Dr Matthias Geyer is the leader of the Structural Immunology group located at the center of advanced european studies and research (caesar). After studying physics in Kiel and Heidelberg, he decided against chasing the Higgs boson but became fascinated about applying physical and chemical methods to biological questions. Here he talks about the use of biophysical methods in immunology, important character traits of young researchers and how to combine a challenging job with a fulfilling family life.
Dr Geyer, thanks a lot for supporting the ImmunoSensation Blog with your interview. Briefly, which topics are you working on?
Our work focusses on the regulation of eukaryotic transcription and gene expression profiling. Therefore, we apply biochemical and structural means. We have also characterised highly specific single-domain antibodies produced in llamas.
How far do you think biophysical methods can help understand questions of immunology?
Biophysical and biochemical methods should always be understood as complementary to “classical” immunological/cell biological approaches. In the end, it comes down to the identification of individual molecules such as nucleic acids or proteins. The detailed characterisation of interactions between those components is the basis of our work. Our methods enable the reduction of a complicated system to its core elements. Finally, this information helps understand the complex phenomenology of a cellular event.
Let’s have a look into the future. Which research areas and techniques would you regard as “hot topics” in the field of immunology?
This question is really hard to answer. Immunological research is of high importance as you can see from its relevance to blood transfusions, organ transplants and – of course – infectious diseases. Within the cluster, I am excited by the research conducted on the inflammasome and foreign RNA/DNA recognition. Additionally, next generation sequencing and the CRISPR/Cas9 system are very powerful, recent techniques not only for immunological but for cell biological research in general.
I would like to change the topic to career planning: What do you think are the most important character traits of a successful young researcher?
Frustration tolerance and enthusiasm, perhaps – these are the most important things. But it’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand you need to be persistent and pursue your goal, but on the other hand you also need to be open-minded and realise the point when you have to generally change your approach. Important prerequisites are also reproducibility and accuracy. Finally, curiosity is indispensable.
What were the critical steps in your career? Were there any fortunate coincidences which played a role?
I think the choice of the lab where I performed my postdoctoral research was pretty important. I worked with Matija Peterlin at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) in San Francisco in his virology group. I was amazed by the fact that compared to some fields of physics where you need an enormous amount of equipment and manpower as exemplified by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, you can perform many relevant experiments in an “ordinary” lab. During this period I also decided that I wanted to stay in academia. Prior to my stay at the HHMI I was mainly applying nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) but this time opened my mind for molecular biology and biochemistry. The first steps however were a biophysics lecture I attended in Kiel and the choice of my diploma thesis when I decided not to go into high energy physics but to pursue biophysics in Heidelberg. I also remember poster presentations during conferences as being very inspiring but there was no single event which changed my plans entirely.
A last personal question: How do you manage to combine a demanding job with your family life?
I regard the way you work as a general attitude, and I would work with the same dedication if I had decided for another job. Many of my former fellow students became business consultants and work with full commitment, too. Most importantly, you need to find a job which you can perform with all your passion. The fact that my wife is also a scientist (she works in adult education) made it a lot easier for me since she knows how academic research works. I hope I can serve as a role model for my children by pursuing a career path which I really feel called to do.