Julio César Rendón, Colombia

Sandwich PhD student Universidad de Antioquia & University of Groningen

"You need to be willing to put yourself out of your comfort zone, leaving behind what you know to come here and to take on this new challenge!"

My name is Julio César Rendón and I am from Medellín, Colombia. I am doing a so-called Sandwich PhD, meaning that I carry out my research in two different universities, spending two years in each. I spent the first two years of my PhD in Colombia, and then moved to Groningen in March 2014 to begin my third year here. I am working in epigenetics. Originally I am a biologist, having taken a bachelor in Biology in the Universidad de Antioquia during which I worked with the Hepatitis B virus, and then continuing on in a research masters, where I worked with the Hepatitis E virus.  After this I began my PhD in Colombia working again with the Hepatitis B virus, and right now, here in Groningen, I am trying to discover how the cell can regulate the virus infection using epigenetic mechanisms which is a really new field in HBV study.  It is difficult, but very interesting!

After completing two years of my four year PhD in Colombia I realised that there were some resources that I was not able to access that I needed for the progression of my research. At this point we contacted my now supervisor here, who we knew was working with and specialised in epigenetics, and we worked out that I could in fact continue with my research here in Groningen for the final two years of my PhD studies as part of a sandwich PhD program and with an Abel Tasman Talent Program scholarship. This was a great opportunity as I was able to take the background, the samples and everything I needed in Colombia and then come here to Groningen to carry out the epigentic techniques specifically, and with expert supervision!

As for settling in to the work environment here, I had done both my bachelor and my master studies in Spanish so at the start, while switching to an entirely English-speaking environment, it was nice in my case that there was in fact another Colombian guy in my group who could always help me out and show me where things were in my own language, and in general there are a lot of Latin American students around too, so it was not too difficult getting used to things and getting to know the hospital and how things worked and having people to show me the city too.  Now, after just seven months here, my English has already improved so much and when I talk to my supervisor back in Colombia they really notice it too which is good.

The training system here is also very different; in Colombia I would always plan experiments together with my supervisor whereas here my supervisor wants to see how I get on with things alone first, so instead I am expected to just go ahead with the experiment as I plan it and then come to her with the results, to evaluate it, get her advice on how it could be improved and then have another go. You learn a lot in this way, having to do everything by yourself at first, you have to look up all of the literature yourself that might be relevant, check on the internet for new techniques and protocols etc. You learn to be a more independent researcher.  So in contrast to the Colombian system where you are almost always sure you are on the right path, here you are far more free and sometimes it will go wrong but in the end you will learn a lot through the process.

I have a meeting with my supervisor every week  where we discuss what has happened in the past week, and where if I have problems she can give me some advice. If I have no new results or problems to discuss we can just sit and have a chat about other things as well and I can talk openly and freely about how things are going which is really nice, and in that way she is not only an adviser regarding my research but also acts as a general support, there to offer any help if needed.

It is definitely a very international environment here, with many many different nationalities working together in the labs and so there are lots of  different people to chat to and share experiences with. The fact that I do not yet speak Dutch is also not a problem as everything in the labs takes place in English and even outside of the lab, in my experience, almost everybody is able to speak English so it is easy enough to get by.

The facilities here are really good, there are big laboratories with a lot of resources, a lot of machines, everything in one place, which makes it really easy to work. Also, if there is a particular machine you don’t know how to work you can ask anybody and they will be happy to show you.

In just my second month I was able to go to Copenhagen for a congress on epigenetics which was a great opportunity not only to get to know a new city but also to meet new people also working in the specific field of epigenetics.  As I don’t yet have any of the results of my research it is too early for me to apply to present at a congress but in the near future I hope to attend, for example, the Hepatitis B Virus Meeting and be able to present and share my findings there.

Regarding the future, I feel that eventually I want to go back to Colombia to work, to continue in academia and maybe to get a position in a Colombian university and be able to teach and share what I have learnt, especially as epigenetics is a relatively new topic in Colombia. It is also nice to go back and continue the network that is growing between the two places, being able to share findings and samples and collaborate with each other.

Groningen as a city is very small compared to my home city of Medellín, so it is a big change, but I like it because it allows you to focus on what you need to do! When I arrived it was still during the summer and it was good because it stayed bright for so long that I could just stay working until late in the evening. Then, later on as I began to know a lot of people, and the Colombian community itself is huge here, every weekend there would be different parties or things happening in different people’s houses so there was always a plan!  Also there is ALAS, the Association of Latin American Students, which is good for getting to know new people and making new contacts with either people from your home city or people from other countries. There are also non-Latin American students who come along to learn or pratice their Spanish or sometimes because they just like the culture and of course then we will speak English with them and this is just another way for us to practice our English too which is always nice.

I think the most important thing if you are thinking of taking on a PhD here is to make sure that you really enjoy what you are doing; if you really like what you are doing you will do it well. Doing a PhD is certainly a lot of work, you need to devote a lot of time to study, you will need to sacrifice a lot of your time to be here so it is vital that you are happy doing what you are doing. You also need to be willing to put yourself out of your comfort zone, leaving behind what you know to come here and to take on this new challenge. It is certainly hard, but even though you will need to learn a lot to become comfortable working so independently, if you enjoy what you are doing then you will enjoy the learning process too!

Do you want to contact Julio? Feel free to do so via email.