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Spotlight on early-career researchers: an interview with Jelena Baranovic

Jelena Baranovic began her independent career at University of Edinburgh in September 2018. In this short Q&A she tells us about her experience as an early career researcher, the advice she would give to her younger self, and the lessons learned from studying ion channel physiology, for both biology and career development.

Image credit: Jelena Baranovic

I then came back to Oxford to pursue a PhD in the group of Prof. John F. Ryan, where I first started working with glutamate gated ion channels using atomic force microscopy and bilayer recordings. Glutamate receptors can be challenging to work with but I found it rewarding to investigate proteins that play such an essential role in our brain. After my PhD I decided to learn patch clamp electrophysiology—another technique with which I could study these receptors—and that led me to my postdoc in the group of Prof. Andrew Plested at the Leibniz Institute for Molecular Pharmacology in Berlin.

Postdoc years can be quite…existential, in many ways, so I still cannot believe I had such an overwhelmingly positive and encouraging experience. Thanks to that, I now have a very good idea about how life in a good research group looks like and, hopefully, this will help me establish my own group at the University of Edinburgh, UK, where I started this past September.

I have yet to figure out how to juggle research and teaching, but I would like to develop a collaborative atmosphere in the lab where team members feel that we are all working together towards common goals. This might seem obvious in a research lab, but I personally think that it is only achieved by targeted effort. Transparency and decision making at a group level are important tools in creating such a work environment, and I have recently come across the idea of a lab manual1—just in time to start writing one.

The journey—and it is all about the journey—is effectively a list of people and places that provided me with ample opportunities for scientific growth and continuous support. Certainly for me, these factors are crucial for doing research and attracting young talent.

From a more mechanistic point of view, there are methods which allow us to study either structure or activity of ion channels at very high resolution. While we can computationally simulate structural changes in these proteins at different stages of their activation cycle, the experimental techniques to simultaneously observe changes in structure and function of ion channels at high resolution are somewhat lacking. Some techniques, however, such as serial femtosecond crystallography (using X-ray free electron lasers), hold great promise in that respect. But I probably overstepped into the not-so-near-future here…

Also, I am not particularly loud by nature and speaking in public used to terrify me. Not that one has to be loud to make it in science, but it is important to be able to articulate questions, opinions, and results in a more public setting. At some point I just decided to say yes to any public-speaking opportunity that came my way. The frequent exposure definitely helped and it allowed me to get to know the people in the field interested in my area of research. That said, I still have work to do to overcome all of these challenges, but there have definitely been some improvements over the years.

And to read more. But this is also advice to my present and future self.

This interview was conducted by Associate Editor Yomayra Guzmán


  1. Aly, M. The key to a happy lab life is in the manual. Nature 561, 7 (2018).

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Spotlight on early-career researchers: an interview with Jelena Baranovic. Commun Biol 1, 164 (2018).

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