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

Marie C. Schölmerich

Marie C. Schölmerich

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(01/25/22) Through its research fellowship program and since 2019 the Walter Benjamin Program, the DFG supports junior scientists in their academic careers by funding independent research projects abroad, and since 2019 in Germany as well. A large proportion of these fellowships are pursued in the USA (and, to a lesser extent, in Canada), reflecting the belief still prevalent in many disciplines – and in the life sciences in particular – that for a career in research it is vital to have gained experience in a country like the USA. In this series of talks, we aim to give you an impression of the range of DFG funding recipients. In this particular edition we take a look at who is behind funding number SCHO 1842.

DFG: Dr. Schölmerich, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Your surname may not be particularly common, but it will probably be familiar to many medical professionals in Germany. Are you by any chance related to the Rector of the Ruhr University, Axel Schölmerich, or the former Vice President of the DFG, Jürgen Schölmerich?

Marie Charlotte Schölmerich (MCS): Not directly related, no. Jürgen Schölmerich is in fact my father-in-law, however, and it’s nice to be able to share ideas with him on scientific topics. But first let me say a big thank you to the DFG, not just for the grant that has enabled me to pursue postdoctoral research here at the University of California in Berkeley since the beginning of 2021, but also for taking an interest in me and my work.

DFG: Your university entrance qualification is an International Baccalaureate from the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. That’s by no means a given for someone born in Berlin. How did that come about – are your parents diplomats?

MCS: No, not diplomats - they both were teachers in the German school system abroad and worked at the German school in Singapore, where we lived as a family for seven years. My parents then moved on to New York via Berlin, while I took up my studies in biochemistry at Leipzig University and later on at Goethe University Frankfurt.

DFG: Did you get your interest in science from your parents?

MCS: If that were the case, they must have gone to great efforts to hide their interests from me. They both come from the humanities discipline of German language and literature. I’ve always had a great interest in the natural sciences – in the end I chose biochemistry.

DFG: You made something of a switch in Leipzig from biochemistry to microbiology, didn't you?

MCS: I used the initial phase of my studies to orient myself and then found my passion in microbiology. A posted notice drew my attention to bachelor’s degree topics at the Centre for Environmental Research Leipzig, and it was there that I ended up in the intellectually very inspiring and productive environment of anaerobic microbiology.

DFG: Based on your experience in Leipzig, how did you go on to pursue your scientific interests in Frankfurt?

MCS: In Frankfurt I found my passion in microbial physiology, especially metabolic physiology and its regulation, as well as the genetic basis in anaerobic bacteria.

DFG: But that must not have been your only passion - you wrote your doctorate in 2017 while on maternity leave, within one year and with an excellent result.

MCS: Yes, I received the highest distinction for my dissertation, summa cum laude. Our son Johann is five now, and we also have a little girl named Emma who was born last year. My husband, Markus Schölmerich, also works as a Postdoctoral Researcher and we’re particularly grateful to the DFG for providing the necessary funding to help us achieve a good work-life balance. That’s something you certainly can’t take for granted here in the USA. There are childcare options, but without the support of the DFG they would be unaffordable for a family with two postdocs as breadwinners.

DFG: You’re in Jillian Banfield’s group at the Innovative Genomics Institute in Berkeley. What is special about this group and why does it provide the ideal environment for your research?

In search of Borgs: taking soil samples

In search of Borgs: taking soil samples

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MCS: In 2004, it was shown for the first time that it is possible to decode multiple genomes of different organisms from a complex microbial community
(https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14961025/). This study was conducted by Jill Banfield’s group, making her a pioneer of “genome-resolved metagenomics” – a method that’s now used in numerous laboratories worldwide. I use this method to reconstruct the genomes of CPR nanobacteria from environmental samples and then identify CPR-specific surface proteins, which I use to “fish” these bacteria out of the complex community. In this way we’re able to discover completely new organisms that could not previously be cultivated in laboratories, and predict their metabolic functions. This also recently led to an extremely interesting discovery: huge DNA elements that occur in association with methane-eating archaea. These elements have been labelled “Borgs” because they can apparently take up and modify DNA from the archaea and other organisms. We suspect they play a role in the methane cycle and have evidence that they harbour proteins and mechanisms that have not yet been described and could potentially give rise to genome editing tools such as CRISPR. I’ve been very fortunate to work on the project since the beginning of my postdoc and am now leading ongoing research into these highly fascinating Borgs. Based on several expeditions I have led in California and others that are planned in the other hemisphere, the aim is now to go even further in exploring the occurrence and potential of Borgs.

DFG: On BioRxiv, the preprint server in your field, there’s a paper that is remarkable in at least two respects. Firstly, it deals with Borgs – previously the name of a collective consciousness originating from the Delta Quadrant in the series Star Trek – and secondly, the list of authors includes Jennifer Doudna, who is best known for having developed the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas. How are the two linked?

MCS: Exactly, the name Borgs is due to the fact that “our” Borgs are similar to the Star Trek Borgs in that they are able to assimilate properties (in our case DNA). The fact that some Borgs harbour CRISPR-Cas is one reason why we work closely with Jennifer Doudna. The other reason is that we’re working together to look for new genome editing tools. It’s important for us to validate our bioinformatically predicted protein functions based on biochemical experiments. That’s done at Doudna’s laboratory. But we also work with other groups; after all, interdisciplinary collaboration gives new experimental possibilities and perspectives, enabling us to make further progress.

DFG: The Innovative Genomics Institute is very important to your work at the moment, is that right?

MCS: Yes, that’s where I was just now before I came back to my home office for this interview. My home is located right on Berkeley’s extended campus in the University Village, where we’re able to afford a small apartment thanks to subsidies provided by the university. Part of my work currently goes on at the Institute because that is where I extract nucleic acids from environmental samples we collected on field expeditions. We can make a lot of discoveries at the DNA and RNA level, and that's something we can do in a very short time. What drives a lot of new discoveries is the interdisciplinary nature of many projects and groups. For example, Jill’s background is in geoscience and she also collaborates with the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) on geochemical issues. My husband Markus is currently also doing a research stay as a postdoc at the LLNL’s National Ignition Facility. At LLNL much of what we find can be characterized in physical aspects.

Staff meeting at the farm: Jillian Banfield’s group

Staff meeting at the farm: Jillian Banfield’s group

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DFG: Please tell us a little bit more about Jill Banfield’s group.

MCS: Sure! As I said, she’s a geoscientist by training and has spent part of her academic career to date in Japan. She loves the land so much that she owns a large plot north of Berkeley where we’ve taken soil samples – and where we meet up once a year for a retreat. We literally set up our tents on Jill’s land and allow ourselves to be grounded. Jill is one of the pioneers of so-called “metagenomics,” i.e., the decryption of genetic information of entire microbial communities from environmental samples. It was this approach that led to one of the recent “Eureka!” moments – our discovery of methane-eating bacteria in soil samples taken from Jill’s land. If you consider that perhaps only 1% to 5% of life in the microbiological field is known, you might well describe this as a gold rush. I wasn’t around when the first Californian gold was found at Mr. Sutter’s sawmill in 1848, but they must have been as happy as we were.

DFG: Unfortunately, Sutter was economically devastated by what happened – so let’s hope Jill Banfield’s farm doesn’t become barren!

MCS: No, Jill wouldn’t let that happen. What she does allow and promote is the development and pursuit of novel ideas and concepts. Compared to Germany and perhaps the East Coast of the USA, too, it’s quite remarkable to see the openness, the flat hierarchies and the “can do” spirit here.

DFG: What do you particularly enjoy about your work at the moment?

MCS: Actually, I enjoy everything. Right now we’re on a real discovery trip: we take soil samples and extract nucleic acids, sequence these, piece them together to reveal what organisms and entities are in these samples. This encompasses analyzing data on the computer, working out new concepts and designing and implementing experiments to test our hypotheses.

DFG: What are your plans for the next five years?

MCS: I plan to stay in the academic field of research. My current fellowship will end in the summer of 2023, after which I would like to apply for a position as a junior research group leader, possibly under the DFG’s Emmy Noether Program. A scholarship from the Claussen-Simon Foundation has allowed me to gain previous experience with a small junior research group in the environment of Professor Wolfgang Streit at the University of Hamburg in 2018/19, which was also very productive with two publications as last author. Given this background and combined with the new techniques and approaches I’ve picked up during my postdoc here at Berkeley, and the publications expected to come out in 2023, I think I’ll be well positioned to take on a group leadership position.

DFG: What will you miss about California as of autumn 2023 – and what won’t you miss?

MCS: More than anything, I’ll miss the weather here, which is nearly always beautiful and warm. My seven years in Singapore probably left more of a mark on me than my previous ten years in Berlin. I’ll probably miss the international flair here in Berkeley, too. But I won’t miss the forest fire season, though we got off lightly this year as compared to 2020; this time around we’ve purchased air purifiers, just to be on the safe side. I certainly won’t miss the deep social divides in the US and the lack of fairness this creates. Berkeley is no exception: just off-campus – the “island of the blessed” if you like – you can see the homelessness, with people who are living in tents (not for fun!). For German and probably for European tastes, too, the public domain is inadequately financed here; they’re unable to organize childcare in such a way that it’s affordable for academics, for example, which makes a lot of them go into industry instead.

Family outing to Yosemite National Park

Family outing to Yosemite National Park

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DFG: With your work and family, do you still find time for other things such as art or music?

MCS: Yes, of course it’s important to me and my husband to spend plenty of time with our children. We recently took them to an exhibition on Vincent van Gogh in the Mission District in San Francisco. There weren’t just pictures on the wall: a whole immersion experience was provided, which was a lot of fun the kids and us adults. I played the clarinet as a child and our son will soon be taking piano lessons – even though his middle name is not Sebastian.

DFG: In that case let’s hope for the best that he still finds pleasure in Bach. Finally, if you were to offer a tip for a visit to the West Coast for our readers who are not so familiar with California, what would it be?

MCS: Moving in concentric circles from Berkeley, I can recommend the university campus itself, which is really worth seeing, then Tilden Regional Park to the east and Mount Diabolo in Contra Costa County further east. To the west is the Bay, and on the other side of the Bay is the very beautiful town of Sausalito. By the ocean I'd recommend Stinson Beach and – if you're interested in marine life – the Aquarium in Monterey.

DFG: One important final question remains: where do you feel more at home, in Asia, Germany, or the USA?

MCS: First and foremost, of course, I feel at home where my family is.

DFG: In that case we wish you a wonderful Christmas with your family. All the best for your professional and personal future, and thank you very much for this interesting and entertaining interview.