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

Sinem Koç-Günel in the lab

Sinem Koç-Günel in the lab

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(03/16/21) Clinical lung researcher Sinem Koc-Günel joined the group run by Amy Ryan (Firth) as a DFG fellow at the Hastings Center for Pulmonary Research, University of Southern California (USC), in Los Angeles in August 2020, where she is looking into new methods for treating a rare lung disease. In her interview with the DFG Office North America, she discussed her current research, her immigration background and her career goals, as well as talking about life in LA, using public transport there and surfing.

Through its research fellowship program and the Walter Benjamin Program, the DFG supports junior scientists in their 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, reflecting the belief – still prevalent in the life sciences in particular – that for a career in research it is helpful to have “been in America.” Through this series of interviews, we aim to give you an impression of DFG funding recipients and the wide range of their research of their research endeavors and personalities. With this conversation, we take a look at who is behind funding number KO 5803.

DFG: Dr. Koc-Günel, many thanks for taking the time to talk to us. After obtaining an excellent school-leaving certificate at Wöhlergymnasium upper secondary school in Frankfurt am Main, you did what is often expected of high-performing graduates: you studied medicine. Looking back, was medicine something that was of intrinsic interest to you, or was it more the expectations of those around you that pushed you in that direction?

Sinem Koc-Günel (SKG): Good question – and many thanks for the opportunity to talk about these aspects of my career. But first of all, a big thank-you to the DFG for a fellowship that allows me to conduct research into things like lung repair mechanisms and get to know a completely new environment, Los Angeles – and with my family, too. Science in the sunshine, near the beach – it doesn’t get any better than this. To answer your question: the decision probably came about as a result of two women who influenced me greatly at the time: my mother and my secondary school biology teacher. My mother was a doctor’s assistant and occasionally took me to work with her, while my teacher, Ms. Crasemann,made learning biology hugely enjoyable for me. When talent meets enthusiasm, things simply take their course. Another thing was that my cousin, who was like an older sister to me, also became a doctor.

DFG: Could things have taken a different course?

SKG: It wouldn’t have been impossible. At my school, Wöhlergymnasium, I specialized in music in addition to biology: I played the piano well enough to perform Chopin’s Nocturne in C-sharp minor, and my analysis of one of Beethoven’s late string quartets in my school-leaving exam was good enough for it not to jeopardize my overall grade. But it wasn’t enough to make me want to take up music as a career – though I’ve made up for that now in that I’m married to a musician and composer. By the way, he’s also being really supportive right now, looking after our now almost two-year-old son, which I appreciate very much.

DFG: You grew up as a child of Turkish immigrants in Frankfurt am Main. How did your parents end up there?

SKG: My parents are from Cappadocia in Central Anatolia, not far from Kayseri, if that means anything to you. My mother comes from a local clan of carpet weavers, my father trained as a policeman. They probably both followed the example set by the father of the cousin I just mentioned, who went to Germany in the early 1970s. My mother trained as a doctor’s assistant in Germany, while my father remained true to his profession to some extent, first working for the German national railways and later at Frankfurt Airport. At some point they started their own small taxi business in Germany – my mother in the office and my father at the wheel. They really did work their way up. If they ever thought my younger brother or I seemed too spoiled, they liked to remind us that as children in Turkey they had to run around without shoes on, even in winter. They’ve come a long way and they really did make sure that we children are much better off than we might have been in Turkey. They even bought a piano for me to play – and that meant having to make do with a less sophisticated car. There are probably other ways you could have resolved the problem – me playing the recorder and my parents driving a Mercedes, for example. But as things were, I ended up with piano. I can’t thank my parents enough for that.

DFG: To German ears, Central Anatolia might sound rather conservative in terms of gender-specific roles. You and your parents are somewhat out of the ordinary in this regard, aren’t you?

Koç-Günel with her family by the Pacific Ocean

Koç-Günel with her family by the Pacific Ocean

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SKG: (laughs) I’d have to elaborate a little on that -- may I?

DFG: Feel free.

SKG: Things vary more from one village to the next in rural Turkey than you might expect. The village where my parents grew up was not conservative. Christian missionaries were even allowed to work there. One of them became my “Aunt” Ruth. She taught my grandmother to read and write during her eight years in Anatolia. She wasn’t able to convert her to Christianity, but my grandmother did come to include Jesus in her prayers at some point. Thanks to Aunt Ruth, who now lives back in Siegen and is still very close to my family, I was probably in a church more often than in a mosque. In other words, there were many factors that contributed to me and my parents becoming successfully integrated in Germany.

DFG: Are there more of these you can tell us about?

SKG: Schools are very important here. I grew up on Ben-Gurion-Ring in Frankfurt-Bonames. In the US this is what you’d call a “project” – a low-rent housing estate with several thousand people crowded into a confined space, including a very small proportion of academics and a very high proportion of people with a migrant background. My education started there at August Jaspert School, where they clearly know exactly how to get excellent results, even given unfavorable starting conditions. I then went on to Wöhlergymnasium, whose alumni include famous names such as Erich Fromm and Elias Canetti. There, too, I benefited from excellent and highly motivated teachers, as well as deriving enormous pleasure from the school’s own garden project and honey. I was later awarded scholarships by the Hertie Foundation and the Böll Foundation. I actually met Cem Özdemir there at some point and was able to exchange pleasantries with him. Incidentally, the Hertie Foundation values adherence to more traditional norms of behavior, too, which is why I always mention Baron Knigge in my CV – the famous German expert on etiquette.

DFG: I’ll try to be on my best behavior. But let’s talk about your field of research. What is it that interests you about lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) – a condition that only affects a few hundred people in Germany?

SKG: There are estimated to be about 200 to 300 sufferers, almost all of them women. I met them at the university clinic in Frankfurt, where Dr. Christina Smaczny has gathered the vast majority of cases from all over Germany. So the disease is not so rare there of course, but to answer your question: empathy probably best accounts for my motivation. This is a disease where there is very limited funding for research because it’s so rare, and it almost exclusively affects women and children, but it does so with a severe impact – that in itself is a good reason for me. In addition, LAM also allows lung repair mechanisms to be studied, and progress in this area would of course be a wonderful plus factor.

DFG: What exactly are you researching, and what can we hope to expect if we contract a lung disease in the future?

SKG: I’m currently trying to establish a 3D model of LAM in the Petri dish. For this purpose, cells from LAM patients are reprogrammed and converted into induced pluripotent stem cells. The aim is to create a lung organoid, a kind of “microlung” in the Petri dish, based on the induced pluripotent stem cells that contain the diseased gene (TSC2), so as to enable us to find other signalling pathways that do not function as they should.

DFG: Are the techniques used in the US more advanced than in Germany? Here I’m thinking of the use of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) and tools such as Crispr-Cas9.

SKG: In some areas they’re a little bit further on in the US. But the main difference is that you have so many clever minds coming together here – researchers from all over the world. In Germany, this is only possible to a limited extent because of the language. Most of the top people go to English-speaking countries, so an international network has become established here in North America that reflects a hugely diverse range of expertise and techniques from all over the world – and this is what makes it easier to generate innovative ideas. At the same time, research resources are pooled because the funding is somewhat better here than in Germany. There’s also less of a hierarchical structure at the workplace, which paves the way for creativity (believe it or not, creativity is actually needed in research!) and productivity. The saying goes that any PI is only as good as their researchers – and you’re even on first-name terms with your head of department.

Initial progress on the surfboard

Initial progress on the surfboard

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DFG: What is your day-to-day life like in Los Angeles?

SKG: I work with cell cultures, and cell cultures need a lot of looking after. So they dictate the basic shape of my everyday routine, and because cell cultures are not familiar with the concept of a weekend, they dictate my Sundays, too. We didn’t arrive in LA until August, right in the middle of the lockdown. So I’ve hardly had the chance to experience normal life in the lab yet, though I really do appreciate the advice I get from my research group leader and my colleagues. They’re almost all women, so for me that creates a very special atmosphere that is both highly productive and inspiring. There’s also something of a spirit of optimism here, which seems to be typical of California. At USC we’ve already achieved a lot in the treatment of cystic fibrosis using techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, and we hope to be equally successful with a broad range of lung treatments, not only with LAM.

DFG: If you were to venture a look into your future, what do you think lies in store for you when you return to Germany?

SKG: First of all my postdoctoral lecturing qualification.

DFG: Really? Surely there are lots of very attractive alternative qualification paths for a professorship nowadays.

SKG: That may be the case, but have you ever worked as a female doctor in a hospital? I can hang as many stethoscopes around my neck as I like -- I still get asked: “Where’s the doctor?” I’ve even been out on the road as an emergency physician wearing a bright orange jacket with the words “Doctor on Call” printed in huge letters on the back – but still all eyes are on my male colleague first (the paramedic or the driver). That’s not necessarily going to change if I’m a postdoctoral lecturer of course, but it’s a qualification that does carry a high status within a hospital. I just want to keep all the doors open; after all, a postdoctoral lecturing qualification and a research group leadership are not mutually exclusive. I also want to teach and pass on my experience. All this I plan to do in Frankfurt because that’s where my family lives. I’ll have to take a closer look at the regulations for obtaining a postdoctoral lecturing qualification to see what’s required in terms of publications and impact, but I’m fairly confident I’ll be able to take the hurdles in stride.

DFG: Still, up until the middle of next year you’re going to be in Los Angeles. What will you miss when you return to Frankfurt?

SKG: Since last year I’ve been going to the beach on Sundays with my surfboard (yes, I actually bought one) and I’m in a really friendly group – on a socially distanced basis, of course – learning how to stand up on the board and have it carry you back to the beach. I’m assuming I’ll get a good enough handle on it in the coming months that I might miss it when I get back home to Frankfurt.

DFG: But you don’t walk to the beach, do you? Do you drive or take public transport?

SKG: Sure, we take the car. There are some public transportation links, but I’ve been strongly advised not to use them. I’m not particularly anxious as I grew up in a socially deprived area in Frankfurt, but LA is a bit less reassuring and I’m not from here.

DFG: What else do they advise you not to do in Los Angeles?

SKG: Breathe. Joking aside, the level of air pollution here is frightening – the situation is acute because of the many forest fires, too. I was waiting for a shipment of cells on dry ice from Frankfurt last autumn and since I was starting to give up hope, I set off by car in search of the Fed-Ex delivery van. Just a little further out of town, the smell of smoke was everywhere and the animals were fleeing from the forest out into the gardens in the suburbs. There are huge problems with chronic disease here, too. I recently saw the lung of a forty-year-old non-smoker in LA rubber-stamped as “healthy”. It didn’t look good, though of course you don’t know if the organ is healthy until you look at it ex-situ.

DFG: Are you currently involved in Covid-19 research, too?

SKG: Yes, as was already the case in Frankfurt in the field of follow-up care. This then promoted me to the category of “National Interest Exception”, making it extremely easy for me to travel to the US in August. All in all, Covid-19 has hugely raised the profile of my field of research and interest, but I do think that the academic systems in Germany and the US are well enough positioned to respond to more than just acute needs. As a clinical practitioner, I certainly want to help patients of course, but I can do that much more effectively the better I understand the underlying nature of their condition. And of course this process starts primarily in the Petri dish, i.e. in the lab; that’s why I believe it’s desirable to have some freedom from direct patient care. But as I said, I’m not complaining – we don’t even have to do without shoes in winter. Nonetheless, when I see the hard work being done in hospitals and then look at how politicians are thinking about how the aviation industry is going to get through the Covid pandemic – I might even consider training to be a pilot as well, just to get the appreciation.

DFG: You don’t need to -- the DFG holds you in high esteem even without a flying licence. Thank you very much for this entertaining conversation. On this note, we wish you a quick foothold on the surfboard and of course all the very best in your professional ventures – and we hope very much that you achieve the breakthroughs in the treatment of lung disease that you are striving for in your work.