After working at the National Institute for Medical Research (UK) and at the National Institutes for Health (USA), Christoph Wilhelm joined the cluster in July and was appointed as assistant professor for Immunopathology in September last year. We talked to him about the different mindsets he encountered on his way and his ideas on how to develop his research as well as the German research environment.
The Erasmus Program is good for lazy students who want to enjoy some time to party? Maybe. For Christoph Wilhelm a term in Sweden sparked his curiosity: Which opportunities are there beyond the national borders? What distinguishes research environments in different countries? When he finished his studies in Munich in 2007, he decided to move to Gitta Stockinger’s lab in London for his PhD thesis. That was the time when he learned to value the British attitude a lot. “You learn that you don’t need to take yourself too serious”. At the same time he acknowledges that these kind of bold and simple statements only provide a glimpse on reality, but can never fully cover it.
Research-wise, Christoph always had a particular interest in cytokines, soluble proteins that immune cells like to use as transmitters of information. The expansion of the classical T helper subset paradigm, including the discovery of Th17 cells (T helper cells characterized by their production of the cytokine IL-17) was a hot topic at the time. This sparked the interest in IL-9 producing T cells during his PhD in London. Investigating IL-9 producing cells, it turned out that a large proportion of these cells belonged to the newly discovered innate lymphoid cells (ILC). Those were first described as cells that do not belong to any of the classical lineages of T cells, B cells or myeloid cells but would produce abundant amounts of specific cytokines in barrier organs such as the lung or the gut, which are now recognized as an important component of the body’s defense against disease-causing intruders . Later, when he went to the NIH as a postdoc, he continued his work on ILC but switched his focus to their dietary regulation. He discovered that in the context of malnutrition the expansion of a particular subset of innate lymphoid cells type called ILC2 is able to compensate for the limited functionality of the adaptive immune response.
His time at the NIH also taught Christoph further lessons on what is required to be successful in the competitive academic society in the United States: Long working hours, a professional environment and the right attitude to promote your findings are what he found to be crucial. “Accomplishments are rewarded with more funding and hence the resources are distributed in a rather focused manner [compared to Europe/Germany].” Yet, from his experiences, the possibility to undertake side projects on “crazy ideas” was rather limited. “What you need to be successful is all of this: secure funding to run your lab and tackle intricate questions patiently, incentives to make timely progress as well as some financial freedom to follow chance findings along the way.”
Back in Germany his research follows up on his findings in the US: “Our body has evolved to deal with food shortage and malnutrition. We already know that it is not well adapted to deal with oversupply that comes with the so called Western diet. How about the immune system? May our changed lifestyle also affect immune reactions, for instance those of innate-like lymphocytes in the gut? If we understand the immune system’s role in situations of malnutrition , maybe we can also get deeper insights in what is going wrong when food is not limited.”
With his experiences from abroad and a head full of ideas, Christoph Wilhelm is currently setting up his own research group. “To my mind it would be very important for the Cluster to be funded for more than just five years […] The Cluster provides a great environment for collaborations and excellent research.” In Bonn, he hopes to find the prerequisites for success fulfilled. We hope so, too, and wish him an excellent start and all the best for his research!