Carmen Adriaens is a fourth year PhD student in the lab of Prof. Chris Marine at the Center for Cancer Biology (VIB-KU Leuven) in Belgium. She is currently completing her final year of doctoral research in the lab of Dr. Tom Misteli at the Center for Cancer Research, NCI/NIH in Bethesda, USA. Carmen’s research focuses on a long noncoding RNA that gives rise to a nuclear body called the paraspeckle. We caught up with Carmen to discuss her research, her thoughts on preprints and first experience as a preLighter.
Why did you decide to study biology and pursue a PhD?
My initial choice for biology at university was driven more by a general excitement for how living things worked and how ‘we’ became what we are – how this mix of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen can become growing, self-preserving, reproducing entities. Further on in my studies, the more I studied larger systems and physiology, the more I became fascinated by how all of this worked at a molecular level. And here I am now, studying a specific gene in normal and disease physiology for my PhD!
What do you find the most exciting about doing research?
Of course, I get excited about all the new results I generate, and I love data analysis and statistics. Therefore, I can sometimes be really frustrated with bad statistics in papers, and also with poorly designed experiments, undetailed methods or lack of biological replicates. I firmly believe that both the scientific community and publishing companies have a major responsibility to ensure good practices. But I can also become very happy from reading a paper and seeing how the authors have creatively answered an outstanding question in the field. I love getting filled with ideas when reading such papers, scribbling these ideas down and imagining how some new concepts could be applied to my project.
What is the main question you are currently trying to answer in your PhD?
I am studying the function of a specific nuclear long noncoding RNA. This RNA exists in two non-spliced isoforms, and at the moment I am trying to figure out what the separate roles of these isoforms are. The shorter isoform is very abundant and evolutionarily conserved in mouse and human, whereas the long isoform is the structural component of a nuclear body, the paraspeckle. I am doing experiments both in mouse and human to figure out their different – possibly opposing – roles.
You are now completing the final year of your PhD research in the USA at the NIH. How has this experience been so far?
So far, I really enjoy living here and I love discovering American culture, which is surprisingly different from European culture. I am thankful for having met so many awesome people already and I feel that I am learning a lot! I know that sometimes there is a stigma on US labs for asking (too) much of the researchers, but I love to work hard, and I am definitely not pressured to do so by anybody here. Most people in the lab have families and rich social lives too, which is great. On top of that, the NIH, like many other institutes, is an excellent place to do research.
What is your take on preprints?
I am a very, very big supporter of preprint projects like bioRxiv. Ever since I’ve known about them, I’m getting daily updates and I love to browse through newly published preprints. I like the fact that the research can be assessed purely on content, and not on impact factor or standing of the journal in which it is published. I also like that the stories can be updated with new pieces of data or improved experiments and concepts.
Two years ago, at a lab retreat in France, instead of doing a project update, I made a presentation about preprints, because the people in our lab were not aware of their existence. I showed an example, where a preprint also later got updated and received a spontaneous review from another group. I really loved to see the discussions around the work and I think this is how science is supposed to work. However, I feel that in most cases, preprints are still more of a one-way (author-to-community) communication. But I hope that the more groups pre-publish their papers, the more interactive preprints will become. I also like preprints because of their transparency. This can stimulate people to do their experiments more carefully, because you have all eyes of the community on the work. And of course, they are beneficial to both readers and the authors: the preprint can be cited and new data shared expeditiously.
You have been a very active preLighter so far and have covered a range of topics in your preLight posts. What are your first impressions of the project?
My experience so far has been great, and I have to say that I already learned a lot. Being only a PhD student, I like to receive feedback from the in-house team at The Company of Biologists – it’s a very nice interaction. I also like the community vibe and the fact that so many different people from different fields, geographical regions and backgrounds participate in the project.
Until now, I haven’t had the chance to do much writing during my PhD, so this is a great opportunity for me. I slightly underestimated the time needed to write a preLight, but I am getting better at it and I’ve already tried a couple of different approaches to it. For example, writing the preLight while reading the paper, or writing up the piece only after finishing the paper. It’s a fun game!
‘I like the community vibe and the fact that so many different people from different fields, geographical regions and backgrounds participate in the project.’
Have you interacted with the authors of the preprints that you selected?
Yes, I interacted by email with all authors of the preprints I’ve chosen until now and, so far, the preLights I’ve written have been very well received. Obtaining a full author’s response seems to be a bit more difficult, but at the same time, we’re all busy scientists so I think that’s understandable. I always point out the possibility in my emails though, and hopefully one day I get lucky enough to receive a full author’s reply!
Finally, tell us something about yourself that people might not know about you.
I love to travel by volunteering; this way I can get to know the people better in the places that I visit, and I enjoy being part of a local community. So far, I’ve done volunteering in France, Estonia and Thailand.
Another one: I have a twin sister who is also doing a PhD, and I always read her papers and thesis chapters on mathematical modeling of farm data in dairy cows (if that’s not out of my scope of expertise I don’t know what would be…)