Text written by Nóra Lehotai and Stefanie Willekens. Pictures owned by Stefanie Willekens.
I had a chat with Stefanie, who joined the Överby lab in February 2021 as a postdoctoral fellow. However, she was no stranger to Umeå by that time. Stefanie has a Belgian nationality and has lived in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden throughout her career. She shares her life with her dog, motorbike and an impressive stiletto collection.
Can you tell us about your role at MIMS, what are you working on now?
I am working in Anna Överby’s group, mainly on flaviviruses, but I am the only one in Anna’s group who is not a virologist. I have a
background in imaging. I did my PhD in nucleo imaging, so I am someone who is more specialized in image processing. I am developing new imaging strategies for visualizing viral spread in neurotropic viruses in the brain. In short: brain mapping of virus infection, what type of viruses and what do they cause in the brain and how to visualize that with imaging techniques, this is my main topic.
What were you doing before you joined MIMS and what attracted you to start a position here?
I have done a PhD in the Netherlands and then a postdoc in Belgium, which ended up with a bit of a bad academic experience. I decided to give up the postdoc position and take a break from academia, from its hierarchic and strict ways. I worked for the government for a while before I returned to academia in Umeå. Through UCMM, I came in contact with Anna in 2020, and I worked as a consultant for her group who needed help with proceeding images and analysing them. This work and the work environment here made me realize that I missed doing real research and this is what I really like to do. The new positive experience and changes in my personal life made it possible to apply for the postdoctoral position in Anna’s group and join her team.
How was it to start at a new workplace during the pandemic?
It is not that easy. I think that it is very important in the beginning that you get to know your colleagues and the social activities at work so you can get to know your co-workers. It is definitely more difficult. Just to have a coffee between experiments or having lunch or drinks on a Friday evening, I do miss those things. Of course, research has to go on, so it is not that we don’t see each other but it makes it a bit more difficult to get integrated. I have been working in this group as a consultant before on the project, so we were not total strangers, and the project was not entirely new either. However, it is a pity, because during the first months, if there are more social interactions, that can help a lot. We see each other on Zoom a lot, but it is not the same.
If you would not have your current profession, what do you think you would be doing?
Well, my best friend I studied biomedical sciences with, and we both did PhD, then postdoc, with her, we said that if we get tired of science, we would start a wedding planner service. So maybe that. Although, it is hard to imagine not doing anything science related. Especially that I have walked away from the hard-core basic science and then I realized that I have missed it so much.
What do you do in your free time and what are you most enjoying in living in Umeå, Sweden?
One of my greatest hobbies is to go skiing. Now that I am living in northern Sweden, I can just take the car and go skiing for a whole day. One of the first things I bought after I moved here, were new skies and skiing boots. I like downhill skiing. I am from Belgium, so when we went skiing, it was to the Alps and mainly downhill skiing. I do want to learn cross-country skiing, though. I like to be outdoors, go hiking, walking. The nature in this area really invites you to do that, and I like that a lot.
Stefanie skiing near Umeå, and with her dog at home in Belgium.
Is there a little known/interesting fact about yourself?
A lot of scientists are very focused only on science, but I have a thing for fashion, especially for high heel shoes. I have an extremely big stiletto collection. With a lot of pain in my heart, I had to leave them behind in Belgium when I moved here. They didn’t fit into my luggage, and I also found out soon after moving here that during the long winter here and spring months, it is just not possible to wear them. I brought three pairs with me, but I haven’t been able to wear them at all! Maybe this is something peculiar and unexpected from a scientist.