Career Booster North America: Interviews with German researchers in the USA and Canada

Katharina Lemberg in the lab

Day-to-day routine in the lab

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(24.10.23) Through its research fellowship programme, and since 2019 through the Walter Benjamin Fellowship, the DFG supports researchers in early career phases by funding an independent research project abroad and, since 2019, in Germany too. Many of these fellowships are taken up in the USA and to a lesser extent in Canada. In this series of interviews, we would like to give you an impression of the range of personalities who receive funding from the DFG – here we meet the person behind funding number LE 4815.

DFG: Dr. Lemberg, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to the DFG’s Office North America. 

KL: I’m the one who should be thanking you! I consider the fellowship to be an enormous privilege. It allows me to work and research with highly qualified people and with wonderful colleagues and supervisors while at the same time making intercultural contacts and exploring America together with my family – as well as giving me a fascinating perspective on the city of Boston. 

DFG: You mention your family: you moved to Boston with your wife and 16-year-old daughter, is that right? That certainly poses a lot of challenges. How did you go about it?

KL: We had to plan a little differently than you might have done in the case of a one-person household. The most important thing, of course, was that our daughter was on board and didn’t feel too rushed by the decision. A teenager is rather different from a toddler in a case like this. After that we had to find the right school, which also made finding an apartment more difficult, as we only could look for apartments where we could be sure our daughter didn’t have far to go to school. Then we needed an orthodontist, because of her braces, and make changes in terms of leisure activities etc. In the case of my wife things were less complicated. She was instantly enthusiastic, and as an artist she was able to make good use of the time to devote herself intensely to her projects. Nevertheless, in her case, too, the decision to quit her job for the time being, move out of the apartment and go to the other side of the world was not without its difficulties. Not forgetting our two cats who travelled to Boston with us, meaning we had to find a permanent home while still in Cologne. It was quite nerve-wracking to conclude a rental agreement from that distance.

Dr. Katharina Lemberg

Dr. Katharina Lemberg

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DFG: Das ist leicht nachzuvollziehen! Bleiben wir noch kurz bei der Familie. Sie geben in Ihrem Lebenslauf weit fortgeschrittene Kenntnisse der chinesischen Sprache an, als Geburtsort Wien und Sie haben in Dortmund Abitur gemacht. Möchten Sie das ein wenig erläutern?

DFG: Absolutely! Let’s stay on the subject of family for a moment. In your curriculum vitae, you say that you have a very advanced knowledge of Chinese, you were born in Vienna and you graduated from high school in Dortmund. Could you give us some background?

KL: Sure: my mother grew up in Taiwan, so Mandarin is my mother tongue. We used to spend the summer holidays with the family in Taiwan, too. My Taiwanese roots are not immediately obvious, so I can still remember how annoyed I was as a child when people didn’t initially speak to me in Chinese on the streets of Taiwan but always addressed me in English first.

Meanwhile, my father is a true Viennese native. My parents met in Vienna, where they both studied music at the conservatory, majoring in piano. The fact that we moved to Dortmund at that time – I’d just turned five – was mainly for career reasons. My father was offered a position as conductor and répétiteur at Dortmund Theatre. My mother worked as an organist in Dortmund, but also freelanced as a pianist and accompanied various choirs.

DFG: Your curriculum vitae shows that in addition to studying medicine, you also studied music – or violin to be precise. That’s impressive, and music was obviously in your genes. But weren’t you afraid of taking on a double burden?

KL: As I said, I grew up with music and could read music even before I knew the alphabet. Not only were my parents professional musicians but also my grandparents and many of my aunts and uncles. There were moments in my childhood when the sounds of a different instrument could be heard coming out of every room. That was certainly quite something – but luckily we had tolerant neighbours! I got my first violin at the age of four. It was my greatest wish at the time, and although my mother sometimes had to remind me to practise, I always enjoyed playing and often gave various small-scale performances with my parents. So it seemed that my path was set.

Violinist Katharina Lemberg on a concert poster

Violinist Katharina Lemberg

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But when I started to take an interest in medicine in upper secondary school, things got complicated. For a long time I was unable to decide in favour of one and against the other. So to some extent, the dual degree was the result of me being undecided. I also had a fellow student who opted for a similar path, so she provided me with a good role model. 

I was very busy during that time and commuted a lot between Cologne (medicine) and Düsseldorf (music). That really was quite strenuous. But it was still the right decision for me, even though I did ultimately opt for medicine. During my time at the music academy in Düsseldorf, I was very lucky to meet lots of other excellent musicians and make music with them, in addition to the great lessons I had with my professor. For example, I greatly enjoyed playing in a string quartet for several years: we tackled lots of different pieces by composers like Brahms, Mendelssohn and Dvořák, and even an amusing musical parody of the Flying Dutchman overture by Paul Hindemith, which contains the direction: “as if played by a bad spa band by the fountain at seven in the morning”. Hindemith was a violist himself and must have had quite a sense of humour. All this was hugely enriching for me and I’m grateful I was able to take the dual degree programme.

DFG: In your doctoral thesis you dealt with a neuroscientific topic, but before you came to Boston you worked in the Department of Internal Medicine and Nephrology, i.e. renal medicine, under Professor Dr. Thomas Benzing at the University Hospital in Cologne. How did this change of specialisation come about?

KL: During my studies, I found the subject of neurology incredibly intriguing, which is why I did my doctorate on the subject of strokes. During my internship year, I initially toyed with the idea of going into ophthalmology, but then internal medicine appealed to me a bit more, especially the connections between the different organ systems and the view of the person as a whole. The kidneys are particularly fascinating because they can fulfil so many different tasks at the same time and are very complex overall.

DFG: You’re currently involved in a research project at Boston Children’s Hospital on the possible genetic causes of renal failure or insufficiency. Is it possible to explain the project and the subject of the research being done by Professor Dr. Friedhelm Hildebrandt’s group in such a way that it is understandable to the non-expert?

KL: I can certainly give it a try. Unlike diseases in many adult patients, kidney diseases in children and going into young adulthood are often not caused by external factors such as environmental influences or nutrition or other underlying diseases. For this reason, genetic predispositions are coming more into focus in younger people and research is being done into whether these patients have disease-causing mutations in certain genes where it has been shown that severe kidney diseases can potentially develop. 

This is also the case with steroid-resistant nephrotic syndrome (SRNS), which I study in Professor Hildebrandt’s group. This is a disease complex in which there is a large loss of protein through the urine that does not respond to standard therapy, namely the administration of so-called steroids such as cortisone. 

As the disease progresses, the kidney function continues to decline until patients are dependent on regular dialysis, i.e. kidney washing, or a kidney transplant. Of the more than 50 genes currently known that can lead to SRNS in certain mutations, Professor Hildebrandt has identified and characterised 34 in his laboratory. This has led to a better understanding of the cellular mechanisms that contribute to this disease pattern and has also enabled the successful establishment of a drug therapy for a subgroup of patients. 

Photograph of Katharina Lemberg and her wife

Outing with wife

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My hope now is that my work will help identify and characterise further mutations. We’re focusing our search on the protein-coding regions of the genome, the so-called exome, where a large proportion of the disease-causing mutations are found. For this purpose we have thousands of DNA samples from patients all over the world at our disposal.

A second focus of my work is to explore a potential therapeutic approach as there are still no causal therapeutic options for most SRNS patients. Using an animal model, we’re looking into whether we can use so-called “gene replacement therapy” to deliver a functional copy of the gene in question to the scene of the action, namely the kidney corpuscles (glomeruli) – packaged in a virus that is harmless to humans. The hope is that this externally supplied and intact gene can act as a replacement blueprint in the cell, thereby producing a functional protein again. This principle is already used for some nerve and liver diseases, but the kidneys are especially challenging because of their anatomy: it has proven relatively difficult to get the virus to pass through the kidney filter and reach the target cells. But we’re working on it. 

DFG: May I confront you with another medical find from your curriculum vitae? In your certificate for the “First Section of the Medical Examination”, it says: “The student selected the elective subject in Medical Psychology, completing an eight-week scientific project on the topic: Korsakoff syndrome, with special reference to the symptom of ‘confabulation’ and its impact on identity with the grade of very good (1.00).” 

KL: That goes back to a lecture in the field of medical psychology, at a time when my main interest was still neurology. The syndrome mainly involves memory disorders as a result of brain damage, mostly caused by chronic alcohol consumption. A conspicuous early symptom of the disease is confabulation – a term used to describe the fact that sufferers fill in their memory gaps with freely invented, objectively false “memories”, though they are not even aware of this themselves. At the time, I was particularly interested in the extent to which the disease also changes the personality of sufferers: after all, our memories and experience certainly shape our character, so it would seem that they actually define our identity. The progress of the disease is indeed very severe in most cases, unfortunately, and in addition to resulting in an increasing loss of independence it frequently involves a change in character, too. 

DFG: Medicine now clearly dominates your day-to-day life. Is there any room for music at all?

KL: Yes, I’m glad to say that this is definitely the case! I recently had the opportunity to play first violin with the Apollo Ensemble, a project orchestra in Boston, and we gave a wonderful concert at which we performed Brahms’ 1st Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Suite. Incidentally, my boss, Professor Dr. Hildebrandt, also plays the piano and the organ. And some of my colleagues at the lab play the odd instrument here and there as well – one is an excellent cello player, for example – so we’ve been able to play together at several lab parties. That’s always particularly satisfying! 

For some years now, my father has organised an annual family concert with various chamber music ensembles, so I’m looking forward to being able to take part in that again when I return to Germany.

And in addition to proactive music-making, you have the Boston Symphony Orchestra here, of course: they have a great offer of tickets for 25 dollars for people aged under 40, so we’ve been very happy to make the most of that. We haven’t made it to the famous summer music festival in Tanglewood yet because we don’t have a car, but that might happen next year – we’ll see. What we have managed several times, however, is a trip to New York. There you have the unique opportunity to see one of the fantastic musicals on Broadway – Chicago was my personal favourite last year!

Lemberg with her daughter at a games café

With daughter at a games café

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DFG: What else do you enjoy besides medicine and music? Any unusual hobbies?

KL: I’ve always enjoyed reading, especially fantasy novels, as they catapult you so beautifully into a completely unfamiliar world. In addition to violin lessons, I also used to play football regularly with a local club during my school years in Dortmund. That was incredibly important to me at the time, probably also providing the necessary balance. I don’t have the time for team sports right now, however. Nowadays I love playing really “nerdy” board games – mostly with my wife in our cosy living room or at a games café. It can take six hours to finish a game like that. 

DFG: Can you give us an example?

KL: Yes certainly. One of my favourite games at the moment is Arkham Horror, a legacy deck-building card game. Here you’re in a universe based on the famous stories by H.P. Lovecraft, so there are all kinds of mysterious happenings and secret cults everywhere, with monsters and conspiracies lurking around every corner. Arkham Horror is played cooperatively: you take on the role of an investigator and together you try to get to the bottom of the numerous mysteries in Arkham. It has simply everything: a fabulous story, great visuals and sensational gameplay. In some ways it’s great if you like collecting things, too, since you gradually acquire individual scenarios, campaigns and maps, and the game becomes more and more versatile and complex as you go along. It’s incredibly involving and atmospheric – I highly recommend it!

DFG: How do you expect your career to progress in the next five years?

KL: Five years is a long time. In all likelihood I’ll complete my research stay as early as next spring. I hope to be able to complete my projects as far as possible by that time of course and publish the findings in some good journals. Afterwards, the plan is for me to be able to continue my research at the Nephrolab at the University of Cologne under Professor Dr. Benzing. He’s particularly concerned with podocytes and the glomeruli, i.e. the kidney filter units, which is great. At the same time I’ll also be working clinically again – which I’m very much looking forward to – in order to be able to complete my specialist training as a nephrologist by the end of the five years. 

My stay in Boston has been a milestone for me in terms of my professional career and has significantly advanced my work as a researcher, so that's something I’m very grateful to the DFG for!

DFG: In that case we hope very much that you and your family manage to make it to Tanglewood next year and that you successfully complete your research stay and continue to pursue your career the way you’d like to. Thank you very much for this entertaining and informative interview and we wish you and your family all the very best.