The Opposing Thumb

An opinionated digit leafs through the biological literature
Media Roundup

Visitors: Hans Meinhardt

It is a truth universally acknowledged that whenever someone begins a session with “the next speaker needs no introduction (insert here ‘from me’/’to this audience’/’in this house’ variant)”, an introduction will follow. So it was with Hans Meinhardt, of the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Tübingen. The audience knew him, and he had been in this house before. Dr Meinhardt was kind enough to spend a few days with our incoming PhD program class, and he also gave a research talk entitled Models for organizer formation: The BMP-Chordin interaction for the establishment of the dorsoventral axis from a pattern forming perspective.

There was one moment in said introduction that got my attention- Dr Meinhardt, it turns out, had started his career at CERN. Now, I am as immune as the next Biologist to Physics-envy, but I must admit that enormous particle colliders do this inside my brain. So I decided to dig around in published texts, to find out how he got started, and what prompted the move to the life sciences. Here, in an interview with the International Journal of Developmental Biology,  are traces of the initial disquiet:

“I was trained as an experimental physicist. My PhD work dealt with a problem of the so-called weak interaction, a force that is involved in β-decay. Afterwards I joined a group at the European High Energy Research Institute CERN in Geneva involved in the determination of the leptonic decay rate of the Ximinus particle. Although this was an exciting time for me, it was not satisfactory. The experiments were so work-intensive that no time remained to go deeply into the underlying theories.”

And here, in a talk with Current Biology, is an honest and personal answer to “So what turned you on to biology?”:

“After the decision to leave high-energy physics, I visited several labs in the hope to find a new scientific home. To my surprise during this search, I found many frustrated scientists, including former colleagues, who had moved earlier into biology. It was more by chance circumstance that I came to Tübingen. There I found a bunch of people who were very enthusiastic about their work. Up to that time, I never heard about hydra or chromatin. I felt these people were bright and enjoyed what they were doing; so it seemed to me a good place to go. In away, the decision was an irrational one, but one I have not regretted.”

I would encourage everyone to read both interviews in full, they span a range of topics, from the influence of Alan Turing’s early models of developmental patterns in the 50’s to Dr Meinhardt’s views on the future of Biology.

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