Success Comes from the Heart

Dagmar Wachten leads her own Max Planck Minerva research group at caesar. (photo credit: caesar)

Bonn is full of extraordinary scientists doing extraordinary research. One particularly extraordinary scientist is PD Dr Dagmar Wachten, who currently leads her own Max Planck Minerva research group at research center caesar. Her research deals with developmental processes with a special focus on sperm and heart development. “We use different imaging techniques and most of them are related to molecular imaging, meaning we want to visualise signalling pathways using state-of-the-art techniques”, Dr Wachten explains. This expertise is also her connection to the field of immunology: “My methods haven’t been applied to immunological research yet and that’s why I’m cooperating with groups from the ImmunoSensation Cluster. I want to bring new techniques to the field.” Sounds promising!

Dr Wachten’s fate as a scientist was sealed quite early on: ”The first time I got in touch with science was during my advanced course in biology in school. I had a really good biology teacher, and I think she was the main reason why I went into science.” Being passionate about something can be very contagious, and after finishing high school, Dr Wachten went on to study Biology at the University of Cologne, pursuing both her Diploma and PhD theses in the lab of Prof U. B. Kaupp, who today is directing the well-known research center caesar in Bonn. During her PhD thesis, Dr Wachten started to work on heart development, a project that would continue to intrigue her for many more years: “I generated the first transgenic mouse model in Prof Kaupp’s lab working together with Prof K. Rajewski in Cologne. I basically learned everything about generating genetically altered mice in Prof Rajewski’s lab.”

Learning from the leading scientists of our time might be one important ingredient in the recipe for a scientific career, but when we asked Dr Wachten about critical steps in her career, she explained that there have been at least three more of them: “The first one was that I got my Boehringer Ingelheim fellowship as a PhD student. Thanks to the fellowship, I had a huge network and lots of people that I could ask for help. The second step was that I went to Cambridge, UK, and not to the US as a Postdoc because that allowed me to publish quite a few papers and stay in the heart field.” The third step, however, brought her back to Germany and finally sealed the fate of her scientific career: ”Prof Kaupp recruited me at a time when I still had funding in the UK. He told me that I had to come back now or never to start my very own group, and that’s why I decided within a week to go back to Germany.”

All that sounds like a swift ascent! But there have also been moments in which Dr Wachten was not so sure what her future would look like. “There was a time during my PhD when nothing worked, and I really thought that I didn’t want to do this anymore. But, after that, the last half year was really successful. The mouse was finally there, and it had a phenotype that I could analyse. That was the time when I decided that I was doing the right thing.” The fact that she finished her habilitation at the end of 2014 also shows how right that decision was.

Since 2011, Dr Wachten has given lectures for students from the LIMES Master programme and says that she really enjoys the teaching aspect behind it. “What I like most is that I can get people interested in what I’m doing. And to watch young people develop as scientists. I think teaching isn’t only teaching during courses but also teaching the PhD students in my lab. It’s really rewarding to see their scientific development from one year to the next.” The saying “you reap what you sow” seems to have a great influence on Dr Wachten’s approach to being a group leader: ”Besides working a lot and besides putting everything you’ve got into science, I think it’s also important that people feel happy in the lab and that the group is doing well. This is something that I try to focus on. If you’re not happy you can’t be productive”, she explains. When we asked about the single, most memorable compliment that a student has ever paid her, the answer was surprisingly simple: ”The nicest thing a student once said to me was that she wanted to follow the same path that I have followed. I think it can’t get any better than that!”

“Be comitted!” is Dagmar Wachten’s advice for young scientists. (photo credit: caesar)

Besides her love for old teacups, Dr Wachten is also a passionate collector of knowledge: “I think it’s really admirable when people can keep all of the scientific literature present in their minds and know everything about their field. I read a lot of papers, but sometimes I really wish I could remember more of what I’ve read. But my interests are quite broad, so maybe that makes it even tougher”, she smiles. But, speaking of tough, how is it possible to promote one’s science as a young professor amongst all the well-established labs? “The combination of techniques that we’re using and the kind of questions that we’re addressing are within a niche. I think it’s really important that you don’t go mainstream and that you find your own projects that you really like. Personally, I really like my projects.”

The “like” behind a certain thing might also be the secret ingredient to life as a researcher. “I think students should focus and make up their mind about what they really want. Studying is more than just getting credit points! Really think about what you like in science, which topics interest you and what types of techniques you like because only then you can be successful”, Dr Wachten emphasises. When we asked for a formula that has guided the outdoor-sports enthusiast during her career she used the following two words: “Be committed!”

Author: Sophie Schonauer