Katrina Forest is a professor of bacteriology, chemistry and biophysics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Using X-ray crystallography as a primary tool, her research looks for a better understanding of photoreceptors, which accumulate a diverse set of functions in mircroorganisms. In Berlin, Forest will be part of the excellence cluster „Unifying Systems in Catalyis“ with research on light-sensitive enzymes.
Please close your eyes and think about your research project. What do you see at first?
I see the tiny and poorly understood fresh water bacteria we will learn more about through this research project. I imagine I can make out all the colored ring-like proteins crowded cheek-by-jowl in their membranes and that the cells are working hard transporting and transforming molecules from the water into useful ingredients for their own metabolism.
How would you explain your research to a child?
We study the tiny creatures we cannot see but that are everywhere – in dirt and water and our bodies and our food. Most of these creatures are very important for our health and the well-being of the planet, and I am grateful for them and want to understand them better.
What is it that surprises people when you tell them about your research?
How many different areas of expertise we are able to cover by having not only our own deep domain knowledge and skills but also many collaborations across campus and the globe.
With whom would you like to swap your workplace for one day? What would you do?
Maybe with Erin French – the chef and owner at a small restaurant in rural Maine. I would garden, and plan menus, and cook, and enjoy the guests. I’ve actually never been there but from what I’ve read it looks idyllic.
Is there any rather unusual hobby or talent you might want to share with us?
Perhaps the fact that my husband and I recently bought a large 1894 Victorian house on top of a hill near our university campus. It needs a lot of TLC (tender loving care, read, restoration) and somehow we made the rather impetuous decision that we were the ones to take it on.
What did your research teach you about life?
When you have weathered many joys and disappointments, the new joys remain thrilling and amazing while the new disappointments are diluted and feel less crushing.
What would your job be, if not a scientist?
This is an excellent question I think about a lot, and use as my cocktail party ice breaker for others! In my case I think the answer is architect.
Is there any particular object that follows you through work and/or life?
Not really, I am not defined by things. If pressed to come up with something, maybe the 30 year old leather knapsack that has travelled with me nearly everywhere is the literal answer. Come to think of it, I need to bring it to the cobbler for repairs so it can come to Berlin with me in a month.
Which place in Berlin do you like the most, and why?
“Most” is a big commitment, but one place I visited ten years ago and found fascinating was the Badeschiff. I like the huge sweeping S-bahn stations with their walls and ceilings of glass. And I appreciate how close Berlin is to rural areas.
Is there anything about Berlin that you didn’t expect at all? And/or something that you miss here? What makes Berlin special for your research?
I was surprised (in a good way) by how relatively dark the night sky seems for a large urban center.
At this point, not having had my first extended stay, I still miss being familiar enough with a place to just make plans without too much googling – where to go for a run, where to suggest meeting for dinner, where I need to worry about safety, etc.. I am sure that will change quickly though.
Berlin has an incredible and tightly connected network of researchers who work at the nexus of chemistry/physics/biology across at least five major research institutions. They are supportive of each other and form a collaboration hub that will allow us to make progress faster here than anywhere.