The meeting with Ben Engel, new Professor of Cell Biology at the Biozentrum, takes place in the Botanical Garden. Not only because Ben’s research at the Biozentrum is focussed on plants, but also because a giant sequoia tree can be found there, just like in his homeland of California. In the interview, Ben talks about his fascination with photosynthesis and how his research is like StarTrek.
You grew up in California. How is life in California? Is it like we all imagine it to be?
I grew up in northern California, where the water is very cold and we have great white sharks. Nevertheless, some people still try to surf, and it’s a destination for experts to surf these dangerous giant waves. So, it’s a wild place, and I miss the salty smell of the ocean and the crashing of waves on the rocks. And, of course, I miss the Sierra Nevada mountains. But California is changing a lot. It’s different from what people would assume. And to be honest, when I now think of California, I often feel sad. I still like to go back to see my parents, but I would not live there anymore.
California is running out of water because of overdevelopment and climate change. Much of the year, it is incredibly dry… I had a sequoia redwood tree that my aunt and uncle planted the day I was born. But this year, the tree died from drought stress. My father sent me images and videos showing how it was cut down. Many of the forests in California are dying like my tree, and they are also burning in huge fires caused by climate change. And apart from that, California also has many social problems, such as issues with health care and education. The main reason why I don’t want to raise my family there is because it’s not a balanced society. California gave me a lot, but these circumstances make me sad.
Around 10 years ago, you moved to Munich as a Postdoc at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry. How was life there?
At first, we thought it would be an adventure for two years. But very quickly it became clear that this was home. I had never experienced seasons before, and it turned out that I love seasons and the changes in nature. Life is different in Europe. There are parks in San Francisco where you would never walk alone at night. Walking through the English Garden in Munich was thus an incredible experience for us, and of course, we also enjoyed pausing at one of the many “Biergartens”. We lived close to the Isar river, which became a natural playground for our children.
What about your children? How do they experience this freedom?
Our three kids are learning to be independent in the Swiss style, and my oldest son walks alone to school and explores his environment on his own. I think he loves it. Another big difference from America is that they are growing up without a car. We take public transportation everywhere.
Why did you decide to come to the Biozentrum?
Definitely because of the colleagues. I appreciate the diversity of the research fields, and I love my colleagues in the field of Structural Biology. Some collaborations are already running. For example, we started working with Marek Basler and will soon share a SNI student with Maria Hondele.
How would you explain your research to somebody who isn’t a scientist?
Well, the first thing I would say is that we look inside cells to see what all their tiny parts look like and understand how they work. It feels a bit like shrinking ourselves down and taking a little walk through the cells. This is only possible because of all the amazing microscopes we have here at the Biozentrum.
You are the first professor at the Biozentrum working with plants, right?
It’s about time! Well, actually there are several very important structural biology studies from Biozentrum labs on plant proteins. But indeed, we are probably the first group with such a strong focus on the “green stuff”. It feels like a novelty here and everybody is asking me about plants, although we are working more on algae. But in fact, this is the second thing I would mention if asked about my research: I think it is important to appreciate how we are connected to the plant world. Therefore, we try to understand photosynthesis in more detail. I would explain why plants are green and how chloroplasts use the energy of light, absorb carbon dioxide and give us back oxygen. And how we in turn use the oxygen and give them back carbon dioxide. The research in our lab involves a lot of advanced technology, but ultimately, we are quite focused on the biology.
What is it exactly that fascinates you?
Well, I am a very visual person. I really need to see the different parts of the cells, their shapes and how they move, to understand how they work.
Where do you get your samples from?
We grow most of our algae and plants in our lab. But we also collect algae from the ocean. This summer, we were in Ice-and to sample diatoms, which produce around 15 percent of the world’s oxygen and provide food for much of the life in the ocean. So, it makes sense to work with them, also to understand their similarities and differences when compared with plants. But we are also working on bacteria that fix also a lot of the world’s carbon. In total, 50 percent of the world’s photosynthesis is performed in the ocean, but we still know little about these organisms. Next year, we will participate in the TREC mission organized by EMBL to sample algae all along the European coastline.
Ben on the boat to sample marine algae, Villefranche-sur-Mer in 2000.
Why do you like this topic? Is it because it’s currently so relevant?
First of all, I think I am just curious. I like to explore, and these algae in the ocean provide so many opportunities for surprising discoveries. When I was young, I liked to watch Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad. They explore the universe and “boldly go where no one has gone before”. Exploring the inner universe of a cell feels similar to me. So, my primary motivation is discovering new things, but I do also feel motivated to study these photosynthetic cells that play such a major role in giving life to our world.
And how did you get into this field?
I ended up studying photosynthesis a bit by coincidence: During my postdoc, I used tomography to look at cilia, these small hair-like organelles that algae use to swim. However, I did not always find cilia to image, so I started to explore other structures that I saw inside the algae cells. And as half of the cells are chloroplasts, I started looking at them and really fell in love with them.
But why plants?
This comes from my parents, especially my mom. We always had a large vegetable garden in front of the house, so I got a feeling for plants that way. And we also went hiking every year for two weeks in the Sierra Nevada. I loved walking along the high mountains from one camp site to the next. My mother always pointed out plants to me and stopped to draw them. This is also where I met the giant sequoias, the largest trees in the world.
Can your research lead to a solution to climate change?
Well, we are exploring and discovering new things. I think that we first have to really improve our understanding of photosynthesis and carbon fixation on a basic level. It won’t be my lab that creates the technology to stop climate change. But maybe one day we will make a discovery that can be applied by engineers. Even more important than new technology is that we immediately reduce our carbon emissions.
How can this be done?
Reducing emissions requires top-down change by politicians and companies, which we must demand now. But helping people understand climate change can also make a difference. I think that we scientists have an important job to communicate scientific findings to the public, so they can better understand the world around them. We need people to trust in science, and we need to help strengthen them against misinformation. I strongly believe that this is our responsibility as scientists.
That’s why you are using social media, or why did you start to post your science on Twitter?
Believe it or not, I’m not so fond of social media, and I didn’t even have a smart phone until a few years ago. Initially, I signed up for Twitter for some sort of video game promotion, and then didn’t touch my account for a few years. But once I started following it and chatting with other scientists, it became quite addictive. And now it’s a problem for me, as I am spending too much time on it. (he laughs)
But why Twitter?
Twitter is used by many scientists to promote their research, so I started announcing our papers there, and it sort of snowballed. Now, it’s become a great place to share your science and connect to researchers around the world. It really gives you a good overview of what is going on out there globally. However, a rich space cowboy just bought Twitter, and the fear is that misinformation will take over the network. Many scientists have already started moving to a decentralized network called Mastodon. Let’s see what happens.
The way you communicate on Twitter is very personal, direct and easy to understand.
Yes, that’s how we should talk about science. We should use common language and make science as understandable as possible. Science is for everyone. I also really love nice visuals that attract people’s interest and imagination. Twitter provides an opportunity to also engage with non-scientists and inspire their curiosity or get them to think about climate change.
What about your wife? Where does she come from, and where did you meet?
My wife was born in California but her father is Swiss, so she is Swiss, too. She is a chemical biologist and also did her PhD in San Francisco, where we got to know each other. She really enjoys scientific writing. After her postdoc in Germany at the MPI and after our first child was born, she joined a company with five other moms, all PhD scientists. They write and edit grants and manuscripts for both academic labs and private companies.
Also könnt ihr beide deutsch sprechen?
Grüezi! Nein, mein Deutsch ist schrecklich. I would very much like to learn German, but it’s difficult to find time. Now that I am here in Basel, I should try to learn Swiss German. I like the sound, it’s more friendly, and it has less grammar.
Ben Engel studied Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley and graduated with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of California, San Francisco, in 2011. He subsequently carried out research as a Postdoc and later as a project leader at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) of Biochemistry in Martinsried, Munich. In 2019, Engel joined Helmholtz Munich and established his own research group at the Helmholtz Pioneer Campus. He was awarded the title of TUM Junior Fellow by the Technical University of Munich in 2020.