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“Many things just worked out that way”

May 2022

Four years ago. Alumninews took up contact with Britta Hartmann. At this time, however, she was in the middle of a career change. Today, the biologist is the Head of the Division of Medical Genetics at the Cantonal Hospital Aarau. In the interview, she talks about where her life’s path has led her, how she made her way from developmental biology to human genetics and how coincidence accompanied her, always bringing new directions to her career.

You work as a human geneticist at the Cantonal Hospital Aarau. What is your job there?
I head the Division of Medical Genetics with a team of 17 people. Apart from my management tasks and duties, a large part of my work is to evaluate, verify and compile reports on genetic findings. Strategic direction is another of my responsibilities. The department consists of three areas; Cytogenetics, Molecular Genetics and Genetic Counseling. The latter falls in the responsibility of the medical doctors. The whole area of diagnostics, however, is handled by us, the FAMH specialists. 

What does the abbreviation FAMH stand for?
It stands for Foederatio Analyticoum Medicinalium Helveticorum. The title Laboratory Specialist FAMH is basically the counterpart to the FMH Medical Specialist, but for the laboratory field.  Graduated physicians and natural scientists can complete the part-time course while working. It takes four years to qualify as FAMH in Medical Genetics.

And what does this study program cover?
On the one hand, there is the practical side. In the lab, you work through a comprehensive catalogue of cases, made up of diverse questions in human genetics. This includes carrying out a specified number of sequencing or chromosome analyses and above all interpreting them and you learn what is essential for an accredited laboratory. On the other hand, there are theoretical aspects such as accounting, case law, diagnosis related law etc. In my department, three biologists are currently doing the FAMH training. They interpret the genetic data, write reports and do the cost coverage, check if orders are complete and the valid consent forms have been received. This is “learning on the job”.

What issues do you work on?
One focus is germline diagnostics, which deals with hereditary diseases, such as hereditary breast and ovarian cancer syndrome. We have established a very broad range of methods, including exome sequencing. This enables us to analyze only the gene segments that code for a protein. This is admittedly only one to two percent of the entire genome but with this we can detect about 85 percent of disease-relevant gene mutations. A further focus is the genetics of hematologic neoplasms, which includes the most diverse forms of leukemia. We determine the genetic profile of the cancer cells. Together with other diagnostic parameters, the oncologist can base a prognosis on this profile, determining whether the leukemia is an aggressive type or rather one which will take a slow, chronic course. Ultimately, the choice of therapy depends on this.

Can you give us an example?
Quite well known is the Philadelphia chromosome, in which whole chromosomal segments are rearranged, and are therefore not found where they actually should be. The type of rearrangement provides information about the severity of the disease. So, for instance, in the case of a poor prognosis it is important that the patient receives a stem cell therapy as soon as possible. 

Do you sometimes see the patients personally?
Generally not. When it has to do with hereditary diseases, I do attend a counselling session now and again. It is often difficult for a patient to understand what it means that we examine a gene or found a variant of uncertain significance. And if genetic changes occur in the germ line, one naturally must bear in mind that these are passed onto the offspring. So, it is important to know how likely is this. 

You worked for many years in research. Is this still an issue now?
No, not really. The exception is when we have an unusually interesting patient, then we do a case study with the doctors in the clinic. We follow up, for example, whether other family members are affected and investigate if there is a connection between the mutation and the disease.

Would you like to do more research?
After so many years in diagnostics, this is no longer relevant. I was always excited to do research but it never comes to an end and it usually only interests a small circle of selected people. Now in diagnostics it is different. Everyone understands my work and its importance.

You graduated in Markus Affolter’s lab. What brought you to the Biozentrum?
It was as chance would have it. At the end of my studies in Freiburg we had to do a lab internship. I found a place in neurobiology. My supervisor at the time was Patrick Callaerts from Walter Gehring’s lab, who was doing a sabbatical in Freiburg. Shortly after, he left for Houston, USA. And because the project took off so well and we worked so well together, I went along too, quite spontaneously, to do my Diploma thesis. I liked the research so much that it was quickly became clear to me that I would like to do a PhD. And then Patrick told me that Markus, in the lab neighboring Walter Gehring’s, was just establishing his own lab. So, I introduced myself to Markus and shortly afterwards started as his PhD Student. 

How do you remember about that time?
It was just great. Maybe everyone says that but I was so lucky. In Markus’s group there were many new scientists who started with me. They were all enthusiastic and passionate about their work and Markus was a great supervisor. They were full-blooded researchers. Many of them are group leaders today. I also met my partner Giorgos Pyrowolakis in Markus’ lab. The time in Basel was unbelievably good and intensive. I also fully savored the cultural life, danced tango and knew all sorts of people from the Theater. I had a large and colorful circle of friends.

Did you stay in touch with your colleagues after leaving the Biozentrum?
Giorgos is a research group leader at the University of Freiburg and still has joint projects with Markus. That’s why we haven’t lost contact in all these years. And since I work in Aarau, I occasionally meet Markus’ former secretary, Liliane Devaja, who lives in the Jura not far from Aarau.

After many years in research you finally turned your back on it. Why?
It was not a conscious decision. After completing my PhD, I was a postdoc at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona and then continued to research after that as an independent scientist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. At this time a new Genomics Facility was opened at the Biology Faculty and a Head of Sequencing was needed. I applied for the job in a cloak-and-dagger operation. Giorgos and I managed from one 2-year contract to the next. With a family, this became increasingly difficult for me. I thought at least one of us should have a stable job. 

Did you get the job?
It all happened so quickly. Only a week later I found myself at the interview. In the committee was also the head physician of the Institute of Human Genetics. After the interview, she took me to the side and asked whether I would like to take over as Head of Molecular Diagnostics. Four weeks later I started the job. It was not planned that way at all.

You hadn’t anything to do with human genetics before. How did it go?
That was a dive into the deep end. That the former head had already left when I started didn’t make it any easier. So, on Monday morning I stood in my new office, the first reports were on my desk and I was told that they needed to go out now. But I had a great team that made my start easier. I enjoyed working there very soon. I fitted well in that position. In research, I had learnt to organize and to plan well. And I am very accurate and work to meet deadlines and I am good at making pragmatic decisions. That’s all very helpful.

Yet you didn’t stay there. What happened next?
After four years, I moved to another human genetics institute. After it was bought by a private company and restructuring was on the agenda, the climate no longer suited me. So, I decided to quit. I took a break from work for three quarters of a year. I wanted to gain some distance and reorganize myself and think about what I really wanted, and spend some time with my family. During this time, I completed my training as a specialist in human genetics in Germany. This is the equivalent of the Swiss FAMH. As this title allows more responsibility and scope for action in Switzerland and as in Freiburg there were no jobs, I simple applied at the Cantonal Hospital Aarau for a senior assistant position. And coincidence struck again.

In what way?
I had been there for about 10 days when the head left. When I was asked if I would like to take over as the head of the department, I agreed. 

Do you enjoy managing a team?
I think I have a pretty good feeling for the strengths and weaknesses of my staff. I work with them accordingly. They all enjoy to work and when needed also do a little extra. Our team is stable; they all like it. That makes me feel good. Recently, I had to restructure the lab, change procedures and optimize processes. Here all my experiences and the approaches, learnt in research, helped me a lot. 

Curriculum vitae
Since 2019, Britta Hartmann is Head of the Medical Genetics department at the Cantonal Hospital Aarau. The biology graduate earned her doctorate in 2005, at the Biozentrum in Prof. Markus Affolter’s group. After a completing a postdoc at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, she continued research as an independent scientist at the University of Freiburg in Germany. In 2012, she first took over the position of Head of the Laboratory of Molecular Diagnostics at the Institute of Human Genetics at the University Medical Center Freiburg and later at the SYNLAB MVZ (Medical Care Center for Human Genetics) also in Freiburg.