For Research. For Berlin.

Einstein Questionnaire

Stephan Sigrist

Fighting against neurological diseases such as dementia is one of the great challenges of our aging society. Genetic Professor Stephan Sigrist takes on this task: for the first time, the world-renowned expert has succeeded in observing the structure and function of synapses on the living object on a nanoscale. Together with his team, he also researches fundamental questions such as the development of the nervous system.

 


Please 
close your eyes for a moment and think about the work on your research project. What's the first thing you see?

Lots of glowing synapses communicating with each other in a kind of visual concert. The light of the synapses is flickering because they are in a constant state of synthesis, rearrangement and breakdown. 


How would you explain your research project to a child?

It's always nice to talk to children – they are generally unbiased and have a vivid imagination. I've already had extensive conversations not only with my own three kids but also various other children about the work we do. After all, children are not more stupid than grown-ups – they just have less experience. 

My attempt at explanation: 

We want to understand how our brain succeeds in remembering all the material you learn at school or what you experienced after a great day on holiday. In other words, what do the small changes look like that write these experiences into our brains? Your brains contain approximately the same number of individual tiny cells as there are people in the world. Each of our nerve cells has its own notepad. They talk to each other about what happened during the day, while constantly jotting down new notes. In the evening, a couple of the nerve cells get together and decide which of the notes are especially important. They enter these in their beautiful book. These entries are then properly stored. Sometimes, nerve cells ask what happened three days ago, and they then have to look in the book. This is the way nerve cells succeed in keeping your holiday in the memory.  


What surprises people most of all when you tell them about your research?

Maybe the fact of how much the mechanisms involved in memory formation in the fruit fly resemble ours. Flies have a brain? Flies have the ability to learn? It would surprise you to know that humans and flies evolved from the same origin, which already possessed a genuine nervous system, and that a large part of the genetic information forms a common heritage, even though our paths separated not later than 600 million years ago. Life itself most likely started some 4,000 million years ago.

 

Who would you like to swap a working day with, and what would you then like to do?

... work in the Berlin Aquarium and have the unique features of the fascinating underwater world explained to me more precisely.

... swapping with one of my PhD students. I would love to spend one day working in the laboratory again in, say, protein biochemistry.  

... I love cooking. So it would be a fascinating experience for me to be allowed to look over the shoulder of a top-class chef.

 

What have you learnt about life from your research?

That appearances are often deceptive and that unprejudiced observation is the key to a better and deeper understanding of the world. 


What would you be today if you hadn't become a scientist?

I've always been interested in anthropology. Although I have to confess that I would find it difficult to imagine my life outside science.  The external and internal freedom I enjoy in my career means an awful lot to me.


Do you have an exceptional object that you keep with you in your working life or daily routine?
Unfortunately, I don’t have the knack of keeping or preserving things over a long period of time. I was like this as a child and it hasn't improved since. So there is none. Fortunately, though, I don't lose track of people so easily.

 

Is there a part of Berlin you find particularly fascinating, or where you feel especially at ease?

In fact, it is the large number of different and diverse locations that make life so interesting for me in Berlin. This is why I often take a new route on my bicycle to get to Berlin Mitte. I feel particularly at ease, though, when I visit the astonishingly pristine lakes in Grunewald.


What surprises you most about Berlin? What wouldn't you have expected in Berlin and what do you miss? 

It often surprises me how stoically Berliners accept makeshift arrangements and unsatisfactory situations. In my opinion, however, there could be a bit more friendliness overall. 

But actually, there's not much I miss – if anything, then maybe mountains ...?

The many talented and receptive people at the numerous research institutes in Berlin provide a unique resource for my research work.

May 2019