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«I originally wanted to be a musician»

Born and raised in the region, Anissa Kempf, assistant professor at the Biozentrum since October, is now back home. For many years her passion was music. But then she found another one: biology. Her heart has been beating for both ever since. And then at the beginning of the year her heart beat was given an extra push when her ERC Grant suddenly made big headlines. 

You grew up and went to school in Alsace and Basel. Is it good to be back «home»?
Of course, it is lovely to be near my family again and to be able to meet with old friends. Yet, I have also noticed that life didn’t stand still here either and naturally many things have changed. So, I still need a little time to find my bearings again.

Have you always been interested in biology?
I had extremely good biology teachers here in Basel and really loved the subject. Still, when I look back, studying a science subject wasn’t an obvious choice for me. For a long time, I had completely different plans. My great passion was Early Music. I played the harpsichord and the recorder at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis for many years and wanted to become a musician. So, in fact, it was rather surprising that I landed in this field.

For your parents also?
Yes, also for them. There are no other scientists in the family. Literature and theater were omnipresent in our house and then, in addition, music belonged to my world. So I’m not a born scientist (she laughs).

In the end, you chose Biology. Why in particular neuroscience? 
My fascination was initially more of a philosophical nature. At school, I read many books about the brain and consciousness. And all the while, my underlying interest was whether one really has free will. I was very preoccupied with this. Regrettably, this question was far too complex. 

You studied in Zurich where you also earned your PhD. Why did you then choose to go to Oxford?
I did an Erasmus year in England during the course of my studies and I really liked it there at the time. The study program was different from the one back in Switzerland. There was less learning by heart, instead we learnt more about concepts and also looked at how different discoveries had come about, that is, the historical perspective. And so, after taking some detours, I decided to go to Oxford after doing my PhD.

Where did these detours take you?
In parallel to my PhD, I studied medicine for two years, because I wasn’t sure whether I really wanted to stay in research and biology. It then turned out that medicine wasn’t my thing. After my PhD, I first joined a patents attorney’s office because I thought that would suit me perfectly. I speak many languages, I am a scientist, I can work all around the world. But I was completely wrong. I found it really awful and left after a few months and then, in fact, attended a conference where I met my future boss from Oxford and went straight to his lab.  

After doing your postdoc in Oxford you came to the Biozentrum. What exactly is your research about?
Most of my work deals with sleep. More precisely, I would like to understand what tells us that we are tired and how this happens. To do this, we are not working with mice but rather with fruit flies. Our basic assumption is that there must be networks of cells in the brain that detect when you have slept too little and then signal the brain that you need to catch up on some sleep. We have, on the one hand, a circadian clock, that is an internal clock that controls our sleep-wake cycle, that keeps us awake during the day and lets us sleep at night. And in parallel to this internal clock there is also a second system, which detects how much we have slept during the night. And that’s exactly the system that we are studying.

So, it is about how the brain detects sleep deficits after too short nights?
That’s right. The idea behind it is that the body needs to or would like to make up for the lack of sleep. Our hypothesis is that during the night certain processes occur in the body, which only start when the body really switches off. They may help the body to regenerate, for instance. These processes appear to be important for the organism, as the body recognizes and tries to make up for lack of sleep.

What about your own sleep? Do you sleep much and how does lack of sleep affect you? 
At the moment I don’t sleep so much because I often work until late in the evenings. But then I notice straight away the next morning that I am less motivated and efficient than when I have had a good night’s sleep. Five to six hours do for me when it’s necessary but it’s not really optimal for me. I actually would need much, much more (she laughs). 

Were you interested in other options apart from the position at the Biozentrum?
I had two offers from the USA; one in New York at Columbia University and one from Stanford. But once I received the offer to join the Biozentrum, and as I really value the multidisciplinary environment here, making the decision was easy in the end.  

You had hardly arrived at the Biozentrum when you were overrun by the media. In retrospect, how was your start?
Quite stressful (she laughs). The lab of course had to be prepared, some orders were still missing and at the same time I had appointed new staff. On top of that, the information that I had received the ERC grant arrived and the media jumped at the news. But in the end everything did work out well.

So you got thrown into cold water quite quickly. 
Well, let’s say that my learning curve since October, when I started here, has been very steep. But I have received a lot of support, was well prepared for the interviews and other PIs gave me many tips about setting up the lab. And so we now have several experiments underway.

Have you already started working with other groups?
I am already working together with Markus Affolter, as we both work with flies. Of course, that gave us an immediate connection. And I am constantly talking to other research labs. I could also well imagine to have discussions with Christian Cajochen; he studies sleep disturbances at the University Psychiatric Clinics Basel. My team also works with proteins that are relevant to humans because they play a role in sleep disturbances. And such a collaboration would also be very interesting. 

Did you already know one or the other PI at the Biozentrum?
No, not really. I didn’t know anyone personally when I applied. I had read articles about Silvia and her research already in high school, which really fascinated me and also made a great impression on me. To have been able to meet her and directly work with her at the same institute, has been a very memorable and happy occasion for me.