From biking together while at EMBL to assistant professorships at Heidelberg University, two academics formed a union that took them to the United States, into various industry positions and to a life with two young children.
Names: Heiko Runz and Laurence Ettwiller
Time at EMBL:
Heiko: 2003-2004 Postdoc Cell Biology and Biophysics Unit (Pepperkok group); 2007-2012 MMPU Group Leader. I studied the biological mechanisms that maintain cholesterol levels in cells and how they relate to disease.
Laurence: 2000-2004 PhD EMBL-EBI (Birney group); 2005-2009 postdoc/Staff Scientist Developmental Biology Unit (Wittbrodt group). I was interested in the control of gene expression during vertebrate development. For this, I performed bioinformatic predictions of promoters and enhancers and tested these predictions in Medaka fish embryos.
We got to know each other by regularly biking up to EMBL and then again by independently moving to assistant professorship positions at Heidelberg University.
Current job titles:
Heiko: Senior Medical Director, Head of Human Genetics, Biogen Inc., Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
Laurence: Group Leader, New England Biolabs Inc., Ipswich, Massachusetts, USA
In 2012, we left faculty positions at Heidelberg University for a sabbatical at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Broad Institute. We experienced Boston as a great place to independently develop our respective scientific careers.
Best description of current work:
Heiko: I manage a research team in a large biotech company that works at the interface of research and development and uses human genetics and systematic health data to discover new drugs for central nervous system diseases.
Laurence: I manage a research team that aims to build new high-throughput technologies and associated computational tools to address unmet biological questions.
Ways your work has intertwined: Thus far fairly little, and that’s probably for the best. We are sounding boards for each other whenever one of us comes up with a crazy idea, and we read each other’s draft manuscripts. Our skills are very complementary: one of us (Laurence) focuses on genomic technologies and the other (Heiko) on their applications. We haven’t excluded teaming up around an exciting idea also professionally at one point, but family comes first.
Opportunities and/or challenges that came from transitioning from academia to industry: We are both privileged that the core of our work remains pre-competitive. We have many academic collaborations, including with EMBL, and conduct cutting-edge science. We continue to publish, but this is less front and centre in our jobs than leveraging new scientific insights to inform drug discovery programs (Heiko) or create competitive advantages through new technologies (Laurence). We both appreciate the tremendous team spirit in industry and the opportunity to work with brilliant colleagues, many of whom have entirely different subject matter expertise from ourselves. One challenge in industry is that circumstances and company goals may change rapidly, but this has made us very agile.
Best memory from EMBL: Meeting each other, of course. But also: the international atmosphere, meeting so many dedicated friends and colleagues, how science was front and centre everywhere, and the canteen and its impressive food.
Whereabouts outside of work:
Heiko: Trail running in the woods – just like in EMBL times, though luckily the hills around Boston are less steep.
Laurence: Scavenging nature for the next experimental sample…or even inspiration for dinner.
Both: Spending time with and managing the many activities of our two energetic daughters.
Best advice for young scientists: Stay curious. Be humble. Keep learning. State your opinion, but listen more. Use your potential. Be open to where life leads you. Do not fear to take risks.
EMBL Alumni form a vibrant, engaged community of former staff, fellows, and scientific visitors worldwide. But out of sight does not mean out of mind. This periodic ‘After EMBL’ web feature spotlights a wide range of EMBL alumni along with their current whereabouts and thoughts.