“Science takes you to new places”

Name: Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam
Did PhD at: University of Oxford, UK
Current position: Professor at the department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology (MTC) at Karolinska Institutet
Interviewed by: Lifeng Liu

Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam, professor at the department of Microbiology, Tumor and Cell Biology (MTC) at Karolinska Institutet, started her PhD in biochemistry at the University of Oxford and continued as a postdoc at Harvard Medical School and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. After her postdoc, she worked in a biotech company for 3 years and returned to academia afterwards. Now, her group focuses on the function of B lymphocytes and immunogenetics. She is one of the two researchers at Karolinska Institutet who received the ERC Advance Grant 2017 (granted in 2018) from the European Research Council.

Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam, or Nilla as people who know her call her, was writing on her computer, when I came to her office. I was impressed that she changed from work to our conversation directly, as fast as wind, instead of asking for extra time to finish what she was doing. From the start, I immediately realized that everything I heard about her is true: she is smart, she organizes and sorts out things efficiently and clearly, and she is enthusiastic for science. 

Towards the end of her PhD studies, Nilla applied for potential postdoc positions in some groups from the United States. She visited the groups in person, since she thinks it is important to know the environment you are going to work in. ”Go and visit the lab you want to join. Talk to people there and make sure this is the place where you want to live and work. This is as important as the project”, she suggests to PhD students who want to apply for postdoc positions.

A common question is if it matters to start new research topics as a postdoc. Nilla continued her research on retroviruses for her postdoc work, but shifted her focus from studying the biosynthesis of virus glycoproteins to immune responses to virus infections. She thinks it is fine to change topics between the PhD and the postdoc studies. ”People should follow their gut feeling and look for good research environments rather than stick to a specific topic. It is harder to change topics later on”, she points out.

Nilla emphasizes the importance of team work in a group as well when it comes to postdoc applications. As the leader of a big research group at Karolinska Institutet, Nilla has read thousands of applications for PhD and postdoc positions. When recruiting new people, she usually schedules for applicants to meet and talk to the current group members before making any decision, even though what attracts her at first is the experience of the applicants, e.g. the places and research groups where the applicants have worked. ”I want to make sure that he or she fits into my group and gets along with the people in the group” she says.

Her experience in industry revealed that basic science is where her interest lies. After her postdoc, Nilla was offered a position in a biotech company in Denmark. She was hesitating at that time, but took the job in the end. ”It was a nice experience for me. But I did not feel fulfilled since the projects changed several times, and I want to focus on something I can dig deeper into and build on. I missed the university times”, Nilla recalls.

Once there was a chance, Nilla returned to academia. She started as a project leader and later established her own group at MTC, Karolinska Institutet. ”The moment I walked into the department and the lab, I feel that this is the right place and this is what I want to do” Nilla says. I believe it was an exciting moment for her, as I could see it from her eyes and hear it from her voice when she told me the story.

Since her return to academia, Nilla has been working productively, energetically and efficiently over decades. She has been supervising many PhD students and tries to keep herself updated even though there are several projects in the group. ”It is beneficial to have small and short meetings quite often with my group members to ensure that the projects progress, decisions can be made and everyone has what they need”. In addition to her research group, she has been a member of the MTC management group for 10 years and she is Deputy Chairman at MTC for the past 6 years. She is also a member of the Nobel Assembly and the Nobel Committee for Medicine or Physiology, which adds a lot of work.

The secret to her energy and efficiency is simple.
I like my work very, very much! I like the people in my group. They are smart and creative. I really enjoy working with them.”

I cannot agree more with her that passion derives from interest.


Experience Gunilla wants to share with PhD students:

  • An academic career spans over a long period of time. You accumulate your experience over time.
  • Focus on your research and less on University politics or administration if you want to continue your career in science.
  • People can always learn. So, do not be afraid of changing topics when you have an interest.
  • It is important to know people around, but not necessary to go for networking as a goal in itself.


Photo: Adapted from the Gunilla Karlsson Hedestam Group” page on KI’s website.
Photographer: John Sennett

This career portrait was originally written for the PhD course “Career skills for scientists”, organized every spring by KI Career Service. As explained in the introduction post, all participants in the course interviewed PhD holders with an academic or a non-academic career. Keep an eye on the tags #careerportrait, #InsideAcademia and #OutsideAcademia listed below, for a selection of these portraits. Get inspired and learn more about your options for your post-PhD career!



Related posts