“Not many natural scientists can offer the combination of basic research and clinically oriented research.”
Through the “InFlame” Medical Scientist Programme at the University of Münster, eleven postdocs from the fields of biology, chemistry and computer science have begun a structured training programme for natural scientists in medical research. The programme, which is funded by the Else Kröner-Fresenius Foundation, strengthens the connection between basic research and patient-oriented research in the field of inflammation, and supports participants to pursue research careers in biomedicine. Prof. Dr Petra Dersch, the programme’s spokesperson and an infection biologist at the University of Münster’s Faculty of Medicine, talks about the specific role of medical scientists, their career prospects and the contents of the career programme. The interview was conducted by Doris Niederhoff.
Why is it important that natural scientists apply their knowledge in the field of medical research?
In order to be able to identify and treat diseases, it’s vitally important that we scientifically research their cause, transfer fundamental discoveries into new therapeutic or diagnostic strategies, and bring back any open questions to the laboratory. Through this circle, researchers from the natural sciences and medicine drive medical progress together. Knowledge and technologies from disciplines such as biology and chemistry, for example, are essential for labelling cells and examining them in the organism using imaging modalities, or for genetically analysing and changing cells. Research with these technologies produces enormous datasets that must be analysed – which is where computer science comes in. And model calculations based on those can then help with the development of biomedical hypotheses.
How might the collaboration between researchers from the natural sciences and medicine look in practice?
What’s so exciting here is that the perspectives are so different and complementary. For example, with multi-resistant bacteria, I – as a biologist – look at what resistances a bacterial strain exhibits, and I want to know the precise molecular causes for that. In contrast, medical doctors are primarily interested in the clinical implications and the question of what treatment is most suitable. When an infection is caused by multi-resistant bacteria, it’s vital to act immediately – it’s a matter of life and death. It’s not so important, and probably not possible due to time constraints, to know all the details about the bacteria. But when we conduct research, we have to investigate the causes at a deep level in order to develop the best possible diagnostic and therapeutic approaches for clinical practice.
The Medical Scientist Programme is supposed to contribute to this synergy of research and clinical practice. What moved you personally to get involved as the programme’s spokesperson?
Over the course of my career, I’ve noticed that, as a natural scientist, I was lacking knowledge and contacts in clinically oriented research. We natural scientists can make a constructive contribution to solving many of the problems that arise in clinical practice. But we often don’t find out about these issues until later or are not actively informed. And when these kinds of issues arise, we’re lacking certain background knowledge: what do I need to bear in mind when working with blood or tissue samples? How do I get hold of human biosamples in the first place? Whom should I contact and how? The required network is often lacking. In Münster, a culture has developed in which there is a continuous exchange between medicine and the natural sciences – that is not the case everywhere. Colleagues from both disciplines actively come together, and the usual barriers just aren’t there. In this kind of environment, you can develop very different thought patterns, and together, conceive very different experiments that are geared much more towards clinical practice. Now, with this structured programme, we’re aiming to transfer this interaction from the professorship level to the level of researchers in the postdoc phase.
What exactly does this training programme involve?
Firstly, in a seminar series, we bring programme participants and clinician scientists together so that they can establish a close exchange and collaboration on the junior level from the very beginning. At the same time, we involve them in the activities of local research networks. All the participants conduct research on the dynamics of inflammatory responses, a field in which Münster has a strong research community. This makes it easy for participants to network with all of their colleagues in this research area both locally and internationally, establish collaborations, learn new techniques and independently acquire third-party funding.
A second key element is the special, medicine-oriented training on content natural scientists would not normally come into contact with. For example, how does an inflamed organ actually look? How is a clinical study conducted? How do you write an ethics application? It’s important to know these things so that you can assess the medical relevance of your own research and develop ideas on how fundamental scientific findings could be translated into clinical applications.
And thirdly, we supervise the participants in their research and career development, with individual mentoring by experienced scientists from the natural sciences and medicine, and with targeted skills training. This allows them to learn, little by little, everything they’ll need later to lead a research group. Structured programmes are already fairly common as part of doctorate degrees, but this kind of opportunity is still quite rare in the subsequent postdoc phase.
What are the career prospects of the medical scientists taking part in this programme?
Not many natural scientists can offer the combination of basic research and clinically oriented research. I am therefore convinced that everyone who decides to pursue this path in science with genuine motivation will enjoy great success. However, you do have to persevere in the system. Many people are put off because an academic career does not offer permanent positions for some time. But demand for qualified medical scientists will continue to rise. And collaborating with the medical field and with various natural-scientific disciplines is very inspirational and can be very fulfilling. There are always new technologies, new knowledge and interesting opportunities for national and international collaboration – it’s a wonderful career.