Exploring new horizons
November 2016Christian Sengstag had never imagined that he would one day do anything other than research. But then he was presented with a fait accompli: His research institute was to be closed down. So he took the bull by the horns and, unexpectedly, completely new doors opened up for him. Today the Biozentrum’s alumnus works at the Vice Rectorate for Research at the University of Basel and enjoys the high level of creative freedom as well as the close proximity to research.
You have been working at the Vice Rectorate for Research at the University of Basel for almost ten years. What are you currently working on?
At present, I am particularly involved with the Talent Promotion Committee. I review the applications submitted to the Research Fund for Junior Researchers, interview the candidates and have them explain their project proposals. This is always very interesting. And as the right hand of the Vice Rector, Ed Constable, there are always numerous smaller projects requiring my attention. Material orders for the mouse facility in the new Biozentrum building is also my responsibility and I am generally involved in all matters regarding the mice. Last October, I was elected to the Cantonal Commission for Animal Experiments by the Government Council of the Canton of Zurich. At "swissuniversities" we are working on a Swiss-wide 3R strategy, dealing with the three aspects Reduce-Refine-Replace in animal experiments, along with the establishment of a 3R center of competence. And as always, I continue to hold my lecture in the “Master in Drug Sciences program” on genetic toxicology, the subject, in which I previously conducted research at the ETH Zurich.
Your tasks are very varied...
Yes, that’s true. What I particularly enjoy is the contact with a lot of different people. Recently, I contributed to a workshop for the Novartis Next Generation Scientist Program where I met so many interesting, highly motivated young people. It is truly a colorful, multicultural event. Some 20 to 25 young scientists from developing countries can participate and work on a research project at Novartis for three months. On one afternoon they receive a skills course, on topics such as Scientific Integrity. I always compile the program and also present an overview of the University of Basel and the life sciences in the region. Another great thing about my work is the freedom I have. In 2015, for example, I was involved in planning the “UniNacht”. Arranging the 260 events under one roof proved to be quite a challenge. And organizing the lecture series “Weltenreise” – Journey to Other Worlds – is always super, too.
You are often to be seen at the university’s public events. Are you there as a visitor or is this part of your job?
A bit of both. I am often representing the Rectorate but I am also personally interested. The dedication of the Uni members is great. How much work this involves, I know from my own experience and so I can really appreciate it.
With your “habilitation”, you had actually achieved a high rung on the academic career ladder. Why did you eventually decide to abandon this course?
To leave research behind was very difficult for me. I thought there was nothing more interesting. At that time, I had a permanent position as a research group leader in Genetic Toxicology at the Institute of Toxicology, which belonged to both the ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. That was my dream job. Sadly, the institute got into problems and in 1997 the President of the ETH announced that the institute would be closed in four years. So I just tackled the issue head on and started to apply for a professorship, although I was actually not striving for such a position. In the interviews that followed, I’m sure it was obvious that my heart wasn’t in it. And so nothing evolved. Yet, although this time was not very pleasant, it gave me the necessary space. So, I attended many courses, became interested in e-learning and found that teaching was fun. Finally, I decided to risk moving in a completely new direction.
That was a radical break in your professional career. How was this time of uncertainty for you?
The two years until something new opened up were difficult and frustrating. There were naturally moments of self-doubt. But I was also realistic enough to recognize and accept that there was nothing for me to pursue in research. Now, in retrospect, I am happy about my decision. It opened new horizons for me. For instance, as a project leader at the Center of Teaching and Learning at the ETH Zurich, I developed the curriculum for students and lecturers. Later, as the head of NET – Network for Educational Technology – I initiated and promoted the development of the modular e-learning system, ELBA. Since I was familiar with the researchers’ reality, with not enough time to intensively deal with e-learning platforms, this collection of simple tools was well received.
You did your PhD in Werner Arber’s lab. What do you remember from that time?
The atmosphere in Werner Arber’s lab was great and we had much freedom in our work. The Microbiology department was like a family. I also have good memories of the Biozentrum. Even now I like to go back there. The smell of the culture medium hasn’t changed and I love it. The funny thing is that, at the time, I didn’t realize that I did my PhD at the University of Basel. I thought I would get my doctorate from the Biozentrum. The institute was so autonomous – it was a completely different planet. And it was great that the PhD students were completely and fully accepted. That was very motivating.
And what came after your thesis?
Following two years as a postdoc with Albert Hinnen at Ciba-Geigy, I wanted to go to the United States, more precisely, to the West Coast. So I wrote to several universities there requesting their annual report. They all arrived by airmail; it was the end of the 1980’s and internet was not around yet. I wrote to the leaders of the research groups which interested me to ask if I could visit them during my USA holiday. Almost all agreed and were interested to meet me. So I packed my set of slides – real photographic slides – and headed off. I visited San Diego, the UC Davis and UC Berkeley. Finally, I went with my wife and a SNF stipend in my pocket as a postdoc to Jasper Rine at Berkeley.
How was research in the United States?
The time I spent at Berkeley was great. I learnt so much and loved being in a cutting edge research lab again. You couldn’t imagine today under what conditions we did research there. I only had a tiny bench space; everything was crammed full and very old. Space was so little that solvents were kept in square bottles to save space by stacking them. The remains of solvent spills stained the brown wooden furniture. That was, however, irrelevant for us. The only important thing was to do good research.
You never doubted that you would return to the region after your postdoc. As a true born and bred “Basler”, what do you like here the most?
The multicultural flair and the openness of the city and its inhabitants is something that I truly value. The culinary diversity, the joy of living – also the location close to France and Germany, with its many hiking possibilities. I like how well the city has developed in the last ten years. It has become more bike friendly and the quality of life is increasing. Basel is flourishing. And with my Museum Pass I diligently enjoy the rich cultural program. “Der Blaue Reiter” – The Blue Rider – exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler is on my list of things to do. And the fact that many of our friends also live here makes living in the region especially nice for me.
Since 2007, Christian Sengstag has been working at the Vice Rectorate for Research at the University of Basel, where he is responsible for research management and for matters regarding animal experiments. He studied biology at the University of Basel und conducted his doctorate at the Biozentrum under Prof. em. Werner Arber. At the end of the 1980’s he carried out research as a postdoc with Albert Hinnen, at Ciba-Geigy, and at the University of California, Berkeley, in Prof. Jasper Rine’s lab. From 1989 to 1999, he was a research group leader at the Institute of Toxicology of the ETH and University of Zurich and habilitated there in 1994. He then worked as project leader at the Center of Teaching and Learning at the ETH Zurich and, from 2001 to 2007, headed the Network for Educational Technology (NET) at the ETH Zürich.