The journey toward a PhD often encompasses both joyful and stressful times in our lives. Rom, our Business Strategy Manager here at SMS, reflects on his time as a PhD student.

These memories were triggered by news that Rom had received recently, but in light of the thoughts that Kat recently shared with us on shaping the culture at SMS, this is a timely reminder for us not to take things for granted, including the bridges we have and continue to build at SMS. Let’s acknowledge the efforts of our mentors, and fellow co-workers and students to help us along our way.

ROM: I did my PhD at the Swiss Institute of Technology in Zurich between 2002 and 2005. These were some of the best years of my life. Work was fun! There were friends in each lab. In fact, I even met my wife there. There were no restrictions in what we could do, and we were encouraged to come up with the craziest ideas.

My PhD supervisor was called Lars, a very smart guy from East Germany. And he was only a few years older than me. He worked very hard, and often pushed me out of my comfort zone. He reassured us when experiments didn’t work, and was excited when they did. Lars always respected us. I was very fortunate to be his first PhD student.

Almost every day, we went for lunch to the canteen and Lars bought everyone in the team a chocolate for dessert… nearly every day! Some nights, after work, we would go to the outdoor balcony with a few drinks to discuss science until the late hours of the night… Doing a PhD had lots of highs and some lows. It was difficult, financially and emotionally, but I managed to complete a project I was very proud of.

After 3 ½ years, I wrote my thesis. This presented a few challenges. Lars wanted me to rewrite some sections, submit a manuscript, and finish some experiments. At the end of my PhD, I just wanted to finish (faster), find a postdoc and start a new exciting adventure. I wanted to become a postdoc and be paid like a postdoc. When it was time to leave, it felt like leaving home again…

A few weeks ago, I received an email from another PhD student in the lab at the time. It said that Lars had passed away after a long battle against a terrible sickness. Today, I am deeply sad because I lost touch with Lars after a while, and I never told him how grateful I was for his supervision, mentorship and friendship. Lars wasn’t only motivated by his career and the success of the project, but what drove him was our success as well. He supported us immensely, and shielded us from unnecessary politics, responsibilities and stress. He allowed us to enjoy doing science in the best possible environment.

Today, I really regret not having fully appreciated the chance earlier, and not having expressed more gratitude. Doing a PhD was fun and rewarding—it was hard but extremely stimulating and a real privilege. I am very thankful for the opportunity I was given to do research in a fantastic lab, with an awesome scientist and supervisor…. I only wish I had shown more gratitude when I could.

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