“Science is like a jigsaw puzzle”

A lab visit to Dr. Sebastian Rumpf / interview series by the Cells in Motion Cluster of Excellence
The biologist Dr Sebastian Rumpf heads a Cells in Motion Junior Research Group at the Institute of Neurobiology and Behavioral Biology.
© Uni MS/Heiner Witte

Dr. Rumpf, what scientific topic are you working on right now?

Our research group deals with neuronal morphogenesis. How are neurons (i.e. nerve cells) formed as an organism develops? Special attention is given to neuronal processes (i.e. axons and dendrites) which enable nerve cells to connect with each other and to pass on signals. We want to know how axons and dendrites grow and link up. But most of all, we are interested in how neuronal extensions retract, for atrophy is also an important part of the development process. The brain of a small child, for instance, has a lot more synaptic connections (i.e. links between nerve cells) than the brain of an adult. As a child gets older synapses and neuronal processes atrophy because they have failed to develop a specific function. This wasting away is known as pruning. It makes the brain more efficient. We study pruning in the larvae of drosophila fruit flies, whose skin contains nerve cells which can easily be examined with the aid of a microscope.

What characterizes you personally as a scientist?

I dare say it’s the fact that I enjoy discussions. I like to get to the bottom of things and probe into questions that I find interesting. When something strikes me as odd I sit up and take notice, as it were. In my view science is like a kind of analytical jigsaw puzzle.

What is your greatest aim as a scientist?

Oh, that’s a difficult question. One of my aims is undoubtedly to impart to other people the pleasure I derive from my work, for scientific research can be tremendous fun. I started my junior research group three and a half years ago. I’d like to consolidate the group and anchor it firmly in the university environment. The main reason why I want to do this is to prove to myself that I’m capable of achieving this aim.

What’s your favourite research toy – and what can it do?

We’ve got some really good microscopes in our institute. It’s a genuine pleasure to work with them and carry out tests to find out what kinds of problems they can be used to solve. Thus, for instance, confocal microscopes can often be used to photograph living nerve cells. This is known as live imaging.
I’m very taken with a rather commonplace microscope I’ve set up here. It’s a binocular instrument which we’ve already used to screen several thousand lines of flies. It’s the simplest microscope we have, but it’s admirably well adapted to our purposes.

Can you remember your happiest moment as a scientist?

What’s really overwhelming is when something works for the first time. While working on my doctoral thesis, for instance, I was enthralled when I first beheld the chromatogram of a new protein complex. In the course of my post-doctoral research I experienced the same kind of thrill when I got my first photograph of a fly brain with fluorescently labeled neurons. This gave me enormous pleasure because up to then I wasn’t very good at using a microscope. In my view, the first good research findings one arrives at unaided are the best ones. One really gets a kick out of those results. However, that’s not to say that a researcher doesn’t experience exhilarating moments later on in his career.

And what was your biggest frustration?

Well, frustration is a recurrent problem. After all, experiments are invariably time-consuming and involve a considerable amount of work. One has to learn to cope with setbacks. This becomes easier as one gains experience. I’m now aware that for each experiment, there is only maybe a 20 percent chance of succeeding. So to cope, you just do five experiments instead of one! You become more immune to frustration if you know how exhilarating good research findings can be. One has to learn how to contain one’s impatience. And of course one needs to be aware of the fact that scientists can’t make predictions.

Which scientific phenomenon still regularly fascinates you today?

There are some classical publications which I enjoy reading and which continue to fascinate me. For example, I like a paper that was published in 1975. It was written by a professor with whom I once studied. In this paper, he and his colleagues gave the first description of the signal structures of proteins. These structures play a decisive role in the regulation and distribution of proteins. Then, they only had extremely simple methods at hand, but these researchers demonstrated things which are of paramount importance and which have far-reaching consequences still today. Nowadays we would probably approach such problems with much more sophisticated, or let’s better say, more complicated, manner.
In everyday life, I can barely contain my enthusiasm when we produce a fascinating video showing living neurons. Photos taken with microscopes are not just scientifically valuable but also pleasing to the eye. They exercise a tremendous fascination upon me.

What big scientific question would you like to have an answer to?

Oh, that’s a difficult question. I ask students that in interviews. For my part, I think we might make some very interesting discoveries if we were to apply our data about pruning to more highly developed model organisms such as mice. This would enable us to find out what happens when pruning in more highly developed organisms is interfered with. In the medium term this is actually entirely conceivable.

How much artistry, creativity and craftsmanship is there in your scientific work?

Well, one needs to have a certain amount of manual dexterity and craftsmanship. For instance, our work involves the removal of the small pupated fruit fly larvae from their cocoons, and samples have to be carefully prepared. When scientists proceed like jigsaw puzzle players they undoubtedly need to be creative. When conducting research we always have to spend a great deal of time piecing together individual findings and fragmentary data. When all the jigsaw pieces have fitted into place we set our findings in relation to research results produced by other research groups and scholars working in other fields of investigation.
As for art... Well, I’m afraid that as a rule my own pictures don’t look as good as those produced by my doctoral students. (He laughs.) Since I approach everything in a relatively systematic and rational manner, I’m dare say I’m not endowed with the talents one needs to have in order to create art out of a photo taken with a microscope.