Sandra Sulser

Interview Drs Alumni: 60 minutes with Sandra Sulser

Without my PhD, I would not be here now! Several steps are necessary to achieve a valuable objective. During my thesis, I have learned to cope with stress and disappointment and use my motivation to overcome difficulties. I have also learned to be determined and resolved.

Photo ©LDS - Ecole doctorale FBM
Photo ©LDS – Ecole doctorale FBM

Birth date: 1st August 1982
Date of graduation: MSc Degree ETH Zürich: 2009, PhD: 2015
Name of supervisor:  Prof. Jan Roelof van der Meer
Current position:

  • InnoPACTT Fellow at DMF
  • Received a spin-off grant for a project BioMe to develop a new treatment for inflammatory bowel diseases. The therapy consists of extracting the microbiome of a healthy donor to transplant it into the patient’s intestines. This technique could help treat e.g. type 2 diabetes, Crohn’s disease, inflammation and ulcers of the colon.
  • 2016 recipient of the Isabelle Musy award, Ed.

Drs Alumni Network: Tell us more about your experience as a student in Biology?
Sandra Sulser: I have always been interested in nature & outdoors, as well as very open to learning. Studying biology seemed to be compatible with my curiosity: I could explore several topics without having to focus exclusively on one particular subject.

Why were you interested in undertaking a PhD?
My master thesis went quite well; I enjoyed it very much. When I graduated, I decided to look either for a job or a PhD position. Above all, I wanted to explore, keep my options open and choose the most motivating opportunity. In the end, a PhD position at UNIL (Département de microbiologie fondamentale) popped up. When meeting the research team, I immediately felt there was a great connection. Moreover, Lausanne and its University are quite attractive, i.e. the campus sheep, the lake and the mountains! Therefore, I took the opportunity that was offered to me, and started a doctoral thesis in the microbiology research field.

And what did you do in parallel to your studies?
During my pre-graduate studies, I used to work on Saturdays as an administrative assistant, and during the holidays as a ski instructor for kids. During my PhD, together with other junior scientists, we created the Innovation Forum Lausanne, which is a platform for young scientists interested in the entrepreneurial sector (Sandra is the President of Innovation Forum Lausanne).

Which services were available for your professional development?
I used to attend the Life Science Career Day of the UNIL and the Forum of the EPFL.

You are currently an entrepreneur at UNIL. Why did you choose this path?
Well, I am still in the process of learning! During my PhD, it became very clear that I did not want to follow a classic academic career path; I felt that entrepreneurship was close to my heart. At one point, I had the opportunity to present my idea (i.e. project BioMe to develop a new treatment for inflammatory bowel diseases) to the right people at the right time, and I got a spin-off grant. I feel extremely lucky to have received the financial support of 100’000 CHF for one year from the UNIL, the PACTT and the « Fondation pour l’Innovation Technologique »! But, twelve months are not sufficient to build an independent business. Thus, now, I’m actively looking for new grants. It is especially difficult, because I need a lab, which is rather expensive.

How do you imagine your professional evolution?
Well, if everything goes as planned, I will still be working in my start-up!

And what about your daily tasks?
I am highly polyvalent, as the money covers only one salary, i.e. mine: this is an advantage and a disadvantage at the same time. I am working at the bench to develop the technique, and at the same time, I am learning about the challenge of being an entrepreneur. Honestly speaking, during my PhD, I had no clue of what having a business really meant. So, during the first trimester, I started developing a business plan. Creating a start-up is extremely enriching, but it is stressful, because you have to take care of several aspects, such as writing grants, doing organizational tasks, networking, making presentations, getting feedback from coaches, …

And what do you prefer?
I started with the lab work, which I like a lot, and now I am exploring the business aspect of science. During the past year, I realized that I really appreciate presenting the project and networking with people, as well as finding opportunities to develop a company.

And what about the strengths you use to carry on your projects?
The strength is about accepting that not everything will work as planned; this is an important step to reach. This applies to the lab, or to any collaboration & interaction you may have. Then, you have to be able to manage your time, and learn how to valorise your project. Having a good idea is not sufficient! If you want it to have an impact, people have to listen to you. The art of saying: “Hey, look, it’s a project with a lot of potential!”, or learning how to influence others & sell an idea, should be taught during the PhD.

What does your PhD degree mean to you?
Without my PhD, I would not be here now! Several steps are necessary to achieve a valuable objective. During my thesis, I have learned to cope with stress and disappointment and use my motivation to overcome difficulties. I have also learned to be determined and resolved.

What would be your advice to a PhD student regarding their career development?
My experience was mostly based on spontaneity: I started my PhD and the start-up, because I was open to experience. I see that students now get much more organized. They do internships, which is an excellent way to have a look around and get more experience. However, life is not always the way you plan, is it? How likely is it that you are going to work for your favourite company? My advice is therefore to be open to opportunities.

Which people have marked your personal and professional path?
I would say: my teachers, my PhD supervisor and colleagues of mine who went into entrepreneurship. I have been so lucky to meet such inspiring people.

Do you have some time left for a hobby?
I use to have time for myself! This might change very soon (Sandra Sulser is pregnant, Ed.). I love outdoors, skiing and mountaineering. I also practice yoga, to calm down a little when it is necessary. Hobbies can be just going to the lake with your friends or talking about something else than business models. Probably to find a balance, we should avoid focussing exclusively on one thing.

A place at UNIL you love?
I have to admit I like this place (the courtyard at Biophore building, ed.). Also, the campus is so green, with the sheep and the lake. It is an incredibly beautiful working place. I am very happy to be here!

Which lectures at UNIL would you like to attend again?
I took part in really nice tutorials (discussion groups on topics not forcibly related to the thesis). They were very useful to open my scientific perspective: indeed, I choose one focusing on plants development and molecular biochemistry. It was so fascinating! It is great to encourage PhDs to have a look into other fields!

Article: Milena Metzger & Laura De Santis.

Une publication de l’Ecole doctorale de la Faculté de biologie et de médecine de l’UNIL.

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