PhD candidate in the spotlight: PATRICK TJOK JOE

PhD candidate in the spotlight:  PATRICK TJOK JOE

Could you briefly introduce yourself and your research project (in laymen terms).

My name is Patrick Tjok Joe, Msc in Biomedical Sciences and currently in my 4th year of my PhD at the laboratory of Molecular and Cellular Therapy (LMCT) under the guidance of Prof. Joeri Aerts and Prof. Dr. Kris Thielemans. I am of Chinese-Surinamese descent and was born in the Netherlands before coming to Belgium in 2001. After finishing my high school in the Sint-Rita college in Kontich, I started my bachelor degree in biomedical sciences at the VUB and worked my way up to my Masters. During this period, I had the pleasure to do my Master thesis at the LMCT on cancer vaccines under the supervision of Prof. Karine Breckpot which then inspired me to pursue a PhD in immunology.

Since then, I have moved from cancer to the field of infectious diseases in which I am currently involved in the evaluation of messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines against HIV and influenza.

While these viruses are very different, they do share the similarity of being able to rapidly mutate and evade immune responses, making the design of a robust vaccine against these viruses a challenging pursuit. This mutational ability is highlighted by the fact that you have to take a new ‘ flu shot’  each year for influenza and is also one of the major reasons that we still don’t have a vaccine against HIV.

The safety and versatility of mRNA  provides an interesting platform for vaccination as it can encode any molecule including specific ‘conserved’ viral regions that do not mutate easily. Hence, in theory, one could use mRNA to design a one-time ‘one-size-fits-all’ vaccine against influenza or against HIV. This versatility also extends to the design of customized immunostimulatory molecules and combinations thereof for the enhancement of a wide range of vaccines against different infectious diseases as well as cancer.

The fun part of being involved in complex projects is the opportunity to work with several collaborators and tackling the issues and challenges together. During my PhD, I have had the pleasure to be involved in the iHIVARNA consortium, which led to the clinical evaluation of a mRNA HIV vaccine, as well as close collaborations with the lab of Prof. Xavier Saelens at the VIB for the preclinical evaluation of a mRNA vaccine against influenza.

In addition, the recent establishment of the spin-off company eTheRNA from the lab, gave me the unique position to observe how business knowledge comes into play when you want to transfer research from the bench to the patient’s bedside. This then fuelled my interest for the life science industry, which then led to me doing a Master in Management alongside my PhD to better understand the business world.  The complexity of the ecosystem of the Life Science Industry and its many sectors truly remains a fascinating subject to me and soon I found myself searching for even more knowledge. It was also then that I realized how little I, and probably other PhD students, know about the structure of the industry, its career opportunities and the business processes that occur behind-the-scenes.

Together with friends and colleagues, we then launched the Bionitiative group in May 2017 to bring this knowledge to both students and academic researchers in order to raise awareness on their career options in industry and provide insight into the principles, business processes and challenges that are required to translate research into innovative care.  Currently, we are supported by the doctoral schools of Life Science and Medicine of the VUB,, the Erasmus hogeschool Brussel, the ULB and I3health institute.

Additional (choose the ones you wish to answer, you can skip some of them):

Have there been times where your research wasn’t really working out the way you expected it to be? How did you cope with this difficulty? Or: What kept you motivated to continue nevertheless.

Let’s just say that the struggle is real when you’re doing a PhD. Especially when you have a ratio of 1:10 (if not higher) success to failed experiments, like me. When I started my PhD, these failures really hit hard, but being a more experienced PhD student now (with failure at least) you just have to realize that it’s all about the journey. Scientific work is a lot like finding treasures at the bottom of the ocean. A lot of rocks, very little gold, but an exciting journey on its own.

Is there something you want to share with the VUB PhD Community?

Looking for a career in the life science industry? Or just curious on how this business operates? Join Bionitiative on the 12th of October for the launch of our flagship Afterwork event series BioTwist. This Afterwork event combines powerful presentations together with delicious drinks and fingerfood for an interdisciplinary, informal and interactive experience.

Meet industry professionals during our networking drink or talk to on-site recruiters for career tips or to jumpstart your next adventure! More information and registration at or connect with us on Facebook or LinkedIn at Bionitiative.

Do you have a healthy work-life balance? If so, could you share the secret ingredient(s)?

I think the secret ingredient to a happy life is to find hobbies and other interests outside of your work/PhD and most importantly surround yourself with good people, friends and family. Make time to hang out with them and don’t make being tired because of work an excuse to not go out. Live it up in the weekends, you’ve earned it.

Finally and it’s perhaps a cliché but exercise and a healthy diet replaces any espresso shot when it comes to staying focussed, happy and in balance.

Were there unexpected situations wherein skills (…) your learned via your research or doctoral school trainings came in handy?

I feel that during the PhD, you obtain a lot of transferable skills such as the ability to absorb a lot of information in a short period of time as well as figuring things out relatively quickly. This ability helped me a lot for example when I started the Master in Management despite not having any background in business or economics.

Furthermore, the ability to keep going despite failure is a handy skill to have in any situation.

What career plans do you have after your PhD?

It’s probably not a surprise, but I would like to transition into industry. My ambition is to get a job that would revolve around boosting productivity and efficiency within a company by putting the right people in the right positions, sharing knowledge, and creating ‘dream team’ compositions with a project management style that suits the purpose of the team as well as the company culture. The absolute job of my dreams would also involve traveling a lot and meeting new people to share stories, experiences and knowledge with.