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Growing up in Academia with Moritz Helmstaedter
What is it to be a scientist? How does one become a scientist? Growing Up in Academia is a conversation series with academics at different levels of their career focusing on the sometimes short, sometimes long and winding roads behind the “official CV”.
At each event, we will have an open conversation (interview) with one faculty member representing science in its broad spectrum. We will cover topics such as dealing with expectations (your own and others’), the role of luck/coincidence in scientific discovery, impostor syndrome, procrastination, and conflicts with advisors. Join us for a conversation about the human factors that are universal undercurrents of working in academia but that too often remain unspoken.
On Monday, December 9, 2019, Growing Up in Academia features Prof. Dr. Moritz Helmstaedter, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt, Germany.
Moritz' Official CV
Moritz Helmstaedter is the Managing Director of the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in Frankfurt, Germany. His work aims at pushing the frontiers of Connectomics, an emerging research field occupied with mapping neuronal networks in the brain at unprecedented scale and resolution. Before joining the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research in 2014, he was a group leader at the Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Munich (2011-2014).
Born in Berlin in 1978, Moritz studied medicine and physics in Heidelberg, where he also completed his doctoral thesis with Nobel laureate Bert Sakmann at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg, Germany, followed by post-doctoral work with Winfried Denk.
Additional appointments include professor by special appointment at Radboud University, Nijmegen, Netherlands (since 2016), Perspective Committee of the Biomedical Section of the Max Planck Society (since 2017), Scientific Advisory Board of the Biomedical Big Data initiative, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai (since 2018), and Research Council of Goethe University, Frankfurt (since 2018).
Moritz' Unofficial CV
During high-school, Moritz spent most of his time at the piano and organ, feverishly studying the classical repertoire, in particular the works of Johann Sebastian Bach at the organ. He had taken part in musical competitions and was on track (and expected by his teachers) to go for an education at the conservatory. But his scientific interests got in the way, and during biology classes, the fascination of the brain kicked in. This created some serious confusion about where to go; one option was to combine musical and medicine education; but a visit to Manfred Eigen in Göttingen, who had been a concert pianist before becoming a scientist, and who Moritz had written a letter to to ask for help, convinced him that physics is a must-have, as well. So he took up physics and medicine classes in Heidelberg, leaving music for later in his life. Soon enough, the Max Planck Institute for medical Research in Heidelberg caught his interest, where Bert Sakmann’s huge department was investigating nerve cells and their connections, Peter Seeburg was solving the receptor puzzles, and Winfried Denk was setting up his department at the time. As a Hiwi in Sakmann’s department, Moritz learned and watched and built neuron models. The more time he spent at the institute, the less his studies were able to attract further attention, and the degree of absence in some mandatory classes in medical school was becoming ridiculous. He picked up a dissertation topic, and furtheron lived in the institute. While this was extremely interesting and exciting, the need to finish the formal education was creating quite some trouble, and it took him 10 years until he held both the physics diploma and the medical license – at least he had published 10 papers in that time, too. Still, the psychological burden of formally not playing along the rules, not holding a graduate degree for a long time, is duly remembered.
For the next scientific steps, classical recommendations about the choice of topics, institutions and countries got into the way. We are all advised to change institutions, cities, ideally countries when transitioning from PhD to Post-Doc. But Moritz was most captivated by the work that Winfried Denk had started: the beginning of 3D electron microscopy for what today is called connectomics. Since 2005 Moritz worked partly in Denk’s department and became a full member in 2006, while finishing the medical education during day hours (Winfried would mostly work at night anyway, so that allowed for intense overlap). Same institution, same city, same country, even related topics – not recommended and frowned upon by many outside colleagues at the time. The same happened when Moritz had to decide where to go for starting his own lab in 2011. He had offers from the US (Janelia Farm, NIH), but also one from Max Planck. The latter would however mean staying at the same institution, very close to his Post-Doc advisor, in a similar topic, which he decided to do, trading lack of perceived independence for continued momentum for reaching his scientific goals. 3 years later Moritz took up the role of Max Planck Director at the MPI for Brain Research in Frankfurt.