„It reminded me of science fiction stories about alien forms of life”
Thomas Barends, group leader at the MPI for Medical Research, on his story in life sciences – an interview.
What first got you interested in science?
I think that has always been there. There is not a particular event of anything like that but my family recognized it and stimulated it. I remember being given a microscope and a chemistry set, which were just the best gifts ever. In school, my teachers were supportive of doing extracurricular activities and there I got the chance to do some experiments at the university to prepare for a chemistry Olympiad.
Where did you train and what did you train in?
I trained at the Groningen University, in “biophysical chemistry”. That term is sort of an illustration of the fact that I like all the natural sciences and this has biology, physics and chemistry in it. If it had been possible to include astronomy, I would have probably done that.
It was quite clear to me since then that I wanted to do basic research. The application side of the natural sciences, such as technical chemistry, just never fascinated me as much as understanding life at its roots. This is why I came to Heidelberg in the beginning. I saw an opening at the department of Ilme Schlichting for a postdoc position in structural biology and it was just the right fit.
How did you get interested in your particular research topic?
I was reading and came across things I had never heard about in training, and that I found absolutely fascinating, because they reminded me of science fiction stories about alien forms of life.
Your research: simple and in a nutshell?
I look at the chemistry of really unusual forms of life: bacteria that live on really toxic chemicals, that use very unusual chemical elements in their cells, or make very exotic compounds.
What is so fascinating about that topic?
It sort of blurs the borders. In university you tend to learn about life in terms of categories, like: bacterial cells look like this, animal cells look like that. But it turns out that isn’t so strict, and for instance we work with bacteria that under the microscope show aspects of both. It is a bit like looking at the biology of an alien – you see things that from your training you would not have expected at all.
Can you explain this a bit further?
I am studying bacteria called Annamox bacteria which intriguingly look quite a bit like eukaryotic cells. In addition, we study enzymes that contain rare elements like cerium, which is also quite unusual. They are just not supposed to look like what we observe - and that is fascinating.
What does a day in the life of you as a researcher look like?
Most of my work nowadays is at the computer - either working on publications or working with data. But there are still days where I get to go into the lab and actually make a compound or collect data myself. My postdocs, PhD students and technical assistants do most of the work in the lab. For example, they produce chemical compounds to link to different enzymes of the bacteria or ‘produce’ the proteins we use for structural analysis.
What do you like most about our institute? Why did you choose the MPI and Heidelberg for your career path?
In my PhD, I had learned how to find out what a biological molecule looks like. That is very interesting but it yields a static image. The logical next step is to actually see how those molecules behave, by making a “movie” of them. And that is exactly what the department I am in now does.
What would be your advice to young researchers starting out in your field?
Learn the basics really well. There is a tendency nowadays just to teach people techniques. That is also because all of university education has been compressed into just a few years. But without understanding the basics I don’t think you will ever really understand what you are doing.
And your advice on choosing the right group?
I would always prefer a smaller group. At the beginning of your career, good mentoring is essential. You need to learn ‘how to play the game’. How do I plan my research? When should I publish my results? Which collaborations could benefit the project? In smaller groups, you can more easily get time with your PI and learn how to deal with questions like these.
What do you feel science should achieve for society?
It should make things better for everyone - and that last word “everyone” makes it a bit tricky sometimes. There are some very interesting current developments that could potentially do that, but that could also make things worse for many people. Examples are gene editing, pathway engineering and artificial intelligence. As we do basic research, we are (hopefully) creating a general understanding of life but that is the corner stone for new developments and applications so I believe we have to be part of the discussion about the ethics of possible applications.
Is there someone who made a special impact on your life?
I could not name certain role models but there is the story of Rita Levi-Montalcini that I found incredibly impressive. She was a Jewish scientist who had to go into hiding with her family during World War II. During that time, she set up a laboratory in a corner of their living space and studied the growth of nerve fibers in chicken embryos. She was later awarded the Nobel prize for medicine (1986) for her research into the nerve growth factor.
What would people be surprised to find out about you?
I like to watch really bad movies such as ‘Sharktopus vs. Whalewolf’ - so I guess I am what some cultural scientists have almost jokingly called a ‘cultural omnivore’. For me such movies are a great way to unwind.