first discussed the idea in November, but the real work started in January. So, it was about two and a half months. The most hard-working part was the last two weeks. This was when everything came at once. Also, because it was overlapping with the CIBSS Symposium that we attended, which we took a lot of inspiration from. We constantly found things that we also wanted to do. So that was really inspiring – but then it also got really stressful.


How did you split up the tasks? You even set up a website and a Twitter account, prepared your own talk. How did you juggle all that?


Sophie: Well, we did everything together. But we split up some of the tasks so that both of us could do the things they can do best. I did everything informatics-related, created the website, and tried to automate as much as possible.


Seinab: I did the talking, communicating with the workshop coaches, sponsors and secretaries. We also did the catering, which means I had to come very early to brew coffee and we still had to take care of everything in the evening, this made both days very long for us. Besides that, I had a scientific presentation and chaired the sessions. It was exhausting. But knowing that we are there for each other made it way easier.


Did you still work in the laboratory?


Sophie: We still found time to work in the lab, but not in the last two weeks before the symposium.


Seinab: But now, after the event, we are so happy that we can do experiments again and go fully back to our normal life!


And did you reach your aim? To connect everyone?


Seinab: Yes, totally. I think it really made a difference. Today, again, all PhD candidates had a coffee break together. I think it really had a lasting impact on our department.


Sophie: For example, now, if I want to do an experiment, I know which group might have experience with the technique, and I know immediately whom I can ask. And that is one of the things what we wanted to achieve.





Both PhD candidates work in the laboratory of CIBSS member Prof. Dr. Jürgen Kleine-Vehn. His research group investigates signalling mechanisms in roots, with a focus on the plant hormone auxin.