Aus Lernstoff Lebensinhalt – Lisa Marie Milchsack

Where do you live?

I live in Heidelberg, - one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

What did you study?

I did my Bachelors in Molecular Biotechnology at Heidelberg University and then went on to study Pathology at the University of Cambridge. Currently, I am doing my PhD at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) in Heidelberg, which some people still regard as studying although it comes much closer to working.

What are your hobbies?

I very much enjoy everything related to music, especially singing and dancing, doing sports and spending time with my friends.

Do you have any funny/weird spleens?

A weird spleen might be that I love reading psychology books.

You are a scientist. What exactly do you do?

At the moment I am working on the development of personalized immunotherapy to treat brain tumors. That means I am trying to “train” the patient’s immune cells to specifically recognize the tumor cells and kill them while sparing healthy tissues. This is quite a complex task as all tumors are a bit different and the immune system underlies very delicate regulation. That’s why we are using both bioinformatics approaches and actual “wet lab” experiments to find out what it needs to make immune cells, specifically T cells, recognize the tumor and how we can exploit those mechanisms in cancer therapy.

Is it what you imagined before you started studying or did you have a wrong idea about studying and research?

I don’t think there were any major surprises, except that I would have never thought that I would end up enjoying bioinformatics. I had always loved maths in school, but still I couldn’t have imagined spending whole days in front of the computer.

Do you always have to explain to people what you do? Or is it clear to most people right away?

Usually, it is quite tricky to explain my research project, especially to people who are not as acquainted with science. In those cases, I always try to find allegories. For example, I often compare my project to a scenario in which you have to find the correct glasses (in real life those are receptors) for T cells to be able to “see” the tumor.

How do you explain your job?

As explained earlier, I often use figurative descriptions to explain the actual research question. In terms of what my working day looks like, I pretty much feel that most of it equates to solving a huge puzzle and for that you may use any experimental approach you like.

Do do you think lab and science jobs have an image problem?

Yes, I do, and I think most of that stems from too little communication between scientists and society. If people understood what all those scientists were doing in their labs all day, there would be less suspicion and many people would be more likely to see the impact the research might have on their lives. Also, a widely held misconception is that scientists generally are lonely folks with no interest in what is happening around them, which is absolutely not true! We actually have a great community and there are many initiatives and outreach programs to improve life in science and society.

How did you get your job? Have you always had an interest in STEM and science?

In fact, I’ve always had a strong interest in biology and chemistry and wanted to contribute to improving patients’ lives. Therefore, taking on a job in biomedical science always seemed to be the way to go.

We learned that you had an excellent teacher! Is she the reason you are a scientist today?

Yes, she is great and she certainly helped me a lot to find my way to where I am today. Of course, nothing works without intrinsic motivation and since I had always wanted to pursue a career in biomedicine, there was pretty much a symbiosis with her support for me.

How did she spark your enthusiasm?

I think one of the most intriguing things was that she taught both biology and chemistry, and, thus, she often combined the two disciplines. That makes lots of sense, but usually subjects are taught in a quite isolated manner at school. I enjoyed this interdisciplinary approach a lot, and when she asked me whether I would like to attend a workshop in biotechnology at the University of Frankfurt, I was all in. I guess those couple of days were probably most important in shaping my decision on what to study.

Were there any other reasons for your enthusiasm? Friends, family, idols, etc?

My mother is a pharmacist, so I suppose spending some hours at the chemist’s and looking into medicinal plants during Sunday walks as a child affected me a lot. Apart from that I have a long lasting fascination for how the human body works and what goes wrong in disease. I don’t know how that fascination arose, but it’s been there for a very long time.

What would you have studied if Mrs. Heinrich-Stiller had not been your teacher?

Most likely, I would have studied medicine or pharmacology. That is not far off from what I ended up studying in the end, but still I think there are a few differences. For example, I feel that studying natural sciences equipped me with a broader range of skills needed in research than studying medicine would have, and biotechnology offers much more specific and sustainable tools to treat diseases than traditional pharmaceuticals do.

Have you had a dream job as a little child? Was it different than now?

I’ve always wanted to help people who have fallen ill and I loved puzzling over some unsolved questions. That’s pretty much what I am doing today, or, let’s say, trying to do.

In a study, we found that many young people are interested in the lab but still don't enter the profession. What do you think is the problem?

I could imagine that science is very abstract for many people and, thus, it may be hard for them to grasp what impact their work may have and what a working day in the lab may look like. Of course, science lessons in school include some experiments, but those are usually quite far away from the standards in the lab. Also, some people may fear the working load which comes with studying science or a training as a technical assistant. It is true that scientific training requires a lot of learning and practical courses, but this will be far less overwhelming once you get immersed and see all the links between different subjects.

How do you think the problem of young people in the science and laboratory professions (at all levels: enterprises, associations/NGOs, education system, teachers, family) could be solved? What would you like to see in terms of actors and problems?

It would certainly help if more schools offered extracurricular activities in STEM subjects, such as science clubs or support to participate in (inter-)national science projects and competitions. For me, it also was very revealing to do various internships in the professions I considered. I guess this is something that all of the actors you named could promote.

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