Interdisciplinarity – Thinking outside the box

Think outside the box! (image from

Years ago, when I finished school, a small but special human population termed mom and dad expected me to decide what to do with my life. “Benedikt, do something meaningful!” my parents said. Thus, highly motivated I enrolled at the University of Bonn and started studying biology. That was amazing! Everything was fantastic and my fellow students and me were the opposite of focused: A lot of new colleagues, a new way of learning and historic buildings here in Bonn. You could feel it: Thousands of students sweated liters of blood during tough examinations. Thousands had passed and thousands had failed before. My colleagues and I were fascinated by nearly everything. So, the first lectures took place – e.g. the “autapomorphies of the metazoan”. Wow, people think that there was something earlier than grandma and grandpa or the ancient uncle Peter from the very south of Germany! Well, the topics further varied from botany, zoology over cell biology to immunology – and the crowd was more or less interested. Moreover, some students directly mentioned that they are only fascinated by one topic, for example botany. From my site: Ok, I passed the exam. But which was the right subject to focus on in the future?

Over the years I took my exams, intermediate diploma and the courses changed to more practical courses than before. Importantly, my parents were satisfied. But then something came across that was absolutely necessary to push my motivation: Parasitology. Something about ugly worms and terrible diseases (like shown in a BBC documentary about parasites in your body). I participated in two parasitology lab courses and started my laboratory internship. For the first time I was truly fascinated by a topic: There are creatures that can modify the responses of the immune system. People infected by filariae (nematodes) can get strong pathologies like blindness in onchocerciasis or get thick legs like in elephantiasis. Briefly, worms want to survive and to reproduce but they can do more and can also be protective against diabetes and sepsis (Berbudi et al. 2016, Hübner et al. 2013). How is that possible? I wanted to know more about this. And so I applied for a three-year fellowship and started my two PhD projects in the lab of my group leader Dr. Marc Hübner at the parasitology department of the University Hospital Bonn.

Brugia malayi (from

Over the years I attended several meetings from different societies and finally the ImmunoSensation Cluster Science Days. There, I recognized how many topics were interesting to me! This was my second wakeup call as an interdisciplinary scientist. What a great possibility to combine the analysis of immune modulation and the protective impact on inflammatory and autoimmune diseases! As you may have guessed already, during my PhD I got the chance to combine immunology with parasitology and genetics. I examined genetic factors that influence the interindividual variation of human gene expression to find context-specific expression quantitative trait loci (eQTLs). This means, we stimulate human immune cells e.g. with helminth extracts and LPS and identify genetic variants and new pathways that may be linked to the development of filarial pathology like elephantiasis and may impact bystander immune responses and autoimmunity.

Today, at the end of my PhD thesis and this impressive period of time I think that a great diversity of scientific knowledge will become more important to understand complex relationships. Biology is not only one field – it is the combination of all life sciences. There are often experimental outcomes that you cannot elucidate completely. Interdisciplinary meetings like the Winter School “Immunology meets Genomics and Bioinformatics” of the Bonn Cluster of Excellence ImmunoSensation in Obergurgl this year and different lectures during the academic year are very important to improve social and scientific networking, to answer your scientific questions, and to improve your experiments. There are more than these two options: What is the reason for my result and what could that also cause? Thus, think outside the box!





Berbudi A  et al. (2016) Filarial Infection or Antigen Administration Improves Glucose Tolerance in Diet-Induced Obese Mice. J Innate Immun. 8(6):601-616.

Hübner MP et al. (2013) Helminths and their implication in sepsis – a new branch of their immunomodulatory behaviour? Pathog Dis. 69(2):127-141.


Author: Benedikt Bürfent