Paloma Martzloff

Science as dedication to learning and rigorous scrutiny

Paloma Martzloff is doctoral researcher at the MPI-IE since July 2020. Explore her scientific journey and how she investigates the interactions between mast cells and their support cells in the skin, aiming to understand the fundamentals of mast cell homeostasis. Learn what Paloma loves when being in the lab and what motivated her to represent the interest of other PhD students.

Can you tell us a bit more about your PhD project? What is the central question you're trying to answer?

My PhD project focuses on mast cells, immune cells which are mainly known for their role in allergies and anaphylaxis. Among other tissues, mast cells are found in connective tissues such as the skin. In my project, I want to identify which cell types in the skin maintain mast cells by supplying them with the necessary growth factor. To answer that question, we employ different mouse models to take away the growth factor in one cell type at a time and then analyze its impact on mast cells.

You did a master in immunology? What fascinates you about science and immunology in particular?

I was always fascinated by nature – from childhood on, when I loved observing little animals in the garden. Later, at high school, I got in touch with immunology and immediately loved it. This pushed me to study biology and foster my knowledge in immunology. After completion of my master’s thesis, which I really enjoyed, I began searching for a PhD position in immunology and found that Tim Lämmermann was recruiting. His work, focusing on population dynamics of innate immune cells raised my attention. I was really happy when he offered me a position to work on the interaction of stromal cells with mast cells - that’s what drew me to the institute. My motivation has always been driven by my desire to learn new things. But more generally there are two aspects that I particularly appreciate about doing research. The first is that the primary goal of science is to gain knowledge, which is a noble objective. Although it might sound boring, it's about taking small steps to understand processes, such as how one cell supports another cell's survival. These basics might seem simple, yet they are crucial for modulating cells and, in some cases, altering cell interactions to address diseases. Another aspect I greatly value is the emphasis on critical thinking within the scientific community. It involves rigorous discussion about results, testing hypotheses, and either confirming or rejecting them based on evidence. This process often requires a willingness to change one’s mind or reconsider a hypothesis when results don't align with initial expectations. I appreciate this dynamic of reevaluating and debating findings to explore alternative interpretations. This insistence on critical analysis not only advances our understanding but also ensures a robust exploration of biological systems. The process of thoughtful analysis and learning, together with the exchange of ideas and experiences, fosters a strong sense of belonging within the scientific community.

And when you think about your everyday life in the lab, is there a certain aspect you enjoy the most like a specific technique?

Technique-wise, I love imaging because it provides a lot of information visually, so you can see what you're doing, which I appreciate. Then, from the lab work side, I enjoy different aspects. The first thing is the diversity of the work; you do different steps of work every day and you use different methods throughout your project. You also regularly encounter a new method or analysis tool, and you need to appropriate these techniques. Another aspect I really like about lab work is that it's teamwork. For me, a good research group requires teamwork, helping each other, providing knowledge to someone else, and learning from others.

You are really active as a PhD student representative. And you're also investing quite some time. What is your motivation?

Our batch of doctoral researchers started in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Considerable restrictions prevented us from holding meetings and in-person social gatherings, which I greatly missed. I believe this sentiment was shared widely among my peers. Initially, my motivation was somewhat influenced by the encouragement of those who were already part of the representative team; they simply said, "Just join, and you will see," which made me curious. Once involved, I realized the opportunity to get involved in various aspects like administrative matters, organization of events, meetings,... This motivation evolved to take part in the planning of retreats and social gatherings. Although such activities were impossible in 2020 due to the restrictions, by 2021, we were able to organize a retreat. The joy of finally being able to come together and discuss different topics including work and the stress of lacking social contacts, was immense. Especially for someone new to the city without friends or family nearby, these interactions are crucial.

Advocating for more social interactions was just the beginning. Later on, the advocacy shifted towards ensuring doctoral researchers are considered full employees. Despite having different types of contracts and often being seen as students – which is understandable given our student status – we work as much as any other scientist in the lab. However, there are certain benefits that doctoral researchers miss out on due to these contractual differences or because we're viewed as more junior, needing more mentorship, and not yet seen as full researchers. This has led to discussions on why we shouldn't be eligible for certain benefits. While it's true that the situation for doctoral researchers has improved over the past 20 years, with proper contracts and other advancements, there are still areas that could be enhanced. Addressing issues like bonus payments would help to create a sense of equality, emphasizing that all excellent researchers are valued the same way, regardless of being junior or senior. The idea is that if you're excellent at what you do, your contract type shouldn’t influence the recognition and rewards you receive. This could foster a more inclusive and valued feeling within the PhD community, highlighting that everyone's contributions are important.

As a PhD representative you're involved also in the onboarding of the new PhD student generation. Do you have any advice for them?

One piece of advice I always give is the importance of feeling comfortable with your lab members, including your group leader. It's crucial to feel that you can constructively interact with them and that you understand what you're looking for in terms of mentoring. Group leaders have different styles in shaping projects and mentoring doctoral researchers, so it's essential to find a match for your needs and expectations. Additionally, while having a genuine interest in the project is important, the lab environment should not be overlooked. Students often focus solely on the project, which is certainly important and should be clearly defined – but a challenging environment can make even the best project difficult to endure. Conversely, a project that might not be the most enthralling but is housed within a supportive and positive environment can lead to a much more enjoyable PhD experience and career thereafter. The right environment can make a significant difference in your overall satisfaction and success during and after your PhD. Moreover, one critical aspect is financial stability, specifically having an institute that can afford the materials required for research. We are fortunate in our institute because we have access to a wide range of very expensive materials. This financial capability is crucial for conducting high-quality research, as it ensures that we have the necessary resources to explore, experiment, and innovate without being hindered by budget constraints.

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