Tallinn University of Technology

Have you ever wondered what it's like to pursue a PhD and unlock the mysteries of the academic world? In this interview-article, we have the pleasure of talking to TalTech`s PhD student Romain Jacques Elie Bernasconi, a dedicated researcher whose passion for understanding the human body led him on an extraordinary path of knowledge.

Romain Bernasconi in the lab
Photo: Romain Bernasconi 

Join us as we delve into Bernasconi's unique story, where he shares his reasons for pursuing a PhD, his research interests, and the exciting discoveries he's making. From his atypical educational background to the challenges and rewards he's encountered along the way, Bernasconi's journey sheds light on the incredible opportunities that await those who embark on the path of doctoral studies.

What inspired you to pursue a PhD and what are your main research interests?

I have a very atypical educational background. I obtained two BSc degrees in the field of sports sciences, I was initially "destined" to become a physical trainer and a specialist in sports applied to health. During my Master's degree in sports sciences, I was lucky to be selected to join the research department of my faculty. I joined a team of biologists specialized in sports sciences, at INRAE in Montpellier (France), and I worked on muscle function during aging in mice.

This experience was a kind of revelation for me. I have always been very Cartesian and addicted to learning. Realizing the extent of what I did not know made me enter a form of "bulimia" of knowledge. Especially, about skeletal muscle physiology, which I used to learn and analyze also in my bodybuilding daily practice. It became obvious to me that I should pursue a doctorate and try to build a carrier in that field.

Describe the application and selection process for a PhD program and what factors did you consider when choosing your program.

To be extremely honest, the program itself was of little importance to me, I was only interested about the topic. Moreover, the programs changed last year, and I switched to the new program of the School of Science, which greatly reduces the number of classes, allowing me to focus more on research. I found the PhD proposal on the EURAXESS platform in May 2021. I just sent an email to the head of my laboratory, joining my curriculum, and a letter of motivation explaining why I was the best choice to study skeletal muscle. They answered me the next day, saying that they wanted to have an interview a few days later.

On the day of the interview, I was stressed, especially about my English which had rusted a little after several years of low practice in France. However, they told me a week after that I got the position. Then the administrative work started… Besides the classic curriculum, ID, etc, I had to find a sworn translator, to translate all my diplomas and marks obtained at the university. The admission process was finalized in mid-July, and I was flying to Tallinn at the end of August.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your PhD journey so far, and what challenges have you faced?

I am currently writing my first two articles, so I imagine that their publication will bring me great satisfaction. However, PhD is also made of small victories. I have tried many different protocols during the past two years. Some worked quite easily, whereas others made my life a nightmare. Being able to overcome the problems and find the solution is extremely rewarding.

Please explain your current research project and its relevance to your field, emphasizing how your doctoral studies have enabled you to contribute to the field.

Today, I’m a second-year PhD student in the Laboratory of Systems Biology at the Institute of Cybernetics. My research project is focused on the molecular mechanisms of fiber transition in skeletal muscle. Skeletal muscles express different types of fibers.

Some fibers are more endurant, use aerobic metabolism, and generate less force (Type 1 and 2a), while others are more explosive, use anaerobic metabolism, and generate a lot of force (Type 2X and 2B). The fiber composition of a muscle is determined by its function, it can be influenced by training, but also diseases, diet, age, etc.

Among these factors, the energy status of the muscle cell plays a major role in the fiber transition. Our laboratory focuses on creatine deficiency, which causes a dramatic decrease in the potential for energy transfer in the muscle. The lack of creatine will create a major energy crisis, with significant consequences on the muscle fiber composition. My investigation tries to show this phenomenon in our mice model, but also unravel the cellular mechanism responsible for this change.

Overall, the understanding of the fiber’s transition mechanism is very important for several fields. For example, animal husbandry, treating metabolic diseases, healthy aging, or even conserving muscle function for space flights.

What advice would you give to graduate students considering a PhD?

Giving advice is difficult because every PhD is unique. However, I can give the qualities which for me are essential to carry out a PhD.

First “Curiosity”, which is the motor of your project, the deep need of understanding is what makes a good researcher. Second “Perseverance”, science takes time, and the path is not straight but strewn with predicaments. Lastly “Stoicism”, you dedicate a lot of your time to one project and will face much more failures than successes. Being able to take an emotional distance is essential to preserve yourself and stay motivated.

How has pursuing a PhD helped you develop your academic and professional skills?

PhD is the highest diploma. Therefore, obtaining a PhD obviously open many doors in the professional aspect. However, PhD is not required for the majority of the highest paid job, the choice must be logical regarding your carrier plan.

But, in my opinion, PhD brings you much more than just a diploma. Firstly, you carry out a very complex project which involves the development of management skills. You need to plan, schedule, face unexpected situations etc. Those requirements oblige you to behave professionally, which means skeptical, organized, and empowered, which are highly valuable qualities on the market. Secondly, you develop the ability to solve problems. Being able to find the solution by yourself, either with the help of previous work or your own creativity, is extremely rewarding. Moreover, solving many problems makes it possible to develop a logical approach that can be transferred to other aspects of life. Thirdly, you develop your communication skills. Whether orally or in writing, scientific communication must be clear and reasoned. In my opinion, these communication skills are essential in both personal and professional aspects. Finally, you develop the ability to use complex instruments. Behind each machine hides a science that you do not master. Working with a wide range of instruments allows you to develop additional knowledge that could be useful in your professional future.

Why did you choose to come to study in Estonia?

My case is complex because it brings together several factors. By intellectual honesty, I must admit that I decided not to continue my studies in France for political reasons. This choice to leave France, with which I no longer feel in phase, counted for 90% of my decision. Also, I am naturally curious, and I already had the chance to travel a lot. So, I was not afraid to completely change my life and try something atypical.

My choices focused on Central and Eastern Europe where I had already stayed for 1 year as part of the ERASMUS program. I found this PhD proposal at Taltech via the EURAXESS platform, and the topic corresponded perfectly to the theme I wanted to study, namely the change in the composition of muscle fibers. Then I decided to apply for it, and I got the position.

Finally, I would like to highlight the positive points that I note about research in Estonia.Estonians are resourceful. Despite the lack of resources compared to a country like France, Estonians show resilience and ingenuity, which is extremely inspiring. Also, Estonia is the small European “Silicon Valley”, which creates a "technology-friendly" environment. This atmosphere allows me to open my mind to the capital disciplines of the future, combining fundamental and computer sciences. In Tallinn in particular, there is an atmosphere of entrepreneurship, particularly based on new technologies, which is very stimulating intellectually.

Overall, Estonia positively surprised me, and my experience so far is very positive.