Channing Der is an expert in the field of so-called RAS genes, which play an important role regarding the control of cancer cell growth. The oncologist, who holds a professorship at the University of Carolina in Chapel Hill, continues his research at the Institute of Pathology at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin. The aim of Der's research project is to improve the treatment of tumor patients, establishing a more personalised and effective therapy.
Please close your eyes and think about your research project. What do you see at first?
I see the faces of people who have lost a family member to pancreatic cancer. I see their fear and worry that yet another family member may soon receive the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. As the deadliest of all cancers, with a single digit 5-year survival rate of 8%, this diagnosis is like a death sentence. But I also see their hope, their determination to continue the fight of their loved ones, that research will make breakthroughs in pancreatic cancer treatment. It is this image that is what drives me most to do the research that we do.
How would you explain your research to a child?
I would explain that research is like solving puzzles, puzzles about how our bodies work and sometimes don’t work so well, and then finding a way to fix our bodies. Then I would explain that I am very lucky, to be doing something that I enjoy, that I don’t just do this to make a living. I would also say that research can be very rewarding, it is a way to help people.
What is it that surprises people when you tell them about your research?
That I "enjoy" studying such a deadly disease with such long odds of success. That it is a cancer that has defied the smartest minds in science does not discourage me, it only excites and motivates me even more.
With whom would you like to swap your workplace for one day? What would you do?
Roger Federer, on center court at the Wimbledon finals. Aside from being the greatest tennis player of all time, I admire his grace and modesty, and his amazing longevity. To be at the top in his profession at the age of 37 is very remarkable – a remarkable record of sustained excellence. What I would do? I’d be able to play a much better tennis game than I currently do. I’d experience tennis played at the highest level, a level most of us can only imagine.
Is there any rather unusual hobby or talent you might want to share with us?
All my hobbies are rather mainstream, nothing usual. It is actually through science that I began "dabbling" in photography. In research, we have opportunities to travel to many exciting places. So, for scientific meetings, I regularly carry with me several camera bodies and lenses. I have now travelled to 49 of the 50 US states and 48 countries. I have seen amazing landscapes, people and cultures, and I have captured photographic “data” to remember these these wonderful adventures and experiences.
What did your research teach you about life?
Research is more about failure rather than success. If it was easy, if everything worked, it would not be the enjoyment that it is for me. Extending this to life outside the laboratory, pursuing directions where failure is a possible outcome, guides how I choose to live my life. Choosing paths less travelled, taking risks, are lessons learned from the challenges of research.
What would your job be, if not a scientist?
I admire the creativity of top chefs, I love how they create dishes that are both appealing to the eyes as well as to taste and smell. I would want to be someone like the chef Christina Tosi, who seems to have a lot of fun creating new culinary delights.
Is there any particular object that follows you through work and/or life?
A basketball. Basketball is my favorite sport, and my choices in my academic training have seemed to take me to places of basketball excellence. In the US, college basketball has an annual national championship. My time at both the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), I have witnessed 7 college basketball national championship teams.
Which place in Berlin do you like the most, and why?
I enjoy my runs along the Spree River. It gives me a view of the city and the people of Berlin that is different than one I get while in a car or train, or even walking.
Is there anything about Berlin that you didn’t expect at all?
I didn’t expect to be so welcomed, to be so quickly taken in as part of the Berlin research community.
Do you miss something here?
Travel is always exciting; but after a while being on the road, I do miss the routine and “boredom” of my life back in Chapel Hill, NC.
What makes Berlin special for your research?
Although much of research is ‘international’ and not defined by geographic borders, there is a distinct flavour to research in Berlin and Germany which I find refreshing.