First of all, you live and work in Hong Kong, China. We would have loved to visit our partnership hub in Shanghai last year. That was not possible due to the pandemic situation. Can you briefly tell us first hand what is possible again travel-wise?
I was allowed to go home after a 3-day hotel quarantine and then had a phase of 'self-monitoring' which is de facto completed today with the last PCR test after 10 days. So with us it is still a bit sterner than elsewhere but hopefully it goes further in the direction of opening.
Ralf, you are working in an exciting field. Did you have this plan for yourself early on or what brought you into this professionally and personally?
My biology studies at FSU 1998-2000 awakened the interest in cells and the molecules of life in me. However, I was very broadly exposed at the beginning and also took courses in prehistory and early history and psychology. So I took my time with the specialization.
Could you briefly outline what you are currently researching and what practical applications your research has?
True to the motto that you can only really understand what you can influence, my research is aimed at producing stem cells with a high degree of efficiency using artificially modified biomolecules. We use methods of cell reprogramming and the targeted modification of switch molecules that give cells their identity. For example, we are working on methods to convert skin cells into stem cells that are found in embryos or in the brain. These cells can then be used to better understand diseases and develop therapies.
If someone aspires to a career like you have, what path could one take? What recommendations can you give to (aspiring) scientists who want to consider internationalization?
You should take advantage of the opportunity to gain experience in other cultures at an early stage. There are already good opportunities for internships or project work at the beginning of your studies. I can recommend the DAAD-RISE Program, for example, through which I have often been able to welcome guests from home.
What was your approach?
After my intermediate diploma I went to the University of Manchester via the Erasmus program and chose a Master/PhD program at the University of Göttingen with a very high percentage of foreign students. This made it a bit normal to operate in an English-speaking environment and the next step to Singapore was not so big anymore.
As a so-called research alumni, you are a potentially very sought-after partner of your former university, the FSU Jena/ Göttingen. Can you briefly describe how the relationship is and if you are still in contact and if so, with whom (roles/structure for this at the university, like alumni office or similar)?
My graduate school in Göttingen keeps in touch with us via newsletters, conferences, alumni databases as well as social media. This helps to keep in touch over the years and scientific collaborations have also developed. I try to stay in touch with the University of Jena through joint research projects and occasional visits.
Is it structured or is it rather individual and often a matter of luck to have met the right people in the right place at the right time?
It is individual and based on the research interest. Of course, the chemistry between the people involved also has to be right.
We also have an eye on founders and startups. So of course we're interested in whether you've ever thought about founding a company yourself?
That is definitely desired at the University of Hong Kong and is supported by various funding programs. I am part of a 'Center for Translational Stem Cell Biology/ which wants to generate several start-ups. I hope I can contribute my part to this.
We are currently building services for our target groups (students, scientists, startups) and would like to know which would be or would have been relevant or welcome for you.
A seminar series where interdisciplinary researchers talk to each other and to industry representatives is certainly a good idea. Exchange of students is also an important element and I would be happy to welcome guests from the FSU for project, master or PhD work.
You're open to helping with networking in Hong Kong. What is the best way to contact you?
Which text/article/book impressed you most recently?
The Age of Blur: The Bright and Dark Years of Physics 1895-1945, a gift from my parents that I devoured during my quarantine.
If we visit you in Hong Kong, what is a must-see and why?
A trip on the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbour is a great and inexpensive way to get an impression of what I hope will soon be 'Asia's World City' again.
You want to learn more about career options and internationalisation, get in contact.