After spending over 6 years in Canada, immunology researcher Prof Dr Dirk Brenner set his sights on returning to Europe, choosing Luxembourg and the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH) not only because of his FNR ATTRACT Fellowship, but also for the opportunity to build up something new. Three years in, we spoke to the German national about how international collaboration is the essence of high-impact research, team spirit, and how important it is to have fun on the job.
You apparently have moved on and now your efforts centre around the immune system – can you go into more detail?
“In short, my group and I work on the functionality of the immune system. On a very basic level, the immune system works in two different states: one is the activated state, and one the immune quiescent state. There is a delicate balance between these two states, which is crucial for healthy body function.”
What happens if this balance is not right?
“If one or the other is not levelled out it results in disease development. For example, if the immune system is too unresponsive, this can lead to the inability to fight infection, and it can also support the development of cancer. On the other hand, if the immune system is too reactive, this can lead autoimmune diseases, such as multiple sclerosis or the development of allergies.
“We work on the molecular mechanisms that are involved in keeping this balance and therefore play a role in maintaining healthy body functions.”
“I was intrigued by the perspective of choosing Luxembourg, because I had not heard about it in terms of it being a science spot, and I was drawn to the opportunity to build up something new.”
Before Luxembourg, you were based at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Canada. What drew you to Luxembourg?
“I was in Canada for 6½ years, but we always planned on going back to Europe. I was primarily looking in Germany, England and Switzerland, but then I saw this amazing FNR ATTRACT programme and thought it would be stupid not to apply! I made some connections with Luxembourg and got very fond of the Luxembourg Institute of Health. I was also intrigued by the perspective of choosing Luxembourg, because I had not heard about it in terms of it being a science spot, and I was drawn to the opportunity to build up something new.”
You are entering the third year of your FNR ATTRACT Fellowship, do you feel established?
“As what we are working on is quite unique in Luxembourg, there was not much established here in terms of physiological work and physiological pre-clinical models, so we had a rough beginning. For example, we had to ship everything from Canada and hire people, set up the lab and do everything from scratch.
“However, I think we did it in a very efficient way, and we have been quite successful and have good people and we are working on some strong projects. We are well on track, but still not 100% established.”
How is your daily job as an FNR ATTRACT Fellow different from the responsibilities you had in Canada?
“Of course, the job totally changed from what I was doing in Canada. Now I manage the science more than I execute it, but it’s a lot of fun: I now have the opportunity to work on different projects in parallel, without having to do all the lab work by myself. I also think a major advantage is that I hired amazing people from the beginning and was able to form a strong team around me.”
Your group is the Experimental and Molecular Immunology Group – how many people are in your team?
“I currently have four PhD students, two postdocs and two technicians. We work together really well – and across all the projects – which is not only a great motivator, but also increases our efficiency and scientific output.
“In the end, good scientific ideas and scientific support is one thing, but you also need good people, team spirit. Basic research can be frustrating – you have all of these interesting ideas, but 90 – 95 percent of them don’t work out, so you have to enjoy what you are doing to find a way to work through this frustration.”
“Now I manage the science more than I execute it, but it’s a lot of fun: I now have the opportunity to work on different projects in parallel, without having to do all the lab work by myself. I also think a major advantage is that I hired amazing people from the beginning and was able to form a strong team around me.”
Do you feel that your group is complete now that you have had a few years to establish it?
“I would still love to expand a bit more, especially on the Postdoctoral level, but we would need more space!”
Which part of your job do you enjoy the most?
“The scientific exchange, both with my international contacts and my group: I really enjoy discussing scientific ideas with my team, consulting, but also arguing – I don’t expect them to always share my opinion, and this is exactly what the scientific process is about: developing concepts, exchanging opinions and discussing ideas.”
You mentioned you enjoy scientific exchange on an international level – is working with international partners important for you?
“Yes – we have a strong international network with colleagues all over the world. I think it is a very efficient way to push a project forward: sharing and utilising each other’s strengths on an international scale.
“Networking is the essence of research, especially if you want to do it on a high-impact level. Studies have reached such complexity that, in most cases, a single research group alone cannot do everything. That is why it is crucial to have a significant international network – you have to know whom to trust, who is your friend and who your competitor.”
“Networking is the essence of research, especially if you want to do it on a high-impact level. We have a strong international network with colleagues all over the world. I think it is a very efficient way to push a project forward: sharing and utilising each other’s strengths on an international scale.”
What would you consider recent highlights in your career?
“Well, of course getting the FNR ATTRACT funding was the main highlight, and it has also been hugely beneficial for my career here in Luxembourg: I have become more embedded in the Department of Infection & Immunity at the LIH, and I have been named a Deputy Head of Research & Strategy in the department.
“In terms of scientific work, it was a highlight when we published a high impact article in the journal Immunity in April 2017. This was a result of my group being highly efficient considering how new it is, but also of the collaborative work with our international partners. It’s very important to work in a collaborative environment – I always say that the best science is done with your friends!”
Published 15 February 2018
“It’s very important to work in a collaborative environment – I always say that the best science is done with your friends!”
DIRK BRENNER’S ROAD TO ATTRACT
The ATTRACT programme is designed for researchers not yet established in Luxembourg, who demonstrate the potential to become leaders in their field of research. The scheme offers promising junior researchers the opportunity to set up their own research team within one of the country’s research institutions. The financial contribution by the FNR can be up to 1.5 MEUR for Starting Investigators (Postdoc & Junior Researcher level) or 2 MEUR for Consolidating Investigators (Established Researcher level). In the 2018/19 Call, the FNR expects to be able to fund 2 projects. Projects have a lifespan of 5 years. The next ATTRACT deadline is 15 November 2018 (pre-proposals). Find out more