Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Steven Boeynaems (#11)

This week we have Dr. Steven Boeynaems in the Postdoc Superheroes. Steven works as a postdoc focusing on neurodegenerative diseases but is also a science artist.

Enjoy the read!

 Quick notes on Steven:
Name Steven Boeynaems, Ph.D
Countries he has academic experiences fromBelgium, USA
Steven in keywordsCreative, passionate, collaborative.
Steven as a scientist/researcher/academicA hoarder of side projects.
Steven’s typical day:        Pre-pandemic: Get in the lab by noon. Have lunch, coffee, talk to colleagues/mentees, answer emails, and check out papers. Start doing bench work in the later afternoon, and get home too late.  

Pandemic: Similar, but definitely a lower workload. Trying to work from home as much as I can.
Contact Steven at:Insta @steven.boeynaems
Twitter @BoeynaemsSteven

Hi Steven, Thank you for agreeing to this interview.

Could you introduce yourself briefly?

Hi, I am Steven, a neurobiologist, a Stanford postdoc, an immigrant, and a first-gen student. I mostly work on neurodegenerative diseases, but am also more broadly interested in evolution and adaptation.

What kind of student/pupil were you as a kid?

I was always a hardworking student but had loads of hobbies outside of school. Definitely was a nerdy kid: I collected insects and fossils for most of my youth, and we still have a whole room in my parents’ place that is my “mini-museum”. Besides that, I played soccer, loved being artsy and creative, and spend summers playing in the woods around my grandparent’s place.

In high school, I was working every weekend as a waiter, and spent a lot of time in my friends’ garage or attic rehearsing with our high school cover bands. I worked super hard for school, but no matter what age, I always had a diverse and active life outside of school, which I think is important for kids and young adults.

Those experiences growing up shaped me and my career as much as my actual studies (learning oneself, teamwork, communication, and soft skills, …). We often forget those things matter to who we become as scientists.

What was your experience studying in your undergrad program?

Had a fantastic time in college. I studied bioscience engineering, and absolutely loved the combination of hardcore sciences with more applied studies. To be honest, I hardly showed up in class. While everyone was in the lectures, I was in bed until noon, woke up, read the newspaper, put on some vinyl, and diligently worked through the textbook during the afternoon.

I always had excellent grades and pretty much passed with flying colors. Again, while my actual academic studies were obviously important, I think college life itself was very defining to my personal growth.

I also spent half a year studying in Spain as an Erasmus exchange student. This was beyond a doubt the best half-year of my life. It was my first time living outside of my home country and definitely was a transformative moment that would shape the rest of my life and academic career.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems sci art 1

Why and how did you decide to go into a PhD?

I always wanted to be a scientist as a kid. In university, I realized that meant doing a PhD, so it was just the logical step for me.

What was your PhD program experience?

My PhD was probably the hardest and most rewarding experience of my life.

I absolutely LOVED doing science, had great projects, tons of independence, fantastic colleagues,… Yet, me and my PhD promoter did not get along on a personal level. After two years of PhD I got kicked off my main research project. I literally had nothing.

I started a new project from scratch with the help of a postdoc. Luckily, I had a great co-promoter who was supportive of my work and ended up being my actual mentor and the senior author on all my PhD papers. Without him, I would not have been able to finish my PhD.

It is around that time that I connected with my current postdoc mentor at a scientific meeting. Even though I was still just a PhD student in Belgium, he stood up for me and supported me. I immediately knew he was the type of mentor I needed, and I instantly started my postdoc in his lab after defending my PhD.

In the end, I think all the adversity made me a better scientist and colleague, and pushed me to network and identify mentors and role models.

I would not recommend it to anyone though, it was unnecessary hardship.

If you realize early on that you are in a toxic environment: Leave. They don’t deserve you. 

Could you briefly describe what your research is about?

My work focuses on our understanding of how cells and organisms maintain so-called proteostasis, or the equilibrium between translating, folding and degrading proteins. Despite being key to cellular life, this remains a poorly understood area of biology.

Over the years, this has led me to study the cellular stress response in health and disease with an emphasis on the role of an unconventional class of proteins that naturally lack any 3D structures (i.e., intrinsically disordered proteins).

We and others have found that these proteins can show some exotic behaviors in cells. For example, under certain conditions, they may “phase separate” from the cytoplasm into liquid protein droplets, a process similar to the balsamic vinegar and olive oil in your salad dressing. 

My goal is to eventually translate fundamental biological insights into novel therapeutic approaches for human disease and tools for synthetic biology.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems sci art 2

What advice would you give your younger self starting a PhD program?

Do everything the same way, but be more conscious of choosing your mentor.

What have you decided to do after your PhD and why?

I immediately jumped into a postdoc as I am pursuing the academic track for now.

What PhD has given you and how you use it now?

Resilience, being able to manage a project independently, being able to present my work and reach out to other scientists.

Having had bad mentorship experiences definitely has made me a better mentor for my students. It has made me more aware of all the stress PhD students face, and that even small gestures could actually mean the world to someone.

Just some kindness and support for a student in need is often all it takes to get them back on track.

What are your other superpowers?

I like being creative. Whenever I need a break, I paint (acrylics) or play around with mixed media.

Recently, I also got interested in reworking vintage clothing. In the past, I occasionally would print shirts and shoes with my own sci-art designs. The most rewarding thing though about my creative outlet is definitely getting my sci-art on the cover of some of my favorite journals.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems

I am a pretty decent cook as well.

To be honest, whether I am cooking, painting or doing science, I consider these things to be very similar. At least to me, they are all part of the same creative process. The same joy and beauty that I find in art, I find when cooking for friends and family, or when getting an exciting new result in a science project.

What is the hardest in doing what you are doing and how do you deal with that?

Managing too many projects. It is hard to keep track.

Guilty, too!

I need variation in my work, so I always have too many side projects.

What are you the proudest of?

All of my students. Being a mentor is the best thing about academia. I am so grateful to have had the honor to be a small part of so many young talented scientists their journey.

If you could teach people one thing, what would it be?

Instead of solely focusing on bench work, read papers, go grab a coffee with peers that are doing something completely different than you, attend seminars out of your field, join science twitter, and

always network, network, network.

It will help you think outside of the box, bring in outside expertise, and come up with more creative solutions to the problems you are facing in your project.

Who was/is the most influential person in your science journey, and how so?

Despite a few bad experiences, I am grateful to have met so many people along the way that have inspired me and helped me in my career. I am where I am today because of my PhD co-promoter and postdoc mentor.

My scientific role model and most inspiring scientist is beyond a doubt Sue Lindquist. She, unfortunately, passed away a few years ago, but having had the opportunity to talk science one-on-one with her for a full 2h, is probably the highlight of my career. She was the kindest, generous, and most brilliant person I ever met, and she is terribly missed by so many of us.

Dr. Steven Boeynaems sci art 3

Who are the people you follow on social media and enjoy they content?

For true scientific purposes, I enjoy Twitter. It is such a great platform to stay up to date with the literature and seminars/conferences. This really helped me to connect to people in my field and expand my network.

For anyone interested in protein aggregation, phase separation or neurodegenerative disease: just follow @Shorterlab and you will be up to date with virtually every interesting paper that is being published in these areas.

I like Instagram for the science communication and artsy aspect. Some of the accounts I particularly enjoy are @stories.of.a.scientist (sci-comm), @dadrummond (sci-art), @girl_in_a_physics_world (sci-comm/physics), @thestochasticgallery (sci-art), @disaggregram (the most fun lab out there), @thediarrablue (math/fashion), @jeanne_sutton_therapy (mental health), @sciencejewelry1824 (graphic design/3D printed science jewelry).

What are your future plans, upcoming projects, what is next?

This year I am focusing on trying to wrap up my postdoc projects. There are a bunch of those, so I have quite some work left to do.

In the meantime, I am applying for transition awards/development grants, and am slowly prepping to hit the academic job market this Fall.

Good luck!

Where people can find you?

Insta @steven.boeynaems


Twitter @BoeynaemsSteven

Thank you!

More about working as a postdoc abroad:

Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Mike Tranter (#9)

Postdoc highlight series: Dr. Wojciech Ambroziak (#7)

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