What is the current focus of your research, and what do you find most rewarding about your work?
Since 2011 I have been involved in a variety of translational research programs, in particular in the area of early stage small molecule drug discovery. We work with a broad network of basic and clinical scientists in a collaborative spirit to validate their targets in the context of a specific disease (which can be neurological, cardiovascular, metabolic, cancer, infection etc.). Typically, we jointly develop assays with these partners and try to find starting points for drug development programs, i.e. validated small molecule hits or leads which show efficacy in biochemical or cell-based assays. The most rewarding aspects of my work are the breadth of scientific topics that I am exposed to and meeting specialists in their respective fields of research.
What led you to become a scientist and to stem cell research?
As a teenager I dreamt about digging out dinosaur fossils. I knew quite early that I wanted to become a scientist, although I struggled for some time as to which topic I should study. Eventually I studied biology and specialized in molecular biology, biochemistry, and computer science and I haven´t regretted that decision since. Since I studied transcription factor biology for several years, which for me are the most amazing proteins identified so far, I was always close to stem cell biology. I was especially intrigued by the transdifferentiation studies conducted in the early 2000s by the group of Thomas Graf during the early days of my PhD. Being able to utilize stem cell technology for translational science and drug discovery was a natural next step during my development as a researcher. We began this work in 2013 at Fraunhofer IME with the help of a large grant from the European Commission.
What is the most exciting aspect of your work?
Most exciting to me is still the ability of human iPS cells to differentiate into cells of specific lineages. Generating mature neurons with functional properties still amazes me, as do beating cardiomyocytes derived from hiPSC.
What guidance would you share in talking with trainees interested in pursuing your area of research?
My advice would be: learn who is funding research very early in your career and learn how to successfully apply for it. I only started to apply for my own research money in my early 30s, which is too late in my eyes. You can dream up any kind of science you want to pursue, but keep in mind that someone has to pay for it -- so develop a good skillset that enables you to secure that funding.
Do you have any mentors or individuals who have inspired you in your stem cell work?
I always try to learn from colleagues who are better scientists than me. Achim Leutz in Berlin inspired my passion for transcription factors and cell lineage determination. Angus Lamond in Dundee taught me what is right and wrong in science. I have learned a 1000 things about stem cells from Franz-Josef Müller (Kiel), the inventor of PluriTest. Without him I wouldn´t have been able to access the stem cell community so easily.
How do you spend your free time?
We have a little boy and I try to spend as much time with him as I can. He is definitely the best thing I achieved in my life. Apart from that I like to travel and discover new places and topics, and also the history behind them.
What is something your peers would be surprised to learn about you?
Last year I hike across the Alps - an amazing experience.
What do you most value about your membership with the ISSCR?
My first annual conference as a member was 2015 in Stockholm, maybe the best scientific meeting I ever attended. I felt embraced by the ISSCR community since day one. For me the biggest value of the ISSCR membership is easy access to relevant colleagues in the field of stem cell biology, a forum to come together on a regular basis to exchange ideas, discuss joint projects or plan future ones, and a setting to simply have fun and a good time together.