Agathe Chaigne

Agatha looking through a microscope

As a cell biologist I’m passionate about understanding how cells, and especially stem cells, divide. How a cell divides is important in determining what it will become. As you can imagine this is a rather specific field and I really needed my own group and the freedom to answer my research questions… So I was thrilled to get an offer from the Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Biophysics group at Utrecht University.

Team science

I’ve only been here a year, but I couldn’t be happier with my choice. The group is super dynamic, and it’s also just the right size for me: big enough to guarantee diversity of viewpoints and interactions but also small enough to always have an idea of what your colleagues are up to. I already know most people in the group.

My colleagues are my biggest role models. Science can be quite frustrating sometimes. But their dedication to show up every morning and keep digging inspires me to do the same. We also have a lot of fun together – this Friday evening we’re all getting together to inaugurate the departmental air fryer! This is the kind of place I want to work at: I’m a bit of an extrovert and social contacts are important to me.

Another really fantastic thing about working at Utrecht University is the resources. The department is a world-leader in optogenetics – basically using light to make proteins do stuff – and my research has already benefited from this. I also have access to some state-of-the-art microscopes. There’s a huge selection. In particular four spinning disks, which is my instrument of choice, and they can be adapted to suit just about any project. The best part is that there are people here whose job it is to curate the microscopes for you. If you say “I need this kind of ‘weird’ microscope for this ‘weird’ sample,” they will try to find you a solution. 

I also have access to some state-of-the-art microscopes.

Work-life balance

Agathe working with a colleague in a lab

I really value the work-life balance, both in the Netherlands in general and at Utrecht University in particular. Utrecht is a fantastic city, and it’s really accessible from campus. My only real challenge has been getting used to Dutch food! When I got here, I was pregnant and all of my colleagues were extremely supportive. Everybody did their best to ensure that I didn’t have too much on my plate during maternity leave. And even now, as a mom to two young kids, it’s fantastic to have some flexibility. I get to organise my own time. To decide what I work on. And to find the next most interesting question I want to answer.

Sharing science

At Utrecht University you can do research, teaching or a bit of both. In my case, so far, I’ve been able to focus on research with some teaching on the side, but I’ll be teaching more in the future. I feel like I’ve got the best of both worlds. I started with my own PhD candidate. I’m super proud of her. I trained her on our model system and our research question, but she is embracing new techniques and new expertise from the group. I now have another PhD candidate and two Master’s students from Utrecht University, and they are all very smart and dedicated. I know I’m supposed to be teaching them … But working with students has helped me with my research too, by enabling me to see problems in new ways.