Dr. Jona Mirnik & Nace Kranjc: Nature will keep on surprising us

Our third conversation in the Scientific Cognition series features Dr Jona Mirnik, a chemist and an independent researcher at Krka, and Nace Kranjc, a bioinformatician at Genialis.

Dr Jona Mirnik recently completed her PhD in chemistry which has always been her passion. She completed her PhD studies as a Young Researcher at the Faculty of Chemistry and Chemical Technology (University of Ljubljana) where she obtained experience with academic research. During her studies she took part in writing an elementary school chemistry textbook, an experience that she found very fulfilling. Three months ago, she acted on her desire to experience industrial research by accepting a job offer from Krka, a Slovenian pharmaceutial company, where she works on the synthesis of active ingredients.

Nace Kranjc studied molecular biology and currently works as a bioinformatician at Genialis, a Slovenian bioinformatics company. When this conversation was recorded, he was a visiting researcher at Imperial College London as part of a European project. The focus of his work is not research per se but rather the development of computer tools that help biologists extract information from massive amounts of data.

 


Jona and Nace both work in industry. Compared to the academic environment, Jona particularly appreciates the quick and direct applicability of her work in industry. However, she acknowledges that there are some drawbacks to working in industry. When discussing his work experience, Nace emphasizes the dual nature of his work that requires an understanding of both computer science and biology.

Our guests talk about the roots of a scientific career in childhood curiosity, and how this curiosity could be encouraged. Why is it important that the public is informed about scientific research? Can science news be just as exciting as news from sports and culture? The discussion also touches on the differences between the academic and industrial environments and the differences between research in Slovenia and abroad. Why is it important to “give back”? Is it a good idea to try to start something new in Slovenia or is it better to stay at an established foreign institution? How can a young researcher make sure that she gets the opportunity to follow her research passions? What is the role of serendipity in research and what is behind it? What is the role of creativity in today’s research, and can we facilitate economic development by grooming it?

 


ON CHEMISTRY AND BIG DATA SURROUNDING US

Nace Kranjc: Hi, Jona.

Jona Mirnik: Hi.

Nace Kranjc: Nice to see you again. You and I have known each other already, but perhaps let’s start by introducing each other. What are you currently up to? Actually, I’m curious as well since I do not now exactly what you are working on currently.

Jona Mirnik: Indeed, that last time we talked was before you left for London. It’s been a while.

Nace Kranjc: True it’s been a while ago.

Jona Mirnik: My name is Jona and I am a PhD in chemistry. I specialized in organic chemistry, more specifically organic synthesis. Until recently, I was employed as a PhD candidate at the Faculty for Chemistry and Chemical Technology, University of Ljubljana where I also earned my PhD.

Recently, I’ve started working in the Slovenian pharmaceutical company Krka in Novo Mesto. The company’s core business is the development of generic pharmaceuticals. I work in research and development department where I primarly focus on preparation, that is sythesis, of active ingredients. To put it shortly.

What about you, Nace? What are you currently working on?

Nace Kranjc: My background is in molecular biology. I currently work in Genialis, a bioinformatics company developing tools for analysis of biological data. That is, our job is to come up with a user-friendly web-based platforms for analyzing biological data.

Nace Kranjc: I work in bioinformatics. It is a very pleasant experience, when we can extract biological findings from large datasets.

I am currenly based in Londong for a European project where we are developing one such visualization tool.

Jona Mirnik: Sounds very complicated.

Nace Kranjc: It isn’t, really.

Jona Mirnik: You said molecular biology, correct?

Nace Kranjc: Molecular functional biologist, yes. Though, I would simply label myself as a biologist.

Jona Mirnik: So if I understand this correctly, your work has do with programming and statistics, right?

Nace Kranjc: Yes, there is also some statistics. My current job is actually in bioinformatics. It has to do with statistical analyses of biological data. But I also develop web-based software tools. It is actually a very nice combination of computer science and biology, which also has to be included.

Jona Mirnik: So what motivates you? What drives your work?

Nace Kranjc: It is a very pleasant experience, when we can extract biological findings from large datasets. Even if I am not actually answering biological questions myself.

In Genialis we develop tools which help other researchers in biology to answer their biological questions. And when you see that you can contribute to answering these scientific questions, it is, at least for me, very interesting.

Jona Mirnik: I imagine there is so much data and information available lately and it is becoming increasingly challenging to arrive at some conclusions?

Nace Kranjc: Exactly.

Nace Kranjc: May I ask you why you decided for a career in research and development after finishing your studies? What drove you for choosing the area you work in now and second what convinced you to pursue a career in research?

Jona Mirnik: I’m not sure, but chemistry has always interested me. I think I had the desire to understand. A saying that I heard during my introduction as a prospective student sums it up very well: “Look, there’s chemistry all around us. Everywhere, in food, look around, all the things you have. And last but not the least, there’s always chemistry between two people in love, right?” Doesn’t this sum it up really well?

Jona Mirnik: One of the reasons why I wanted to stay in the academia was because I wanted to experience academic research. The research environment where you’re not so limited, where you have more freedom to try things out, to think, look at things and see what happens.

This really motivated me, so I said to myself, well, you cannot understand everything, but I would like to know as much as possible. This was actually my motto. In this, actually also see a deeper mission, because I can also contribute to society this way.

One of the reasons why I wanted to stay at the university was because I wanted to experience academic research. The research environment where you’re not so limited, where you have more freedom to try things out, to think, look at things and see what happens. In a way, I did some very basic research which will probably only turn out to be useful in, say, a hundred years or so.

I am now working in industry. This, to me, is an incredible experience, because you exaactly know what is the purpose every experiment, and that the outcome of your work will be some drug, some active substance, which you developed in a lab and it will benefit many people.

Jona Mirnik: I figured that I wanted to know what working in industry is like, because I think it differs a lot from academia. I think the applicability of research adds greatly to my external motivation, because in that way I feel that the outcome of my research may be actually useful much sooner.

Good feeling, which I may have missed a little bit at the university because the connection between my research and the recipients was not as direct, not as quick. When I mean quick, I think of some ten years, before your work benefits actual people. But this really drives me in chemistry.

Nace Kranjc: Was that also the reason why you decided to leave academia and go into industry? Because of higher applicability of research, or was there some other reason?

Jona Mirnik: I figured that I wanted to know what working in industry is like, because I think differs a lot from academia. I think applicability of research adds greatly to my external motivation, because in that way I feel that the outcome of my research may be actually useful much sooner.

Besides this, I also wanted to see how the work in industry is done, because the way funding works is different here, because everybody needs to contribute something. It is very goal-oriented. On the other hand, at the university, in academia, there’s much more freedom. At least I had more freedom when I was doing research for my doctoral thesis.

And you, Nace, do you also have some experience with the two environments? Could compare research in academia and industry in terms of the projects you’re working on?

Nace Kranjc: I think it is very important to have the cooperation between the industry and academia. The exchange of knowledge from one side to the other, or mutual exchange, is necessary. Well, “necessary”, I think that many very nice things may come out if this connection is very strong.

Nace Kranjc: I haven’t yet participated in academic research. My research is more like, OK, so we have some biological problem, well not we, but rather the biologists have it. The problem for us is to develop a solution to this problem.

To me the biggest difference between academic and our research is, that, as you mention, in academia you often convey some very basic research, not so applicable, while the nature of research, if this could even be called research, in the industry is much more applicable. So what you are doing has to have some bigger effect. For example, in that it addresses some very specific problems.

But I think it is very important to have this cooperation between the industry and academia. The exchange of knowledge from one side to the other, or mutual exchange, is necessary. Well, “necessary”, I think that many very nice things may come out if this connection is very strong.

I have also noticed this since I started working on this project. This is a European consortium involving multiple academic institutions, but also many private companies, and this collaboration of the two spheres is very fruitful.

Jona Mirnik: Oh, great. I also think that these connections are starting to get more common. I think it’s getting better. For example, when I was an undergrad student, I would have loved more such opportunities to get accustomed with both academia and industry when you are still a student. But I think this collaboration is developing. I think, that this is definitely the right direction for us researchers.

Jona Mirnik: In industry, it generally holds that time is money, so we don’t look deeper into issues, we usually do not go into great details, because we are primarily interested in results, and that’s our main goal. To achieve what you want. So we are not interested in the process as such and what goes on.

Nace Kranjc: How did you as a researcher, who started in academia and later moved to industry, what do you think the nature of research is? How do you see it? What are the differences like or what do you think is the biggest difference?

Jona Mirnik: I think that, as you mentioned, in academia timing is not a big constraint. In the sense, that you have more time to look deeper into some particular thing, to stop at one particular issue, which seems perhaps a little bit more interesting and you then look more into it. And also if it doesn’t turn out to be successful, which is very common in chemistry, you may still try to go in another direction and pick up something interesting there.

In industry, on the other hand, it’s a fact that time is money and that we are very goal-oriented, so we don’t look deeper into issues, we usually do not go into great details, because we are primarily interested in results, and that’s our main goal. To achieve what you want. So we are not interested in the process as such and what goes on. This, I think, is a major difference.

ON COMMUNICATING SCIENCE TO WIDER PUBLIC

Jona Mirnik: Do you think it is important that, for example, people know about us? Do you think it is important to promote what we are doing? Or how much do you think people in general should understand our work? How much of an opinion do you have on this?

Nace Kranjc: I think this is very important. It’s very important if not even necessary. In my impression, science is often, even in media, somewhat overlooked, because it demands extra attention; at least from a journalist point of view it takes longer to study these topics, so that they can be summed up correctly. As you said, the principle “time is money” also holds for other domains and by consequence science is somewhat dismissed, sidetracked.

Nace Kranjc: I am 100% sure that, just like everybody may find something interesting in sports or in culture, everybody can also find something interesting in science.

But I also think that recently the promotion of science has improved. There have been some great projects. For example in Slovenia, we have podcasts at Metina lista, live discussions on scientific topics as in events “Science on the streets” and the radio show Frekvenca X at Val 202; these are all great efforts which focus on popular science, but stay accurate in bringing science to a broader audience.

In my opinion there should be more projects like this and I am 100% sure that, just like everybody may find something interesting in sports or in culture, everybody can also find something interesting in science. Perhaps we need more time to get to the common ground, and a bit more explaining needs to be don. But getting to this common ground may be worthwile even more when it comes to science.

Jona Mirnik: I believe, at least I notice this, that we need to find some balance in how to stay professional but also to explain our topic in a simple way. I think this can achieved in collaborations with journalists, who perhaps are not familiar with these topics, and with a lot of discussions. I think that great things may come out of this in the end. All the projects you mentioned are very good examples of it.

Nace Kranjc: I think we could also do more in terms of connecting the academia with industry which, as you mentioned, you missed as an undergraduate student. For example, I think that already in high school or elementary school, science should be promoted more intensively. Such that children would be exposed to it and that they would get a better insight into what scientists do. I think this also belongs to the promotion of science. If the youth is educated in this spirit, then even if they do not continue into science, I think that they will later remain much more open to it.

Jona Mirnik: For me, one of the more interesting projects I worked on when I was a doctoral candidate was writing a new elementary school chemistry textbook.

In general, I believe, that it would be very beneficial if we allowed for more freedom in the sciences and in research-oriented classes. I think that this is one such step, and I believe even more steps will be made in this direction, and that it will enable this genuine curiosity in children about what something means. There may be a very large potential in bringing natural sciences and science in general to a broader audience.

Nace Kranjc: If we light up this curiousity in children, a lot will already be done. Because what follows from this, you as a researcher probably noticed this, that once the curiosity has been switched on, it is probably very hard to stop.

Jona Mirnik: I think this is a real beauty of the scientific work. After all, it is about answering questions and looking for the unknown. You learn so much when you are put in the position of not yet knowing. Also how you approach things, how you collaborate with people around you to get to the answers you are looking for. Science has a such an increadibly broad scope.

Nace Kranjc: I agree.

Jona Mirnik: But how do you see promotion of science as such? We discussed this a bit, but what about the financial perspective? Do you think that funding in academia imposes limits? We can already see it happening that even in academia you have to ever more frequently and boldly promote your research, so that you can even work on it to begin with. Funding has a great impact on it. I know that things used to be more lax in the past. Do you have any opinion on that?

Nace Kranjc: I haven’t yet been involved in academic research, therfore I cannot give any opinion on what should be done in this area. But I think that obviously … Well, with some general knowledge about science and some general awareness, we could achieve more, after all also regarding funding.

Jona Mirnik: It’s a feedback loop, or a circle, right?

Nace Kranjc: Do you think an early career researcher who wants to do research and has the internal drive is highly restricted because of the funding issues?

Jona Mirnik: I didn’t feel this myself because I was a junior researcher and this meant my funding was stable. Though, I did notice this when I went to conferences and similar events. It was interesting to me how some research groups with a renommee that published highly cited papers have much more funding available so they can afford to hire more people, which focus on specific topics.

Jona Mirnik: In chemistry, we usually say: “Don’t worry, because in 95% of experiments, you will not get what you want.” But then you get the cherry on the top, these 5%, when chemistry opens up to you. But sometimes it’s financially hard to get over the 95%, which are necessary to get some conclusions.

But if, for example, you want to get into some specific area, which really interests you, but no group works on this, or if you do not get into a strong research group, then I think that you may have a bit of a problem.

So you might come to say, okay, now I seriously have to discover something achieve something, so that I will have a good paper out and therefore our research group will get better funding opportunities. Only afterwards I can work on something that really really interests me and keeps me up at night.

But as I said, that’s more second-hand experience from my colleagues from other groups, namely that sometimes you cannot really pursue a specific line of research because there’s no funding to do so. Chemistry is particularly special in this aspect. We usually say: “Don’t worry, because in 95% of experiments, you will not get what you want.” But then you get a cherry on the top, these 5%, when chemistry opens up to you. But sometimes it’s financially hard to get over the 95%, which are necessary to get some conclusions.

ON DIFFERENCES IN SLOVENIA/ABROAD

Nace Kranjc: I think the difference is especially in that, for example, in an academic carreer you have some idea at the beginning of your scientific career and you want to focus on it. However outside Slovenia, the universities are much bigger and because they also get more funding, you also get a bigger selection of laboratories, for example, or topics, where you can contribute. The same goes for the labs; even if they are just a little bit broader, you may still manage to come in with your question. That’s at least my experience here at Imperial College London. I think that because of all the available funds they are more likely to, say, accommodate your question, your research project.

Nace Kranjc: I think it is always worth and good to return back to your local environment, because you after all received a lot from it. Be it to return to the place, where you went to elementary school, or to the country, where you studied.

Jona Mirnik: But do you … What’s your opinion about going abroad to get experience, which not available in Slovenia? As a matter of fact, as you said, there are so many research directions, and it’s easier to get into them abroad. So that then you bring that knowledge you gained abroad back to Slovenia, because we do not have it here yet, and you start something new? What do you think about that?

Nace Kranjc: Yes, I completely agree with what you said. I think it is always worth and good to return back to your local environment, because you after all received a lot from it. Be it to return to the place, where you went to elementary school, or the country, where you studied.

I think it often happens, at least I have many such colleagues, who went to study abroad and then they also did their PhD there, and then they just stay there and they get positions there and never come back. But I think it’s nice that you respect what you received from your local environment and that you then also return back to it. Did you ever have a wish to get more knowledge abroad, or what’s keeping you home?

Jona Mirnik: I think so, yes. I always have this wish to do research. But I think that in the area that interests me, my home environment gave me many opportunities and challenges, which grabbed my attention and forced me to get into the nitty-gritty of it. But I believe that I will find some results, where I will have to go look for extra knowledge abroad.

What I gained from this incredible land, it has become a part of my values. I have many options in Slovenia and that’s why I would like to bring some of my knowledge back home. I think that I can already do so, although I’m still young and I can still learn a lot. But I can already also give back now and that’s why I am happy to have the option to do this here in Slovenia.

I don’t have any experience with other countries, but I think it was really great that I had the possibility to participate in writing an elementary school textbook. That I could contribute my ideas, because I remember my experiences with chemistry back then, and I know what it lacked to light my spark. It was lit, but perhaps the flame could be even bigger. I have no experience how that would be in other countries, but I think that is very good here. We can do a lot if only we are open to the environment and the activities around us.

CREATIVITY & NEW IDEAS

Jona Mirnik: How do you find ideas?

Nace Kranjc: As I have already mentioned, I do not do typical research, but perhaps it is exactly because of my intermediary position between software development and biology that I have to I look at this process from the biologist’s viewpoint but also as a developer. And that’s quite important. Most ideas are born in this process, for example, how to perhaps provide a better user experience or how to make things more intuitive for, say, biologists.

So that would be my answer, I’m doing this instead of biologists. But I think that once the wheels start to roll, I think that then the process runs smoothly. We get to some point where it opens up again, say, now our analysis brought us to this and this step, and now we want to get the biologists to answer their question. In what way can we help in getting these answers? Then we have this interesting mixture of various profiles.

Nace Kranjc: Perhaps it is exactly because of my intermediary position between software development and biology that I have to I look at this process from the biologist’s viewpointbut also as a developer. And that’s quite important. Most creative ideas are born in this process.

Jona Mirnik: Interesting. Because my experience was, well, when I finished my undergraduate studies, I thought that chemistry happens they way it’s written in books. And then I started wokring on my dissertation and I figured that in most cases it does not follow the books. So how to come to new ideas … Well, experience you gained on the way helps a lot.

For example, for my dissertation I had to produce some completely new molecules. We first put our ideas on the paper, but you then have to test if it works in the lab. And you often see that it doesn’t. Then you turn to the literature and read a lot. You’re trying to find some similar parts in the structure. So you think, a-ha, perhaps this will work in my case too, and you go and try.

It sometimes happens that an idea emerges from some remote part of your brain, an idea you’re not even sure where it came from: “I’ve tried this and this already and nothing works. There’s nothing to lose, so let’s try this as well. It sounds a bit strange, but, oh well, I don’t know, let’s just try it out.”

In chemistry the situation’s often so that we only know a few things in advance. We have all the literature, and then we say, “Hey, this might be how it works,” but then we’re all smart in hinderance. And then we analyse everything and we’re like, “See, that’s how we believe this thing goes,” and then we try it on something else and it also works there, “So this probably holds!”

Jona Mirnik: Then you turn to the literature and read a lot; you’re trying to find some similar parts in the structure. You think, “a-ha, perhaps this will work in my case too”, and you go and try. It sometimes happens that an idea emerges from somewhere in the back of your brain, an idea you’re not even sure where it came from.

But things also often happen by luck. Though it is not a case of pulling a Homer. It is the type of luck that comes from all the experience, all the papers you’ve read, and studying some purely theoretical reactions, which you’ve never dealt with in lab, only on paper. We get a very interesting combination.

Actually, just a couple days ago, I was in contact with a pedagogue, who deals a lot with our school system. I found it very interesting when she said that when it comes to creativity in the classroom, arts like music and painting come first, though chemistry comes close second. It fosters a lot of creativity preciselybecause things may surprise you.

I believe that is exactly, as we discussed earlier, this curiosity about what will happen. It has this extra layer, because not everything has been nor will never be known. Things will never be so predictable, that we would not need go and test them in labs. Nature always takes care that what you expect does not turn out exactly as you expected. Then you have to go into details and find a solution how to figure it out the next time. I think that’s a beauty of it all.

I think the ideas emerge from here, from all the experience, and somewhat also from the enthusiasm and curiosity: “What happens if I do this and that? I can’t answer this yet, but I will check, try to analyse and then reconstruct the steps and try to figure out why this happened.” I think that’s how these things go, at least for me.

Nace Kranjc: Do you think that creativity is very important for science? Do you think we need to draw a line somewhere between creativity and natural laws or how to draw a line between the two? Because you said that we cannot define them precisely yet or they may turn out to be a little bit different than what we expected. But at the same time, we shouldn’t cross the line back and forth too much.

Jona Mirnik: Yes, I think that there are many helpful things to be found in books, but I think we soon hit this. Take quantum mechanics for example; if we just want to compute some equations describing the hydrogen atom, there’s already so much to compute that our computers are not even capable of performing such complex computations. I think this sums it up pretty well. Despite the molecule being such a small thing, there’s a very large world inside this molecule. And we don’t yet know how to describe it with computer systems, because our computers are not yet capable of it.

Jona Mirnik: Nature always makes sure that things do not turn out exactly as you expected. Then you have to go into details and find a solution on how to predict this the next time. I think that’s a beauty of it all.

But about setting the line as such, I think that in academia the bar for creativity may be allowed to be set up a little bit higher. You have more time, you are expected to look further into your subject matter.

Nevertheless, I think that at least some amount of this type of creativity has to be nurtured in industry as well. Because it can lead to beneficial results; you may do something more efficiently, which is important for us, for example to do something in quantitative transformation, such that we don’t only get 10% of what we wanted. Or that we can bypass the use of, for example, ecologically questionable chemicals. In all these domains creativity is very welcome feature.

So I would like to intentionally work more on creativity. That we could be a bit more relaxed, that we would dare to really come up with all  sorts of ideas. Even if we don’t know where they came from at first and we study them post-hoc. This has always been beneficial for me. I would like to encourage this in all scientific areas. Does this answer your question?

Nace Kranjc: It does, thanks.

Jona Mirnik: Nace, it was very nice talking to you.

Nace Kranjc: Yes, Jona, it was great hearing you again. Thanks a lot for this pleasant chat.

Jona Mirnik: Greetings to London.

Nace Kranjc: Greetings back home!

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