Persistence in the face of rejection was key for a career in academia – career portrait of Assistant Professor Alexander Rauch
Welcome to the career portrait series where we look at the careers of DDA Alumni. Here Alexander Rauch tells us what his position as assistant professor entails and how he made the journey from a PhD in Germany to his position in Denmark:
Currently, I am appointed as assistant professor at the Institute of Clinical Research of the University of Southern Denmark. I perform my research at the Stem Cell and Molecular Metabolism research unit of the Odense University Hospital, and I am affiliated with Steno Diabetes Center Odense.
Position: Assistant Professor
2008 – 2011: PhD student Leibniz Institute for Age Research, Tuckermann lab, Jena, Germany
2011 – 2012: Postdoc Leibniz Institute for Age Research, Tuckermann lab, Jena, Germany
2012 – 2013: EMBO Long-Term Fellow, Mandrup lab, University of Southern Denmark
2013 – 2016: DDA Postdoc Fellow, Mandrup lab, University of Southern Denmark
2016 – 2018: Research assistant, Mandrup lab, University of Southern Denmark
2018 – 2019: Research assistant, Professor, Kassem lab, University of Southern Denmark
2019 – now: Assistant Professor, Institute of Clinical Research, Steno Diabetes Center Odense, University of Southern Denmark
Quote: "I have always been fascinated by science, and I got intrigued by the freedom and diversity of the daily business in academic research."
I am in the process of establishing my own research group with the support of a Lundbeck Fellowship and a project grant from the Independent Research Fund Denmark.
I have a basic research profile that ranges from basic cell and molecular biology to functional genomics and bioinformatic analyses. I am interested in applying genomic techniques to clinical samples and in developing experimental model systems to study molecular mechanisms of clinically relevant observations.
A fascination by science and the freedom and diversity of each day in academia intrigued
I have always been fascinated by science, and I got intrigued by the freedom and diversity of the daily business in academic research. I like the possibility to plan my day according to my responsibilities and interests and that it allows me to spend valuable time with my family in the afternoon.
In the morning, I take my children to the kindergarten and arrive at the laboratory around 8.30. My workload consists of performing bioinformatic analysis, discussing research and funding opportunities with colleagues and collaborators and supervising my PhD students.
Depending on the club activities of my children, I need to leave the office at 15.00 or latest 16.00 to pick them up from daycare. Typically, I get back to the computer in the evening to use longer periods without interruptions to write grant proposals, letters and manuscripts.
The path from PhD in Germany to assistant professor in Denmark
When I finished my PhD in 2011, I had one year of contract left, which was upgraded to a Postdoc position. In Germany, that was an increase in salary by 100 percent, which at that time was reason enough to stay and enjoy the slow transition from the student to work life.
Due to personal contact with Susanne Mandrup from Functional Genomics and Metabolism Research Unit at the University of Southern Denmark, I decided to join her laboratory for a Postdoc by applying to Marie-Curie- and EMBO-Fellowships. Luckily, I received the latter, moved to Denmark in 2012 and continued writing grant applications due to the frustration about the taxation of stipends in Denmark.
“Initially, I thought to stay for two or three years, but I still haven’t left Denmark”
Getting more and more familiar with grant writing was finally rewarded by a Fellowship from the Danish Diabetes Academy (2013- 2016) and a project grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation.
Initially, I thought to stay for two or three years, but I still haven’t left Denmark. Due to the great support and the training I received from Susanne Mandrup, I decided to take the next step in 2018 by changing from the natural to the health science faculty.
I applied with Moustapha Kassem for a project grant at Novo Nordisk, which was granted with 1/3 of what we asked for. To my great advantage, Moustapha employed me on this grant for one year with the opportunity to use my energy and resources to formulate further research proposals for academic startup grants.
“I learned that people do not reject my scientific question, but the way it has been disseminated in the proposal”
I applied twice for an Emerging Investigator grant at the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Sapere Aude program of the Independent Research Fund Denmark, all of which were rejected. But I finally received a Lundbeck Fellowship in which I combined the expertise I obtained in the lab of Suanne with clinical research questions that I was able to reach out to with my new affiliation.
Bioinformatics and Leadership were valuable skills developed during the postdoc
With the start of my postdoc, I was confronted with bioinformatics, which was a hard and steep learning curve. And I actually enjoy until today the process of doing something new to your data every day, to learn new algorithms and to question your data set to obtain a new angle on a particular research question. Similarly important, I grew up in the environment of the Mandrup group, which values team effort and allowed me to obtain leadership skills.
Persistence and working hard on grant writing skills were key for a career in academia
As I wrote the applications to start my own research group, I learned that people do not reject my scientific question, but the way it has been disseminated in the proposal. The first application to Novo Nordisk was not even selected for peer-review, while the second for the Sapere Aude managed to go to the second round. Here I received reviewer critics that were helpful — not to change the subject of my grant proposals, but to realize which part of the applications were misleading and which information on myself, my career plans or my research environment were missing in order to receive top evaluations.
Having outlined the same research question for the third time in September 2019 with knowing that it had not been good enough in January and May, made me put a lot of effort into trying to write each sentence as perfect as possible. That, and of course being lucky, made the difference when I went on for round two and even the interview for the Lundbeck Fellowship, which was finally rewarded in 2020.