When Katharina Baum was a teenager, her mother took her to a presentation about the Human Genome Project. Fascinated, she stood up and asked what she would have to do to be able to study genes. Some years and a degree in mathematics later, the German national and mother of two children now splits her time between Luxembourg and Berlin as part of her two postdocs. In her work at the Luxembourg Institute of Health, Katharina combines computer science, maths and biology to identify faulty regulatory mechanisms in cancerous cells.
“I love going to work, because as a researcher, by definition, you are at the edge of the new. It never gets boring,” says Katharina Baum, adding, “I can give in to my curiosity each and every day, and even earn my living this way!”
Katharina, who has always had a liking for natural sciences, decided when she was a teenager that she wanted to study the ‘library of a cell’, as she refers to genes.
Looking for abnormalities in cells
As part of her AFR bilateral postdoc at the Luxembourg Institute of Health (LIH), Katharina is pursuing her interest of better characterising diseases, such as cancer: “Identifying what is abnormal is the first step to curing the disease”, she points out. To this end, she combines computer science, biology and maths to detect whether, and which, regulatory mechanisms within cancerous cells are faulty.
“I use network-based approaches – how genes, proteins and other molecules of the cell, such as metabolites, are connected. Accounting for the complex structure of how genes or proteins and other cellular molecules interact, I aim to combine information on the quantities of the players in the cells, for example from measurements of cancerous tissue,” Katharina explains, adding that the aim is for this to give insights on altered connections.
Splitting time between Berlin and Luxembourg
However, the postdoc Katharina pursues at the LIH is not the only one – Katharina’s story is somewhat unusual in that she is doing two ‘half’ postdocs simultaneously:
“I work and live in general in Berlin, working also remotely for LIH, and for a week per month I come to Luxembourg to work directly with my colleagues and to establish collaborations.”
Katharina’s husband and two young children are in Berlin – she explains that, on the one hand, it is exhausting to travel frequently and essentially having to meet expectations and deadlines from two jobs, not to mention the administrational aspects behind her unusual situation.
“On the other hand, it is also very inspiring because it allows me to combine different input and to experience different styles of work, and it enables many new and unexpected perspectives.”
“Of course, this arrangement only works because my two bosses are very supportive; they have trust in me and feel that I am working reliably for both of them. I am so grateful that all stakeholders, in particular FNR, gave me the opportunity to take the position at LIH because the research topic is covering something where I am convinced that computer sciences and maths should meet biology, and where progress is helping to finally improve the treatment of patients!”
“Science should be for the benefit of all”
As if working in both Luxembourg and Berlin was not exciting enough, Katharina’s postdoc in Luxembourg is an AFR bilateral with Singapore – meaning she will get to expand her collaborations and perspectives even further as she points out.
In terms of overall research goals, Katharina hopes that the work she is doing could help improve prospects for patients with diseases such as cancer, for example by finding out if the faulty regulations she is trying to identify could be targeted with drugs. “This would of course be my dream”, Katharina says, adding:
“More realistically, I think it will rather boil down to helping people better understand their data, how to look at it without trying only to find what they expect, and to helping them getting the most out of it. Then, they can make the break-through life-changing discoveries on their own!”
Katharina is also a firm believer that science, and its outputs, should be for everyone: “I would like to make people more aware that science should be for the benefit of all, promoting for example open science with publicly available articles including the underlying data.”
Published 24 April 2018