“Ideally as a postdoc you should aim to publish as last as well as first author and gather experience writing grants,” says Professor Yves Muller, formerly researcher at the MDC. The crystallographer emphasises that postdocs wanting to become group leads need to enjoy independence and be ready to follow their own ideas.
Independent scientific thinking is key for a successful academic career, sagte Yves when he recently visited the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC). His own move to the MDC in 1996 was part of a conscious plan to gain the research independence necessary to become a group leader. Yves joined Professor Udo Heinemann’s group which provided a perfect environment to develop his European network and complete his habilitation through the FU Berlin. From 1996-2001 he worked on a combination of independent and lab projects, exchanging knowledge of x-ray crystallography and structural biology with the Heinemann group.
Plasma proteins in blood were the focus of Yves main project which he brought with him from his first postdoc. These proteins carry molecules which are too big or insoluble to move around the blood on their own. The globulin family of proteins make up a significant proportion of plasma proteins and include important drug targets. When Yves started work on plasma globulins there was no structural information about them.
Yves’ goal was to get a crystal structure of sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG) which carries sex steroids like oestrogen or testosterone in blood. Getting the first structural information on a new family of proteins is biologically exciting and since the globulins are drug targets the structures can help design pharmaceuticals that bind them.
Yves began his research on plasma proteins as a postdoc at Genentech. The biotech company allowed staff to publish in academic journals which Yves says is very important, “Secretive companies that don’t allow staff to publish can be deadly to academic careers.”
“MDC is well equipped and well funded, so it offers good possibilities,” says Yves. His experience in the Heinemann lab helped him develop his independence and get his next job as group lead at the University of Sussex. He is now a Professor at the Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg.
Yves explains that it is ideal to be able to prove at a job interview that you have your own ideas, can win grant money to work on them and show initial results. Yves got experience in writing grants as a postdoc at MDC, but he says funding applications are an unpleasant aspect of working in science and remain one of his greatest worries.
One of his favourite parts of scientific research is collaboration. When Yves started working on hormone plasma proteins he wrote to almost everyone researching their biology. Many wanted to collaborate. “You meet lots of open-minded people in science,” Yves says, “so it’s easy to find collaborations – that’s a pleasure.”
Collaboration with groups working on diverse biological problems is easy for Yves because of his focus on x-ray crystallography. The technique can be used to get structural information about a broad range of proteins. Although Yves began his career working on plasma proteins, he now works on other biological questions.
The focus of Yves’ alumni talk at the MDC was proteins from human cytomegalovirus which is a problem for immune-compromised patients. One of the viral proteins he has studied is IE1 (intermediate early protein 1) which helps assembled virus particles escape the nucleus. Yves used creative approaches to investigate a flexible loop in the protein including dehydrating crystals. He also compared the crystal structure of IE1 with an NMR structure of it in complex to see how the loop might move to accommodate a partner protein.
Yves also shared other tips for postdocs planning academic careers. While young group leads need to quickly acquire skills from recruitment to budgeting, Yves says that scientific excellence is the key to securing these roles. “It’s all about the science,” he says, “You need to prove you have your own ideas and can take a path that delivers results.”
Delivering scientific results isn’t easy, but as Yves advises “Everyone has hard times, so you need to know that you can complete your work if you dig your teeth in.”