Synthetic biology: Focusing on Optogenetics

“I was immediately attracted to the PhD position in synthetic biology that was offered at the University of Freiburg”, says Giada Forlani, a PhD student from Croatia. With a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology and a master’s in industrial and molecular biotechnology, a PhD in synthetic biology was a great opportunity to pursue her scientific interests and advance her career. Giada Forlani is used to studying abroad: She went to the renowned university of Bologna in Italy for her undergraduate and graduate degrees. “The project in Freiburg seemed very interesting”, she said. Not knowing much about Freiburg and Baden-Württemberg, she began researching: “I learned that the university of Freiburg is very good and offers many courses, conferences, and networking events. It also has many early career programs for doctoral and postdoctoral researchers as well as great facilities.”

Using light to work on living cells

Giada Forlani is a student at the Spemann Graduate School of Biology and Medicine and her work at the University of Freiburg focuses on optogenetics. Simply put, optogenetics is an approach that uses light to control molecules in a very targeted and precise way in living cells and organisms. Giada Forlani now works for the Di Ventura research group at Freiburg university. She is – again, put in simplistic terms – trying to induce, with light, different dynamics of one specific protein in the cells, and afterward observes if these dynamics caused a change in the gene expression of those cells. This will help to understand how this specific protein functions and how it controls the cell’s behavior. Her research may contribute in the future to uncover pathogenic mechanisms, and treatment options, in immune dysregulation syndromes caused by mutations in this protein Giada is studying.
While the research and the PhD position was the main reason Giada Forlani came to Baden-Württemberg, she also appreciates the services the university provides. “The university supports women in science and parenthood and promotes gender equality. It also pays attention to mental health awareness, which is often neglected in our field”, she says.


Collaborations and skill development are key

Especially important are the networking and collaboration opportunities at the university: “Connecting to and working with other PhD candidates is crucial and the more you exchange knowledge and opinions the better it is for your growth.” Additional courses offered by the university are a bonus: “Since I arrived, I’ve expanded my skill set with hard and soft skills by taking several courses”, she says.
As everyone who has lived abroad would acknowledge, there is always a learning curve when you move to a new country: “The one thing that surprises me the most is that many people don’t speak English or only do so reluctantly”, she found. That’s why she is very grateful to her lab and the administrative assistants who have helped her fill out forms and documents in German and even provided temporary housing until she found a more permanent place to stay. “Without their help, moving here would have been extremely challenging”, Giada Forlani says.


A good base with many career options

For her future career path, she seems to have found a good base: “The University of Freiburg offers many opportunities. In addition, the Max Planck Institute of Immunobiology and Epigenetics is located here in Freiburg and the NF-kB signaling pathway I am working on has pivotal role in immunology and inflammation, thus I am very interested in the field,” she says. “In case I want to change my path in the future and continue my career in the industry, there are many interesting biotech companies.”   
Not only the academic and career prospects are interesting, Giada Forlani has come to appreciate her surroundings, too. “Freiburg is a very green city at the border of the Black Forest with many opportunities to go hiking, trekking and camping”, she says. “What I instantly loved are the many lakes – since I come from the sea, they make me a bit less nostalgic in the summer.”