It only takes the lift 36 seconds to zoom up to the 38th floor of the Roche Tower. Here, in the Pebbles Lounge, far over the rooftops of Basel, Alumninews meets with Barbara Geering, Senior Scientist at Roche and a Biozentrum’s alumna. And though the clouds obstruct the view at the elevation of 162 meters, the scientist makes up for it with granting us many insights into her life.
You recently dared to take the leap from academia to the pharmaceutical industry. Was this your plan?
Yes, this step was indeed planned. Until the end of 2014, I led a small research group in Synthetic Immunology at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) of the ETH Zurich in Basel. But for some time, I had already been thinking about what direction I should take in the future – should I stay in academia or go to industry? After balancing up the pros and cons, the outcome favored the move to industry.
What were the reasons?
There were two main reasons for my final decision to go to industry. The first was based on science. We had had various publications in the area of applied science but academic research usually remains at the mouse model stage. That was a pity because certain concepts were very exciting. Here, at Roche, it is now the goal to push such ideas further, hopefully to provide next-generation medicines. The other factor had to do with my career path. At the university, my next step would have been a professorship. Since I wanted to stay in Basel and there were no openings, private industry was the road to take.
Did you ever regret your decision?
No, I like being at Roche very much. In retrospect, I rather question why I didn’t take this step earlier. However, in the various stages of my life at the university, I had always enjoyed the work I was doing.
In comparison with being at the university what has now changed for you?
Conducting research in academia is fantastic in regard to independence and freedom in the choice of topic. This is different in my current position, as much more is determined by others. I have more meetings and, along with my major project, I am also involved in a variety of different side projects. What I very much enjoy at Roche is the spirit to achieve goals together. I get support from all sides, proper teamwork. At the university, I had to look after myself. There were always small battles to fight: Which is your rightful place on the publication? How much space do you have in the lab? And in the end, you compete with your colleagues for the same funding. As a result collegiality may somewhat dwindle.
It is said that for a longtime university researcher, it is difficult to get a position in industry. How was it for you?
I guess I was lucky. About four years ago, Roche closed the Department of Immunology in the US and decided to reestablish it in Basel in 2014. It was the same year, that I made my decision to turn my back on academia. The advertisement for a Senior Scientist in Immunology was the first such job that I found. Of course I applied. After almost one year – that’s how long the process took – I did, in fact, get the position.
What do you do as a senior scientist?
Actually my work now is not so different from that previously at the D-BSSE. I generate ideas, discuss the experimental results and give input on how to develop the project further. What has changed is the way I work. In our unit, Immunology and Inflammation, we work with the so-called Matrix System. We don’t have a fixed team but rather a pool of research associates who are allocated according to the project. Then there are also experts in pharmacology or chemists or other external specialists who may join the project as required. This works as a modular system. Whenever the need arises, the team is supported.
And what are you working on?
We are investigating inflammatory processes in individuals who have an autoimmune disease. Usually, the immune system is activated, for example, by harmful bacteria or viruses and after the successful elimination of the invaders, it settles down, i.e. it returns to homeostasis. However, in autoimmune disorders, the immune system is chronically activated, causing collateral damage. We are trying to influence the immune cells in such a way that these cells use their own regulatory mechanisms to stop the inflammatory reaction, with the aim of developing new treatment approaches.
Your first steps in research were taken in Urs Jenal’s group at the Biozentrum …
Yes, because he and his group were impressive in the way they approached science. His lectures were very captivating, he was very enthusiastic. Hence, it was not so much the topic itself that inspired me. Also in the later steps in my career, I was generally relative flexible about the choice of topic. The research environment, the current hypotheses and the technical applications were often decisive factors but, above all, I especially enjoy working in an optimistic atmosphere, where people enjoy their work, research and discoveries.
So why didn’t you continue on in his group to do your PhD?
At that time I wanted to leave Basel, preferably to go abroad to an English speaking country. My husband and I chose a place where we could both find work. That’s why we decided to go to London. So, I took on a PhD position in Bart Vanhaesebroeck’s lab at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, University College London. Bart was also such an enthusiastic researcher.
How did you enjoy London personally?
London was fantastic, in terms of science and also culture. It is also a great place to meet interesting people. I still often miss its international character, the culinary choices and cultural program it has to offer.
Does family and career leave you with some free time for yourself?
Our children are still young and with a full time job I really do find it hard to manage some free time for myself. Thanks to flexi-time at Roche, I have some scope to freely arrange my working day and it also greatly helps that the grandparents live in the area.
Barbara Geering works as a Senior Scientist in the Immunology and Inflammation unit of Pharmaceutical Research & Early Development at Roche. Until moving to the pharmaceutical industry in 2015, she followed the classical university career path. She studied biochemistry at the University of Basel and graduated with a Diploma from Prof. Urs Jenal’s group at the Biozentrum. After completing her PhD at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research in London in 2006, she returned to Switzerland and worked as a postdoc at the University of Bern and later as a senior researcher at the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering of the ETH Zurich. She lives with her husband and two children (3 and 5) in Basel.