Why is science fascinating to you?
As a boy, I was amazed that a magnifying glass enables you to study tiny objects in great detail and collected all kinds of bugs. My fascination of that small world which you can’t see with the naked eye has never faded. I like to understand the things around me.
Did you find a suitable magnifying glass at the MDC?
I joined Oliver Daumke’s group to investigate proteins which basically act like molecular scissors. If you want to know how proteins work on a molecular level you need to elucidate their 3D structure and the “magnifying glass” used to achieve atomic resolution is called a synchrotron. It’s basically a huge electron storage ring like the one in Berlin-Adlershof with a diameter of 120 metres. After my PhD, I did a six month postdoctoral fellowship at the MDC which gave me the opportunity to wrap things up and to concentrate on the next big step – a postdoctoral position abroad.
So you went to New York …
Yes. At the time, my aim was to pursue an academic career and eventually establish my own research group focussing on the molecular principles of cellular communication and nutrient uptake. I was highly motivated. My colleagues at the MDC were awesome, my project went very well, and Oliver Daumke was a role model, a motivator, a brilliant scientist, and a friend. A postdoc in the U.S. seemed to be the next logical step. Also, I was fascinated by the United States. As a kid growing up in the GDR, New York seemed unreachable to me. But 25 years after the Wall came down, I moved to the city of my dreams.
And did it turn out to be a dream come true?
To be honest, the first six months were a disaster and I was about to cancel everything and go back to Berlin. It was really hard for me to connect with Americans. My project was based on ideas that felt unrealistic to me, and the chemistry between my boss and I was just not right. So I began to look for alternatives within New York. A year later, I started a second postdoc attempt at Columbia University in the lab of Wayne Hendrickson.
Was that the right move?
Looking back, I am really happy I did this. In academic science, everything is based on deadlines and there is virtually no time for re-orientation. That’s why most people stick to their lab, even when they are in a miserable situation. Fortunately, I was still eligible to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship from the German Research Foundation and succeeded in 2016.
After the switch I found a way to get back to myself. In my current project, I am investigating ion channels that are embedded in the cell membrane. Electrolytes can only pass the cell membrane by slipping through their respective channel: chloride ions use chloride channels, sodium ions use sodium channels, and so on. But how do they open only for their respective ion and stay closed for others? I am interested in this specificity.
My magnifying glass has drastically changed as there were several technical breakthroughs during the last couple of years. I am now using super-resolution cryo-electron microscopes which are easier to use than a synchrotron. I think this technology is the future in my field of research.
Do you see your future there as well?
Well, it would have been my focus originally. But then I met Philip at a party. I love the New York electronic music scene and I like to socialize a lot. Philip is also German, but he lives in L.A. and he is a social-media marketing genius. We got on really well. About four months after our first encounter he contacted me asking: “You are a biochemist, right?” Me: “Yes, did we talk about this?” Philip: “Great! Can you imagine inventing a beverage that neutralizes food-borne bad breath?” Me: “What?!” Philip: “Yes, so when you drink it, it neutralizes garlic or onion”. My first reaction was typical for a scientist. I was very sceptical. I told Philip I will look into it and did not really take it seriously. But Philip was persistent. Very persistent!
Did he change your mind?
I am now co-founder and CTO of a small start-up. I’ve successfully created a delicious beverage which completely neutralizes any onion or garlic taste in your mouth, something which I assumed was impossible. My scientific background and Philip’s persistence were key to our success. We invited 60 testers and let them compare our product with a commercial mouthwash. The results were stunning! Currently, we are preparing a clinical study. It will be conducted by Cornell University, paid by our first investors. If everything goes well we would like to hit the market in 2018. My green card application is pending. Fingers crossed!
The interview is one profile the current Alumni brochure, which was published in January 2018.