A PhD – or how not to worry about NOT being the 5%”: this is the title of the Lecture held on January 29th at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University. The speaker was Dr. Svend Petersen-Mahrt, from IFOM, Milan.

Dr. Petersen-Mahrt’s work focuses on the notion that DNA instability, usually associated with cancer, can be advantageous for an organism, an approach that provided (and still does) both fundamental insights into biological processes as well as a direct impact on patient care.

Knowledge dissemination and teaching have always been an important aspect of Dr. Petersen-Mahrt’s scientific career: being firmly convinced that a student’s appreciation and understanding can be as gratifying as the next discovery, he helps students, making them see that science is exciting, and teaching them what is important to succeed.

Dr. Petersen-Mahrt was hosted by Dr. Fabiola Valenza, PhD student at the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory headed by Dr. Dario Bonanomi. She is attending the third year of her PhD in Molecular Medicine, where she studies the molecular mechanisms underlying development of spinal motor neurons, those that die in ALS and SMA (respectively amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and spinal muscular atrophy). Specifically, she aims at understanding the role of a novel protein highly expressed in such motor neurons.

Dr. Fabiola Valenza
Dr. Fabiola Valenza

Dr. Valenza says: “I met Dr. Petersen-Mahrt at the 4th PhD Students Meeting that took place in June 2017 at IRCCS Istituto di Ricerche Farmacologiche Mario Negri. On that occasion he gave a Lecture on the same topic, that I found extremely interesting. As he combines excellent science with an exceptional talent in teaching and mentoring students, and since I am part of the UniSR PhD Student-Invited Lecture Committee, I thought it could be interesting to invite him, so that San Raffaele’s PhD students could have the opportunity to listen to him”.


In his presentation, Dr. Petersen-Mahrt stated that – according to the recent statistics from the Royal Society (UK) – only 5% of PhD students will work in academia, whereas the remaining 95% will not be in academia after 10 years. A situation, he asserts, students should not worry about: actually, opportunities are offered to them in the fields of industry, law, journalism, investment banking, consulting, and politics. “Everyone of us is made up of passion, dedication, knowledge, insight, and open mindness: students just need to focus on their characteristics and abilities, those aspects that they love more about science, what drives them, what makes them happy and satisfies them on their job. If this means not staying in academia, there’s plenty of other fields, always related to science, where they can spend their creativity and skills, and are sought-after and supported”.

Dr. Svend Petersen-Mahrt
Dr. Svend Petersen-Mahrt

When we ask Dr. Petersen-Mahrt what advice he would give to a student uncertain about his/her future, he answers: “I believe there is no golden rule for anybody. I would not give any advice, until I know that person and he/she tells me something about him/herself. I strongly suggest always discussing this with a supervisor, talking face to face. Talk to friends and be honest to yourself”.

“This was an excellent talk that drew the attention to the risk of a PhD preparation too specialized” remarks Prof. Fabio Grohovaz, Full Professor of Physiology and Coordinator of the PhD in Molecular Medicine Course. “Students must have the possibility to develop their soft skills, to get contamination with different environments in order to find their career trajectory”.

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