Virologist Amr Aswad transfers from Oxford University to Freie Universität Berlin as an Einstein International Postdoctoral Fellow. There, he will engage with the research group of Benedikt Kaufer who is holding a Lichtenberg professorship for resistance to virus infections and vaccines funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. Kaufer's research group has a strong focus on investigating human herpesviruses. These pathogens, which many people harbor as slumbering infections, can cause serious illnesses, such as meningitis, shingles, or glandular fever, for example as a result of a weakened immune system.
Please close your eyes for a moment and think about your research project. What do you see at first?
I picture an army of icosahedral–shaped herpesviruses swarming over a cell surface – the scene then cuts to the inside of the cell where a viral particle is unpacking itself like a self disassembling robot. Finally I imagine the viral genome snaking its way around the nucleus where it finds its way to the edge of a chromosome and attaches itself. This final stage is blurry and the aim of my research project is to reveal the details of this final scene (and its consequences!)
What would your research project look like if it was a piece of art?
My first instinct is to say that the geometry of herpesviruses reminds me of arabesque patterns seen in middle eastern architecture – but in reality biological systems are much more messy and stochastic – more like a Jackson Pollock or Kandinsky.
Please give your research project a suitable fantasy name!
“The Virus Within” – a bit cheesy I know, but it captures the essence of the research project and sounds kind of spooky.
To your opinion, what are the three most meaningful inventions of mankind?
Writing, the concept of zero and the transistor.
With whom would you like to exchange your workplace for one day, and what would you do then?
I would like to try being a carpenter, and would probably spend the day building furniture.
Is there any object of obsession, which accompanies you in your daily life?
Like hobbies, I think I am a recurring obsessive – it happens often but doesn’t last long. I enjoy the arc of first becoming curious about something, then thinking about it, googling it, asking people what they think, allowing it consume me completely… before being distracted by a squirrel or something.
Any rather unusual hobbies you might want to share?
I am a serial hobbyist. I frequently jump from one activity to another, until my interest fades or something else catches my attention. I’m taking a pottery class at the moment and also spend some free time fermenting things - pickled vegetables (including sauerkraut of course!), sourdough bread, and a just-about-drinkable apple mead.
Is there a place in Berlin that links to the work on your research project?
Roughly 1% of us carry an integrated herpesvirus in our genomes, and so I would say that anywhere in the city where there is a Berliner with an integrated herpesvirus!
What is the most favourite word you ever heard in Berlin? And what does it mean?
Winterspeck – I always manage to grow my winterspeck when I visit over Christmas.
Which place in Berlin do you like the most, and why?
Definitely the U-bahn or S-bahn. It offers a chance to watch people from different walks of life and learn something about Berlin and Berliners.