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The cross-border commuter

May 2017

Borders are not an obstacle for her, they exist to be crossed. Kathrin Thedieck has lived at open borders since her childhood. This has shaped her self-image as a European. The fact that the Biozentrum alumna commutes between the Netherlands and Germany seems to be a logical consequence. As a Professor of Metabolic Signaling she also enthusiastically crosses the border between the fields of metabolism and kinase signaling. 

What attracts you to transnational research?

This is my first professorship and it is incredibly exciting. I have great freedom in conducting my research and developing new projects, and in doing so, I learn a lot about what constitutes a faculty and how the committees and institutions work on both sides of the border. In contrast to the trinational Upper Rhine region, where cross-border exchange has been cultivated for decades, we are still at the very beginning. In many ways the border is still a real border and there are many practical hurdles for my employees on both sides of it. So, if my science should not succeed, I'll set up a support office for cross-border commuters here in the north (she laughs).

Do the challenges reach beyond practical hurdles?

Definitely. Take the cultural differences as an example. As a Basler or a Lörracher, one knows quite well that the other side communicates differently, even though we speak more or less the same language. It is similar in the north, but people are sometimes less aware of it. Hence, I not only need to speak the language of each country, but I often also need to act as an intercultural mediator. My time spent in the region of Basel has prepared me well for this challenge.

You have been working on mTOR since your time as a postdoc in the group of Mike Hall...

Yes, Mike and the Biozentrum have strongly influenced my further scientific career. Currently, my research focuses on stress networks converging on mTOR. More specifically, we investigate which stress inputs activate or inhibit the network, how they interact, and the impact of this interplay on drug response. Furthermore, we are investigating the crosstalk between different signaling networks as well as the interaction between metabolism and signaling. This was also one of my main reasons for joining the EMS.

To what extent?

In Groningen, my group is embedded in pediatrics where we have a strong focus on inborn errors of metabolism. Hence, my department has great expertise in metabolically characterizing children with rare diseases in detail. I am particularly interested in how we can link our computer-based signaling models to models of metabolism in order to develop new therapy concepts. Already when looking at the mathematical models it becomes obvious that signaling researchers think quite differently to those in the metabolism field. Combining this is an exciting challenge. In the neurosciences at the University of Oldenburg, I am very close to the application of our research results because disturbances of the mTOR pathway, such as in the rare genetic disease tuberous sclerosis complex (TSC), can have severe neurological consequences including epilepsy. The neurological effects of mTOR are, so far, comparatively poorly investigated – thus a new and interesting research field lies ahead.

What is important to you as a research group leader?

Team spirit is central to me. I would like my coworkers to feel and act like a team and to stand together to cope with challenges. This is essential to me as I work best in an environment where I feel appreciated and valued. By the way, I noticed that for a long time I had more female job applicants. I guess, this is because of being a female role model. Interestingly, since we are publishing in high ranked scientific journals, the male applicants have outnumbered the females. This suggests that men and women base their career decisions on different criteria.

You have a son. How difficult is it to reconcile a family and a scientific career?

This has often been quite challenging. At the beginning, when my son was still very young, I was sometimes close to my stress limit. Therefore, one must carefully consider if this is the most sensible way. For my coworkers, of course, I try to offer the best possible working conditions, but I also tell them quite frankly what an academic research career can mean and that it is absolutely legitimate to take a different decision. In my opinion, the most important thing one needs with children is flexibility at work because a family does not simply fit into any scheme.

Was biology already your vocation from the beginning?

Not entirely. After school, I was faced with the decision to study art or biology. At the time, I thought I would rather study a natural science, which I couldn’t just learn by myself, and that I could still follow my interest in the arts. This turned out to be only partly true. However, I find many aspects of art in science. A creative moment exists in both. Nowadays, the arts are still an important aspect of my life, but at the moment I am following this more passively, which works well in Groningen as we have a thriving art scene.

An Do you still have time to dare to do something new?

Yes, for example just last year, I was invited to give a lecture in Montreal and there I did dog sledding for the first time. And since only recently I have a new hobby – motorcycling. It actually came about as I wanted to learn Dutch in a fun way. So, I learned how to ride motorbikes with a Dutch instructor. It was hard work for my teacher, as I had no idea of the language nor the bike. I did not expect it beforehand but motorcycling has become a big passion. And in the meantime I think I speak Dutch rather well, yet still with a slight German accent. 



Since 2013, Kathrin Thedieck has been an Associate Professor at the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG) and at the European Medical School, a cooperation of the Dutch University of Groningen and the Carl von Ossietzky University of Oldenburg in Germany. After completing her studies at the École Supérieure de Biotechnologie de Strasbourg, Kathrin Thedieck received her PhD at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research (HZI) in Braunschweig. From 2006 to 2008, she was a postdoc at the Biozentrum and subsequently a group leader for Functional Proteomics of Metabolic Signaling at the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in Germany.