During such unprecedented times, how you are managing to push forward with your research?
As a scientist and a group leader, especially during these difficult times, you have to be open-minded and flexible. Luckily this is something that we are trained to do as scientists, as we are always faced with new developments and new insights that we have to be open-minded towards. Fortunately I’m blessed with a wonderful group.
Once we could open up the labs again, we had to work in a shift system. This required a high level of flexibility, with the group being required to change the way they work, including working on weekends. Flexibility of your own organisation and time is required, along with the skills to be open to new ideas and new collaborations within the group. This has actually opened up new possibilities for members in my group. Still, being forced to cut down direct interactions and ensure physical distance was extremely hard, since we are a very interactive and social group!
What excites you most about your area of research and what has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?
What I love about our research field is that it is so multidisciplinary, which allows me to talk scientifically and creatively with other scientists from other disciplines. You realise that what you are doing in the lab can really be a game changer for them! Over the past years, through interactions with clinicians, medicinal chemists, biophysicists, structural biologists etc, I have been able to realise the true impact of some of the methods that we have developed, which is incredibly rewarding. For example, recently we have been successful in founding a company, Tubulis, demonstrating the utility of some of our research in the area of antibody-conjugates.
Still, if I have to pick one moment, it was a meeting of a PhD student of mine with a clinician from The Charité in Berlin, who was working on Alzheimer’s disease. The Charité researcher didn’t know that much about our field and the options available around synthesising phosphorylated proteins, which is a specific project that we were working on. We talked with him and developed some antibodies for the tau protein, which he was incredibly excited about as it opened up a lot of new avenues for him. After this meeting, my PhD student was speechless. He told me later that he could have never imagined a situation where he, as a chemist, could impress a medical doctor in such a way. This was such an amazing moment for me, where I was able to really see the impact that our research had on one of my group members. In my role as a group leader, it is my job to educate and inspire the next generation of scientists, so this was for sure a most special moment of experiencing this.
What do you find most challenging about your research?
Carrying out research that encompasses many different areas of research can be rewarding, but it’s not possible for me to keep up with every development in the literature for each area so this aspect can be challenging. It’s a constant learning process. You have to manage each collaboration individually, and you have to really put your trust in those who you are collaborating with. We’re doing our best and the projects have gone well so far so we don’t seem to be doing a bad job at this!
As scientists, it is also important to appreciate that we are each limited in our own knowledge. We cannot know everything. I’m impressed with people who are honest about the limits of their knowledge, and to be open about this in order to learn from other people. I try to live by this as much as possible.
You have reviewed over 100 times for Chemical Science over the past 10 years. How do you feel the journal has developed over your time as a reviewer?
I feel that it is very important for me to assist in the review process. Reviewing is a privilege but also a duty that everybody should fulfil in order to give back to the community.
Over the time that I have been reviewing for the journal, I believe that Chemical Science has become more established, and that the community now recognise it as the flagship journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry. More and more, Chemical Science is becoming a home for exploratory and innovative research to the journal. Research is submitted detailing cutting edge technologies, some of which may still be quite fundamental and in the early stages of development, but which are truly ground-breaking and novel. I’ve seen more and more developments in this field as a reviewer. I think the journal has greatly majored in this way to establish itself as a leading journal in the chemical sciences.
You also recently joined the Chemical Science Advisory Board. What would you say are the strengths of the journal, and what input do you hope to have during your time in this role?
I think a key strength of the journal, as touched upon earlier, is that it offers a home for cutting edge and novel research.
In terms of how I can provide input during my time on the board – this would of course be through providing advice for any critical issues on papers, or providing input on any decision making processes. However, as an Advisory Board member, I also want to help to promote and highlight to the community that Chemical Science is free to free and free to publish, something that is still quite rare and that was visionary at the time that it was introduced.
What I also think still can be done in Chemical Science is additional coverage and promotion of some of our best content. It would be great to get additional comments on certain articles from an expert in the field, in order to further highlight the importance of the advance. This is something that the Advisory and Editorial Board could have a part in.
Which Chemical Science publication are you most proud of and why?
This is like choosing your favourite child! What I’m generally proud of is that the papers really summarise the whole breath of the research in our lab –our papers include a new type of inhibitor for a thiolation pathway, and a 10th anniversary contribution which described the highly novel approach of combining computational calculations to map the enzymatic activity of phosphatase against labile modification. I’m therefore very proud of all of these, because they really summarise the different approaches that we have taken in our lab.
However, if I really had to choose one, it would be the contribution from 2016. In this work, we identified a carbohydrate-based inhibitor that worked against an enzyme involved in sialic acid biosynthesis. The idea was to have a compound that could influence cell surface sialylation. I’m so proud of it for one simple reason – it was a collaboration with one of my heroes, the late Werner Reutter, a pioneer and legend in glycobiology research. He really laid the biochemical foundation for bioorthogonal chemistry. This 2016 paper was an idea that he had had for a long time, and sadly this was his last research paper. He has always been a big inspiration for me, so I was honoured to work together with him on this.
What impact do you feel your area of research can make over the next 10 years?
I mentioned already that we are really trying to bridge our research with the biological and medical sciences. We have already had some success in using modified proteins and antibodies for certain targeting applications, which also show really great results in vivo, but there is of course a lot more work to be done before these approaches can arrive in the clinic. We are currently doing this with Tubulis, and we’re excited to continue in this area. I think this is an opportunity for myself and the community dealing with protein modification to develop new protocols with high potential. I think in the next 10 years, we will see which of these come into fruition. The demand is huge, something which is especially highlighted by the current pandemic, so this is where a lot of technological innovation has to be made. It will be great to see what progress is able to be made over the next 10 years.
10th anniversary collection
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Chemical Science we are publishing a number of special birthday issues, to recognise and thank members of our community who have been supporting the journal and publishing in Chemical Science since we launched ten years ago.
Explore our collection now.