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"Ever since elementary school, I've been certain that I wanted to follow the path of research."

  • Kristina S. R. Stenløkk
    Photo
    Håkon Sparre

Kristina S. R. Stenløkk comes from Larvik in Vestfold, home to Norway’s largest beech forest. A former BIAS student, she is now a PhD candidate at CIGENE, studying the evolution of salmonid fish. For her, bioinformatics is a window into the world of biology and evolution – a world which first fascinated her as a young girl collecting beetles in the forest with her uncle.

"Ever since elementary school, I've been certain that I wanted to follow the path of research."

Can you tell me a little about yourself?

I started at NMBU in 2014, in Chemistry and Biotechnology, specializing in molecular biology. The reason for that was that I was very interested in biology and evolution. During my third year I realized that bioinformatics was my way to get closer to evolution, so I switched my specialization to bioinformatics. Trying to understand the history of how genes have become what they’ve become, that’s very exciting for me.

Why did you think that bioinformatics in particular was your way in?

To do molecular biology or protein chemistry, you need a lot of bioinformatics as a basis. In order to not rely on other people to do your analyses, you have to be able to own them yourself.

Can you tell me a little about your external master’s thesis with the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI)?

I was first offered a summer job there, in 2018. The way I got in touch with them was that I sent them an open inquiry … then I was invited to a meeting there, and at that point they talked about testing how to classify what you find in air – viruses, bacteria, fungi, pollen, etc. So I was allowed to work with that during my summer job, and for my master’s thesis. The reason why this is exciting is that there’s been so little research done on air as a biological habitat, and we actually know very little about what is found there. It’s also important to understand the biological composition of air in relation to outbreaks of disease.

Did you take air samples and analyze what’s in the air?

At FFI I had the entire pipeline myself; I set up an experiment where I collected air samples. It’s quite fascinating – you use a kind of vacuum cleaner, where you attach a filter, and then you draw a lot of air through that filter. After that you can isolate DNA from the filter, sequence it, and then you can use different bioinformatics tools to see what you actually have.

Before and after: Kristina filtered air at the National Theater underground metro station as part of her master’s thesis.
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Kristina S. R. Stenløkk

My main finding was that there were very poor reference databases for air. Optimally, there would be samples for all organisms you can find in air in that database, but up to 70 percent of what I found had no match at all. So that means that either the sequences were of too poor quality, or that previous mappings have not been complete enough.

How was it be a student at BIAS really?

It was great! First of all I had great help and advice from Lars Snipen (my advisor). Also, I knew many of the BIAS members from before since I was a teaching assistant for bioinformatics, BIN210, and STIN100. It’s a relatively small environment, and you get to know people well really quickly. I was also allowed to attend the BIAS meetings – and felt that it was very nice to be allowed to attend, have lunch afterwards, and get to know people. Compared to many other groups, BIAS is quite small, safe and friendly, and I think that’s a large advantage. You feel very accepted.

At BIAS, students are welcome to join group meetings.
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Hilde Vinje

What do you do now at CIGENE – from air to salmon?

It’s a pretty large leap, but it’s still bioinformatics. It’s more geared towards evolutionary biology. The salmon family, or salmonid species, underwent a whole genome duplication so recently that the effects of this can still be studied. After a genome has undergone whole genome duplication, evolution is under pressure to return to the stable form: diploid – two copies of the genome. I will study Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) specifically, and compare it to several species within the salmonids.

About 95 million years ago the ancestor of modern-day salmon underwent whole genome duplication (Ss4R).
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Sigbjørn Lien

The project I work within is called TRANSPOSE. What I’m going to look at now is which mechanisms have been involved in this rediploidization process – going back to two copies. I’m looking at transposons, otherwise known as "jumping genes", which are DNA sequences that move around in the DNA, since we think that transposons are connected to evolution. It’s been difficult to study the genome variation that is due to transposons, since these elements are often much longer than the sequence readouts you get from the technology we’ve had until now. With new technology, we can now study transposons in a completely new way. To understand how transposons affect evolution is the ultimate goal.

How was the transition, from being a master’s student to working life?

I’m quite new at this, but it’s been very good to be allowed on a project that’s already running, and to do things that haven’t been done before. These sequencing techniques are completely new and groundbreaking, and I’ve been given a lot of responsibility up front. So without a doubt it’s a steep learning curve, but also extremely rewarding. One thing I’ve noticed is that it is different to be an employee rather than a student. You have more freedom, and you have more to say. It feels very much like I’m a part of something useful.   

Why did you choose to start a PhD?

Ever since elementary school, I've been certain that I wanted to follow the path of research. Since I was little, I’ve had an uncle who has influenced me greatly. He’s very interested in nature and collecting, so we’ve always been out collecting insects and such. Ever since I was little it’s been extremely fascinating for me to see how different beetle species can be – in form, color and function.

Insect diversity has always fascinated Kristina – it was her entry point into the world of evolution.
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Kristina S. R. Stenløkk

I also feel that bioinformatics is very research-oriented the way it is now. To work as a researcher often "requires" a PhD. The way it is now it’s common to continue at a hospital or in academia. In my case this position popped up, and there was no doubt at all – it was perfect.  

How did your master’s thesis prepare you for working life?

In a way it was a shock to discover that when you’re done with the coursework nobody has the "correct set" of answers anymore. This was a great lesson from my master’s. You just have to figure it out for yourself, and nobody is an expert on what you’re trying to figure out. So I feel that the master’s thesis was a good preparation for this; research is about problem solving and going down unexplored paths.

Do you have any tips or advice to give to a student about study direction or master’s program, with regards to thinking about a career further down the line?

What many students perhaps don’t think about is that choosing an advisor is just as important as choosing a topic for the master’s thesis. It’s very fun to have an exciting thesis … but it can be extremely demotivating to sit there and feel like you aren’t getting the help you need. So having a good advisor is alpha and omega. It’s a very good idea to try to get to know possible advisors, to start early and talk to people to ask about possible thesis topics.

From a career perspective it’s of course smart to pay attention early. You don’t know what will be announced when you’re getting ready to apply for jobs yourself, but keeping an eye on what is commonly announced is a good idea.

Have you thought about what possibilities you will have after the PhD?

Without a doubt it is a career path where it is difficult to get a permanent job. But I have the impression that there is a growing need for bioinformaticians, so I hope that a position within research will open up.

Something which I feel is particularly the case with bioinformatics is that you’re not "finished" with your education after the master’s degree. Bioinformatics is very much "learning by doing" – and requires more than theoretical courses. You have to work your way through many research problems to excel at it.

- Interview edited for clarity and length.

Published 31. October 2019 - 9:53 - Updated 5. February 2020 - 20:38