Thomas Wollert pursued his PhD in the laboratories of Wolf-Dieter Schubert and Dirk Heinz at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany. In 2008, he moved to the USA for a postdoctoral position with James Hurley at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, MD, as an EMBO Long Term Fellow. In 2010, Thomas returned to Germany to start his own group at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried. His work has been recognised with awards from the German Society for Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and the German Genetics Society. More recently, Thomas received the 2014 Walter Flemming Medal from the German Society for Cell Biology, the 2015 EMBO Young Investigator Award and the 2015 Eppendorf Prize for Young European Investigators. His laboratory combines biophysics with cell biology in order to study the process of autophagosome formation.
Why did you become a scientist?
It comes down to being curious. As a child, I was already interested in how nature and the universe work. I watched a lot of documentaries and read public science newspapers that explained science in an understandable way. I think that I was really curious and I wanted to have the answers.
Is curiosity still something that motivates you now?
Yes. I switched topics quite a lot: from PhD to postdoc, from postdoc to principal investigator. When I got into membrane biology, I discovered that not much is known and I was surprised to see that there are so many open questions, especially regarding the molecular mechanisms. This is something that motivates me today, to answer the questions that are still left in the field.
What are the questions that your lab is trying to answer?
We want to understand how the cell maintains homeostasis under challenging conditions. There is a lot of damage constantly occurring to proteins and organelles in cells. These are either going to be repaired or recycled, and the cell recycles everything. We are interested in an important recycling mechanism termed autophagy, and we would like to know how the cells are effecting that process. I started with a dream of putting together all the cell machinery to reconstitute an autophagosome from purified components in the test tube. In the end, it's still the dream and maybe the end-point of the research: just step-by-step, putting together everything that the cell does and requires, to eventually generate a functional autophagosome.
What elements were key to your success?
Being patient and persistent. If you want to answer interesting questions, which are still open, you have to realise that a lot of people have already tried to answer them, otherwise they would not still be open question. So if you start your experiments and you give up when you face a problem, you're doing the same as many other people have presumably done before you. For me, the key was not to lose patience and to continue trying to solve the problem.
“…the key was not to lose patience and to continue trying to solve the problem.”
What challenges did you face when starting your lab that you didn't expect?
When I came to Munich, I had one bench and my office – everything was empty! I brought my laptop in on the first day and I was sitting there: empty room, empty office – what do I do now? I didn't expect that! The challenge was getting the equipment, setting everything up so that the experiments were running. It's easy for the pipettes and Eppendorf tubes – you just order those. But I was terrified to spend 50,000 Euros on big equipment, because I had a budget, and even though it was a generous budget, it had to last for five years, and I had no experience! Getting people was even more difficult. I got lucky with very good applications, even as a young starting scientist, and now I have a very nice team.
How have these challenges changed as you progress in your career?
Spending money got easier [laughs], but getting good people is still the biggest issue. Because if you want to be successful as a group leader, the most important thing is that you need to have a good group!
What is the key element for attracting good people to your group?
First of all, good science and interesting projects. This is a little bit hard for us, because we're doing biophysics. People think that we are not doing much cell biology, although every project running in our lab is 50% in vitro work and 50% (or even more now) in vivo work, so it's really a very nice combination. But it means that you have to have a very good background or that you will need to learn a lot of new techniques, and that's preventing many people from being interested.
“…if you want to be successful as a group leader, the most important thing is that you need to have a good group!”
And what do you look for when recruiting?
I want to see that people are passionate and have enough curiosity to answer the question in the end. It's hard to attract people like that.
What one piece of advice would you give to someone about to start their own lab?
I got really good advice that I dismissed! It was training at the National Institutes of Health for how to become a principal investigator. The scientist who was giving this lecture told us that we should take a sheet of paper and write down everything we touch in the lab during the last two weeks of experimental research, and to get all that equipment in the beginning. I thought “I know that I need a pipette, a buffer and a centrifuge” and I dismissed it. I ordered pipettes, and the centrifuge, but when I wanted to do the first cloning experiment, I realised that there was some additional equipment that was missing. I would start experiments, and I would have to stop in the middle because one reagent was missing and I needed to order it. So my advice would be to just do this list! Another good advice for young principal investigators is to take teaching seriously. You could spend more time on research and not teach if you don't have to. But, in the end, you will apply for positions where you need to teach, and you need to show that you can teach.
Do you enjoy teaching?
Yes, I enjoy it very much. I have realised that it takes a long time! It is underestimated by many students how long it takes to prepare a good lecture. But, in the end, the benefit is when students come up to you and tell you that it was the most interesting lecture they have heard. That is the most rewarding thing, and if that happens, I know I did it right.
How did you get the most out of meetings early on?
During the first three years, I went to meetings without presenting anything, because starting in a new area of research is already very challenging and risky. That changed when the project was at the stage where I had enough data to have a good poster and maybe get selected for a short talk. It was still with preliminary data, but I wanted to know what people in the field thought. It's also very important to talk to people. The first time that I was visible in the autophagy community, I got a lot of attention and got invited to give presentations at institutes. It's always good to get connected to people, and I also talk about unpublished data and experiments that are far from publication. I trust that people don't want to use this for their own benefit, because I wouldn't do that myself.
How do you balance going to meetings with getting results in the lab?
It's important to be at meetings but it's enough to meet people from time to time. I like to go to about two meetings per year. This means I still maintain good connections to the field, and each time I might have new data to present. For me, that was enough to become visible and to get into the field. Local meetings are very important to get connected to the local community, especially if you are coming from a postdoc. I knew many people in the USA, but switching topics and coming to Germany, I was suddenly invisible, and I had to get the connections back.
What is something you are passionate about that you wouldn't put on your CV?
Perhaps that I'm interested in many other areas of science. I always wanted to know how the universe functions. I followed the Higgs particle investigation at CERN and how it developed. I read every small article, which explained it in a way that I could understand. Particle physics is something really interesting, unfortunately, I do not have enough time to get into that.
Thomas Wollert works at the Molecular Membrane and Organelle Biology, Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, Am Klopferspitz 18, 82152 Martinsried, Germany
An additional, short video interview with Thomas is also available, and can be viewed directly here: http://jcs.biologists.org/lookup/suppl/doi:10.1242/jcs.179069/-/DC1 or on the JCS Interviews page: http://jcs.biologists.org/site/collection/interviews.xhtml.
Thomas Wollert was interviewed by Anna Bobrowska, Editorial Intern at Journal of Cell Science. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewee.
- © 2015. Published by The Company of Biologists Ltd