March 17, 2021

Esther Griesbach: starting in the lab during a pandemic

Spotlight on FMIers is a new series that showcases the lives, work and passions of the institute’s researchers and support staff. In the first interview of the series, Esther Griesbach, a postdoctoral fellow in the group of Jeffrey Chao, tells us about herself, the fascination with RNA and what she learned about embarking on a new research journey in COVID times.

The coronavirus pandemic has been challenging for everyone, but imagine trying to start a new job during this period. In December 2020, as global COVID-19 cases continued to rise, molecular biologist Esther Griesbach moved from Oxford to Basel to join the FMI.

You were born in Germany, grew up in Spain and did a PhD in England before coming to Basel. How was the cultural change when you moved here?
I think I have an advantage, because I did a master’s degree in Molecular and Cellular Biology in Bern, so I knew Switzerland already. I’m happy to be close to the mountains again — I love the endless outdoor sports possibilities of the Alps. In general, I’ve moved so many times that I find it easy to adapt. When I leave a place, I always think that I’m going to miss it a lot — and I do. But moving is so exciting because I get to meet new people and explore a new place. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic I haven’t yet had the chance to meet many people in Basel, but I’ve met my lab-mates and they are all very nice.

Being fluent in four languages must help you to feel at home in most places. Why did you decide to move to Basel?
When I talked to Jeff [Chao] for the first time, we had such an interesting conversation that I thought it would be really cool to come here. I had worked a lot on RNA, but I had never done what they do in Jeff’s lab, which is looking at individual RNAs in a living cell. This meant that I could learn a lot of new things and at the same time apply what I knew already. It was the perfect match. So, I chose Basel mostly because of Jeff, but I’m happy to live in such a beautiful city with a multinational flair.

During your Master’s and PhD, you studied the processing of specific messenger RNAs. When did your fascination with RNA start?
Many people think DNA is the most important thing in the cell. During a molecular biology class at university, I realized that DNA is important, but with DNA only you can't do much. You need RNA to make proteins. I put it like this: if you want to do something — say, build a computer — you have to go to the library to look up how to do it, but you can’t take the book with you; you have to make a copy of it that you can take with you. The cell’s nucleus is like a library where every book is a gene and the RNA is the copy that tells cells how to make proteins. Since I took that molecular biology class, I have always been in love with RNA.

What are the challenges of joining a new research lab during a pandemic?
It’s certainly a weird time to start and it’s sad that you can’t meet up with people. In Jeff’s group, they would always go for lunch together in pre-COVID times. Now, it happens maybe once a week, and we sit far apart, somewhere outside. But we rarely meet up for coffee, and it’s difficult to get to know people and talk about science. In the lab, we always wear a mask and keep the distance. We’re not allowed to be more than a certain number of people in the same room at any given time, but this is not an issue because we are distributed over two lab spaces, and our work involves a lot of data analysis, which people can do from home. At the moment, I’m doing a lot of reading for my main postdoc project; in parallel, I’m working on a side project that a colleague had already started, and this is helping me to learn the new techniques. When I have experiments to do, I work in the lab during the morning and then I go home to do some reading or data analysis.

What approaches are you taking to overcome some of the challenges you face?
I’m the kind of person who asks others to go for coffee, but maybe for someone who is a bit more reserved, it could be harder. For the experiments, I spoke a lot with the colleague who started one of the projects I’m working on, and everyone in the lab is super helpful. I’ve also told my lab-mates that once I come up with my own project, I would like to arrange a meeting with them. Jeff is mostly working from home, so I keep him in the loop by regularly emailing him. You have to be proactive — you cannot assume that you’ll bump into people and talk to them.

What about meeting people outside the lab?
I’ve heard about the new Master Chef series [weekly virtual meetings where FMIers cook together and socialize]. I’ve been busy lately so I never managed to join, but I’m planning to. It’s great that the FMI tries to connect people in these difficult times.

Video conferencing has become a staple of pandemic life. What’s your experience with virtual events?
Now, many seminars and meetings are online, so you can join events that you normally wouldn't be able to attend, which is really nice. Some scientists want virtual conferences to stay after the pandemic, because travelling is expensive and bad for the environment. I also see that, but I think there’s nothing like being at a conference in person. The collaborations I’ve had over the years all started at conferences, where I had the opportunity to meet new people and interact with friends and colleagues during coffee breaks or informal sessions. This just doesn’t happen during virtual meetings, unless you email somebody to arrange a call. It’s so much easier to network during in-person meetings.

The past year has been tough on everyone. What keeps you motivated as a researcher?
I read a lot, I think about what I could do for my new project, and I just find it super interesting — that keeps me going.


A native of Germany, Esther Griesbach grew up in Spain and speaks fluently English, German, Spanish, and Catalan. As a postdoctoral fellow in the Chao group, Esther investigates how messenger RNA molecules, which carry genetic information from the DNA, are transported from the cell’s nucleus to the cytoplasm, where proteins are made. Before joining the FMI, Esther did her PhD in the Proudfoot group at Oxford University, where she studied the processing of messenger RNAs of proteins necessary for the compaction and organization of DNA in the nucleus. When she’s not in the lab imaging RNA molecules, Esther likes to be outdoors — rock climbing, ski touring or taking photos.

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