„Been in America“: Interviews with German researchers in the USA and Canada

Dr. Julian Grünewald

Dr. Julian Grünewald


(09/30/20) Through its research fellowship program (renamed the Walter Benjamin Programme in 2019), the DFG supports laying the foundation for academic careers by funding an independent research project abroad and, since 2019, in Germany too. A large proportion of these fellowships are awarded in the USA and to a lesser extent in Canada, thereby reflecting the belief – still prevalent in the life sciences in particular – that for a career in research you have to have “been once in America.”

For several years, the DFG Office North America has organized meetings of DFG funding recipients at the annual conferences of the German Academic International Network (GAIN) to give them an opportunity to compare notes, both among themselves and in particular with their funding organization. These meetings provide us with up-to-date impressions of the living and working conditions of German early career researchers in North America – even though this year the annual conference had to take place virtually at the end of August due to COVID-19. In a series of interviews, we would like to introduce you to current DFG funding recipients – in this particular case giving you an impression of who is behind DFG funding number GR 5129.

DFG: Dr. Grünewald, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to us.
The DFG has you listed under the number GR 5129, and upon setting foot on the North American continent, you had to give up the umlaut in the spelling of your surname. In short: life as a scientist is not always easy. Did you have other impressive talents – such as above-average skills in playing the piano or football – and if so, what was it that tipped the scales in favor of science?

Julian Grünewald (JG): I do play the piano, but not nearly well enough to make a profession out of it. However, I’m certainly grateful to my piano teacher for guiding from me from Bach to improvisation at some point: that certainly prepared me for an experimental career. Football was never my strong point, if anything languages and literature. I found my way to science through medicine, which for me is a melting pot of science, society and ethics. The initial impulse for a career as a researching physician was ultimately my doctoral thesis at the University Hospital of Freiburg on the topic of cell migration. The combination of basic research and medicine was exemplified and enthusiastically supported at the Nephrology Department laboratories under Professor Matias Simons and Professor Gerd Walz.

DFG: In your CV it says: “School-leaving certificate at Stefan-George-Gymnasium in Bingen am Rhein, grade: A+.” Wasn’t medicine a compelling choice for you in that case – or at least dentistry? What do your parents do for a living?

JG: I think to have studied medicine simply because of a good grade in my school-leaving exams would have been the wrong approach. My father’s an architect, my mother’s a gynecologist. You might describe this background as a mixture of applied arts and applied natural sciences, of course – with me as the logical outcome. I’m very aware how lucky I am to have grown up in such privileged circumstances.

DFG: Let’s talk about your career. In a nutshell: you’ve been awarded a booster by the DFG – the research fellowship – to further accelerate your scientific career as a postdoc in the USA. You’ve now published extensively on CRISPR gene editing tools, some of them even as first author, in Nature and Nature Biotechnology. Where are you heading – a professorship, or a position as the director of a Max Planck Institute?

JG: That’s very kind, but the plan right now is to bring my postdoc here to a proper conclusion while at the same time keeping an eye on my return to Europe. My goal is still to become a researching physician with my own research group. I want to combine CRISPR gene editing and cardiovascular research with the aim of genetically modelling diseases. And I also want also develop new gene and cell therapies in the medium and long term. This next career step will certainly be a welcome challenge. I would be delighted if the DFG were able to provide a personal mentor for matters such as this – or indeed for funding recipients in general. Preferably someone who is familiar with this type of career path.

DFG: Where do you see yourself in 15 years from now?

JG: My goal is to work with other researchers and doctors to advance the field of cell and gene therapy in Europe and to inspire young researchers. As far as I’m concerned, the title attached to the position is of secondary importance. Of course, excellent basic resources are vital, or having to spend less time on funding applications as a Max Planck Director – but that’s not my primary goal. What I learned in Boston is that success comes from extreme scientific enthusiasm and openness, as well as an environment that is highly dynamic and diverse in every way. Wherever such a constellation exists in the EU – that’s where I want to go!

DFG: You work at Professor Keith Joung’s laboratory at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. How did you end up there?

JG: Professor Joung has one of the world’s leading groups for the development and optimization of tools for so-called “gene editing.” This includes zinc finger nucleases and the CRISPR technology, as well as its more recent iterations, namely base and prime editing. Together with the groups under Jennifer Doudna, David Liu and Jonathan Weissman, the Joung Lab forms the Center for Genome Editing and Recording (CGER), funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These four laboratories are among the world leaders in the further development of CRISPR technologies that are subsequently used in fundamental biological research, for instance, and for modelling diseases, as well as for diagnostics and therapy – i.e. in a clinical context.

I wanted to do research at precisely this interface between gene editing and medicine, with a focus on the safe application of these technologies. In future, I think we’ll need more doctors who have background knowledge of these new forms of therapy.

DFG: CRISPR-Cas9 already has a reputation as the “gene scissors” among the population at large, and there has been a moratorium on its use in the human germ line. Aren’t you afraid of ending up as “Frankenstein” – being overwhelmed by the possibilities and throwing all your concerns overboard? To put it another way: could gene editing also be used to produce something that might not at some point in the future be the result of a “natural” mutation?

JG: I am very aware of the responsibility that the development of these technologies involves. The suspected attempt you mentioned to edit the human germ line in 2018 was severely condemned worldwide, and rightly so. I strongly support the moratorium to which you refer. Nonetheless, I think the whole incident also confirms that a sound medical perspective is needed in the field, integrating ethical and social aspects with scientific ones and helping to evaluate the issues.

At the same time, I’d like to draw attention to the progress that is already being made in somatic gene editing, i.e., not in the germ line. A number of clinical studies are already being done here that are producing promising interim results – for instance, in the treatment of genetically caused anaemias.

I believe it is of fundamental importance to evaluate new technologies from an ethical point of view, too. But at times I’m somewhat concerned about the tendency towards generalized skepticism vis-à-vis new technologies in Germany and Europe as compared to the USA. Ultimately I think it’s the job of science to do a better task of communicating here.

DFG: That’s reassuring, thank you very much. You’re currently working from home because of COVID-19. But please tell us what you find so enriching in a laboratory like Keith Joung’s.

JG: I’ve always appreciated changes of location in the course of my career to date: I pursued my medical studies in Salamanca, Paris and New York. You function differently in different places – you approach problems differently, you’re creative in different ways. The greater the diversity, the more you can contribute and learn. Day-to-day routine in Keith Jung’s laboratory is so enriching because everyone is extremely motivated and enthusiastic about our field of research – from the technical assistants and PhD students through to the postdocs with a biological, biochemical or even a medical background. They all have a wide range of different perspectives as well as varied cultural and even personal backgrounds – but the common goal is to advance these technologies for scientific and medical use with the greatest possible dynamism. So every chat at the coffee machine – which is excellent, incidentally! – turns into a creative debate about new ideas and potential experimental approaches. And people always help each other – without exception.

DFG: There are now numerous websites such as bioRxiv and medRxiv where ideas are presented and discussed below the level of peer review. Do you follow these?

JG: Absolutely, the development of preprint servers is very welcome. Other fields such as mathematics and physics are much further along than biomedicine. Of course, you have to draw attention to the fact that the content is to be regarded as provisional – as in the current situation with the pandemic, for example. But I’m sure that bioRxiv and medRxiv will advance biomedicine. I also find the increasingly well-founded discussion of scientific content on Twitter very interesting. Of course some of the material here is reduced in ways that are no longer acceptable, but if you look closely at the sources, it’s an excellent way of learning from other scientists and networking.

DFG: What else will be important for you in the future besides science?

JG: Clinical work will become a bigger part of what I do in the future, alongside my scientific work.

Before starting my postdoc studies, I’d already worked for five years as an assistant doctor at the Department of Internal Medicine and Nephrology at the University Hospital of Freiburg. I really miss that period of my life and the contact I had with patients. In my private life, family, friends, music, photography, and art films are very important to me. To me personally, scientific creativity and the medical profession are only imaginable in interplay with these other influences and stimuli.

DFG: Is there something that you’re particularly proud of at the moment, and by contrast, is there something that perhaps didn’t go so well but was nevertheless instructive?

JG: An exceptionally talented technical assistant with whom I worked here for two years was recently accepted at Stanford Graduate School. I was extremely pleased about that. As a researcher, the question of failure is always relatively easy to answer, of course. To me, the essence of research is that you’re constantly confronted with failures and setbacks; the only way to deal with this is through teamwork, a systematic approach and persistence. I think the most instructive thing here is the incredibly robust way in which biology “works.” You appreciate this particularly when you know how difficult it is to change experimentally just a single base of a single gene in a single cell.

DFG: Thank you very much for this interview. We hope everything turns out for you as planned – or better still, that any surprises along the way will be pleasant ones.