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The strategist

His life speaks volumes. When talking to Prof. Knut Drescher, it soon becomes apparent that he is a person with tremendous discipline and willpower. However, he is not always rational and strict with himself – occasionally he also trusts his gut instinct. This is what finally drew him to the Biozentrum.

A glance at your CV reveals that you have experienced many stations along the way. But let’s start at the beginning: Where do you come from?
I was born and raised in Bremen in Germany. My father is a mathematics teacher and my mother a primary school teacher. I also have an older brother, who is a medical doctor. I left home for the first time when I was 15. At that time my parents sent me to school in Australia for a year.

It doesn’t sound as if you had a choice…
I did, but in retrospect it was quite early to do this and in some ways a little traumatic. I had just turned 15 and, in those days, there were not the many communication options with the mobile phone or emails that we have today. And so, I was away from home for a year without really having contact with my family. That was tough at times but also a very valuable experience for me.

A few years later you finished your schooling, your “Abitur”, with flying colors. Are you a hard worker or is it easy for you to learn?
Yes, that’s true, I had the second best marks in Bremen. I think I am quite a hard worker. I’m not so sure though, if I am really that clever…

But your success until now speaks for itself. Even later, you were always one of the best in your year.
In fact, my year abroad in Australia had something to do with this. There I learnt that I am on my own and that I need to stand on my own two feet to achieve anything. This led to my becoming very disciplined…

…and setting high expectations of yourself?
Yes, probably. I chose math and physics for my specialist subjects at school, not because I was particularly good at them previously but more because I had the feeling that they would help to bring me further. Then, in the end, I also had the ambition and discipline to follow through with it.

So, you chose physics on rational grounds and not because of your love for the subject?
Yes, in the beginning. But then it emerged that I was actually quite talented in this subject and my interest in it grew.

You studied physics at Oxford. Why Oxford?
I did my German civil service in Bristol in England, working in a home for severely disabled children. It was also here that I got to know my wife Antje who was doing a year of voluntary social service there at the time. Curiously enough, she also comes from Bremen and we actually knew each other by sight but that we should meet in England was purely coinci-dence. Bristol is just two hours away from Oxford and it made more sense to apply and go through the whole application process there than it would have from Bremen.

How is it to study physics in Oxford?
To be honest, it was tough. There were also child prodigies, who came from around the world and began studying there with 15. But in fact, I was a very good student and finished as the second best in my year. In Oxford, we weren’t assessed in grades, we were simply ranked. And that really pushes you. At the same time, the study atmosphere was not particularly collegial, with students helping each other, but rather each fought mainly alone for themselves. However, the course content itself was cool and the theoretical physics questions were very intriguing.

What was your wife doing during this time?
She was studying medicine in Kiel. During this time, we saw each other very little but I didn’t have any time anyway and actually neither did Antje. (He laughs)

After Oxford you went straight onto Cambridge.
Exactly, I joined the Mathematics Department of Cambridge as a doctoral student. It was a kind of “superstar” depart-ment, with Stephen Hawking there also. And it was there that I got to know someone who had great questions about phys-ical influences on multicellularity, that is, how a unicellular organism develops into a multicellular organism, how multi-cellular life can arise, which physical conditions must be ful-filled for this and which physical problems the single-celled organism must solve in order to suddenly multiply a hundred-fold. This immediately totally fascinated me and I already started to think about it that night and then to start research on it the next morning...

…and it became the subject of your dissertation.
That’s right. I carried out research on Volvox, which is a beau-tiful spherical algae. Initially I used a very theoretical approach and then, during the course of my work, it became very experimental. And since then I never left the lab again. Cam-bridge was a wonderful time.

Your next stop was America.
Many people advised me to take another look at what options were around and also to consider something else. Many pro-fessors in Cambridge spend their whole lives there and I real-ized that this was not what I wanted. My decision was reached by purely strategic reasoning. I simply noticed, while doing my doctoral research, that I needed some genetic tools for my field to better control creative experiments. And these tools were available at Princeton.

And by then a few years had passed. Where was Antje all this time?
She first worked in a hospital in Bremen and then came to join me in Princeton, where she took the US medical licensing exams. At this point we had had a long-distance relationship for ten years. In 2014, we then moved together to Marburg to the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology, which is simply “the place to be” for microbiology in Germany. Also, from a cultural point of view, we were happy to return to Europe, and Germany. That is also where our two children were born.

How did your latest step to the Biozentrum come about?
It was actually Urs Jenal who contacted me and suggested that I apply for the advertised position.

And Antje?
She is currently also at the Biozentrum and is finishing a proj-ect here, which we started together in Marburg. In the long-term Antje would like to work as a medical doctor again and finish her specialization in general medicine in Switzerland.

At the Biozentrum you are also involved in the NCCR. What are you doing there?
Well, my research focus is multicellularity. Considering this subject in terms of bacteria, it takes on a very clear applica-tion-oriented aspect. These biofilms we deal with, which are nothing more than bacterial communities, are incredibly anti-biotic tolerant. For 30 years, the reasons for this antibiotic tolerance have remained a mystery. And this is what I want to find out. The clinical specimens that we receive from the hospital through the NCCR framework are incredibly import-ant for this.

Why exactly?
We suspect that biofilms play a role in many different bacte-rial infections. In order to study biofilms, we need urine sam-ples from patients with cystitis, whose urine is with bacteria. We also look at lung tissue infected by bacteria from patients with pneumonia. These specimens are worth their weight in gold for studying infections. They are invalu-able, worth more than any money.

Was it a strategic decision or more of a gut feeling to come to the Biozentrum?
Let’s say, I like to plan for the long term and, from all my experiences, it’s most important to me that the community is right. And I have the feeling, especially among the infection biologists, that to be here at the Biozentrum is absolutely right for me.

Have you been able to leave the stress of the move behind you now?
Actually, the most difficult thing was to get the people in my group and myself back into the swing of research. We were all terribly distracted for several weeks, with the organization of the relocation and setting up the new labs keeping us busy. But now we have to get back to research and set our minds to thinking about research. And to do this you must concen-trate and force yourself to think about science. That is the most difficult thing, for me, too.

And for your work-life balance?
I really only do research and nothing else. I think about research the whole day, except when I am together with my family. However, I do go jogging but only because it makes me even more productive. 

Curriculum vitae:
Knut Drescher studied physics, majoring in theoretical physics, at the University of Oxford and, in 2011, earned his PhD in experimental biophysics at the University of Cambridge, UK. As a postdoc he conducted research at Princeton University, USA. Most recently he was a research group leader at the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology and a Professor of Biophysics at the Philipps-Universität Marburg in Germany.