After obtaining his diploma in human biology at the Philipps-University Marburg, Germany, Robert Ernst joined the laboratory of Lutz Schmitt and obtained his PhD (summa cum laude) at Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf in 2007. For his postdoctoral work, Robert worked with Hidde Ploegh at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, USA, supported by an EMBO long-term fellowship. Afterwards, he returned to Germany, to the laboratory of Kai Simons at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden. In 2012, Robert became an Emmy Noether fellow of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft and joined the Institute of Biochemistry, Goethe-University Frankfurt as a Junior Professor. Robert moved to the University of Saarland in 2017 as a full professor of molecular biology. His laboratory is interested in sense-and-control elements underlying the homeostasis of cellular membrane properties and their active role in cellular signalling.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
My parents were teachers in biology and chemistry, but my siblings both decided to study classical music and started learning their instruments very early on. So I guess I'm a bit of a rebel. When I was ten, my sister asked me what I would like to be when I grew up and I said ‘professor of biology or chemistry’. She thought it was a bit strange of a ten-year-old to propose such plan. But well, it worked out!
It was thus a straight path to study human biology and biochemistry?
There's a side story to it; I have always been interested in natural sciences, but also, at some point, in computer science. At the age of 10–12, I started programming – initially, of course, I was aiming at programming computer games. However, I realised that to pursue this would mean sitting in front of a computer for the rest of my life, so I quit from one day to the next. At that time I had been working on programs using genetic algorithms. These are programs that rewrite their own code to find new solutions to a given problem in an evolutionary process. I guess that brought me back to biology – it was via computer science.
What motivates you nowadays?
Science is wonderful. You play all day and you even get paid for it! The only downside is that you have to write down all the games that you have played. I am most motivated by eureka moments: the moment your model collapses and you have to rebuild it, when a surprising result in the lab changes everything, or at a conference, when there's so much input and inspiration from diverse directions. Once you connect the dots, you have a new idea of how things work. It's these moments of ‘ah, that's how it works' that give me the kicks.
“Science is wonderful. You play all day and you even get paid for it!”
What questions is your lab trying to answer just now?
We're trying to figure out the active role of the lipid membrane in cellular signalling. Cellular membranes all differ in their composition, and in their physical and chemical properties. I often put myself in the place of a small lipid molecule. When diving into the hydrophobic core of the membrane, you're entering an entirely new world with very different properties. Recognition processes in this environment are still relatively poorly understood, and I am fascinated by their impact on cellular signalling. One of the many things we're looking into is how organelles sense and maintain their membrane properties to establish their identity.
What is particularly challenging about this topic?
It's the cross-disciplinary aspect of it. We're in a constant exchange with physicists, and sometimes we've been discussing a particular observation for weeks and only then do we realize that we misinterpreted a seemingly minimal, yet fundamental, aspect of it. But that's another eureka moment! You have to find a common language, and this only works with a lot of talking and many coffee breaks. Another challenge is that the things we are interested in happen over many different time scales. Many aspects of membrane biology happen within nano- or microseconds and average out over longer time scales. Nevertheless, these events are relevant on the time scale of cellular signalling, which can occur in minutes and hours. Getting to grips with the role of these different time scales, that's a challenge. We are used to static illustrations of biological systems, but membranes are much more mobile, flexible and fluctuating than a snapshot would ever reveal!
What challenges did you face when starting your own lab that you didn't expect?
In a way, you enter an empty space. The things that you are supposed to be doing are suddenly very different. But for me it came as a great relief. All these other things you have to deal with – which you felt, as a postdoc, are keeping you from the actual work – become very important. I'm a procrastinator and the linear road to move things as a postdoc was all of a sudden much more multi-dimensional, so that anything you do becomes part of the big game. It's not just about the science. Before I started my lab, I was with Kai Simons as a postdoc in Dresden. That was unique – a group of friends that felt more like a family than anything else. Kai created this inspiring atmosphere and we're all trying to implement a similar spirit in our labs, where people can talk and think and be excited. I guess this was really good preparation for starting a lab.
It sounds like a very influential time. What is the best science-related advice you have taken away from it?
Ilya Levental (UTHealth, Houston, TX) and I had our farewell day in Kai's lab to become independent group leaders. We went rafting on the Elbe River in Dresden and then went for a beer with Kai. He said to both of us: “You can only lose your face if you lose your face”, and then he repeated it five or six times until we started laughing. We didn't really know what he meant and when we asked he said: “Think about it”. I guess I'm still thinking about it… Maybe he meant that in the time of transition to an independent group leader, you will inevitably make mistakes and you will realise it, especially when it comes to interpersonal situations. What should you do when you realise that you have solved something less than ideal? Do not think about what you have done wrong, over and over again. Do better in the future! This advice helped a lot, even though I am not sure whether this is what he meant. Like I said, I'm still thinking about it!
What's the most important advice you would give to someone about to start their own lab?
It's impossible to rebuild the same lab that you had as a postdoc. It's also not a wise idea to have everything the same way – you always move your lab into a different environment and the environment comes with unique upsides and downsides, and a unique set of chances and possibilities. When it comes to the interaction with my students and postdocs, I try to put myself into the position where they feel encouraged to criticise me. That is sometimes hard because they do. It even hurts sometimes, but it's good.
What is your advice on establishing good collaborations?
Firstly, there should be an atmosphere of equality. You don't want someone to deliver just a minor aspect of a story that you have done. You want everyone to be truly involved. Secondly, you need to talk a lot. There must be an atmosphere of trust, that's very important. And thirdly, especially when crossing disciplines, it's important to meet in person. It doesn't exclude international collaborations, but in that case you should know the person very well and have a strategy.
How do you get the most out of the meetings you attend?
Going to conferences is key for young group leaders and to increase their visibility. Don't be afraid of annoying someone ‘big’, just grab them and pull them to your poster and share your excitement. However, it is equally important to listen and to get excited about other people's research. This opens the door for identifying mutual interests. Share the excitement and you might establish a new collaboration in the future.
“Don't be afraid of annoying someone ‘big’, just grab them and pull them to your poster and share your excitement.”
How do you achieve a work/life balance when you're trying to establish yourself as an independent investigator?
This never really felt like a huge challenge to me. It's very important to find your ‘happy places' and to maintain your long-standing friendships. Wherever I went – and I was moving quite a lot – I rapidly established a small circle of friends and found ‘happy places'. This is important to carry you through all the ups and downs. And then again – I am a rather optimistic person and I seldom see the downside of things. That helps.
Good to hear. Still, the first year as an independent group leader must be overwhelming?
I thought exactly the same thing – it will be so overwhelming – but it was quite the contrary. I felt very much relieved. As a postdoc I was frequently questioning my scientific path and ideas, but as an independent group leader I suddenly felt: okay, this is going to work. This relates to what I said about the transition from a linear road forward as a postdoc to a multi-dimensional network of choices as an independent group leader.
Could you tell us an interesting fact about yourself that people wouldn't know by looking at your CV?
I love playing football. That's one of the things that I'm always looking forward to on Sundays. I couldn't go for a jog because I like to chase a ball as a motivation; once it's there, I keep running like mad. If I don't show up on the pitch on Sunday, my team will be very concerned and think something terrible must have happened. Because that's the only reason I would not be around for Sunday football. *laughs*
Robert Ernst was interviewed by Manuel Breuer, Features & Reviews Editor at Journal of Cell Science. This piece has been edited and condensed with approval from the interviewee.