Catching up with Markus

A PhD at the nexus of biology and technology

Even though it wasn’t the case in the past, the current consensus in science is that collaboration is a good thing and results in higher quality research.

The collaborative process of people or organizations working together to achieve a goal not only brings added value but is also scalable. Perhaps the most prescient example is the development of vaccines against COVID-19.

However, even the smallest collaboration adds value. Instead of saying “I can do this myself”, we prefer to say “We can do this better together”.

With day-to-day interactions, small interactions can have the power to take a researcher’s experience and scientific output to the next level.

And when these experiences are effortless and rewarding for the team members, it’s a sign of a healthy environment with a clear, collective goal.

When I set out to interview second year PhD student, Markus Draeger, I thought that by being based in one of our scientific support groups, Proteomics, his PhD experience might differ from that of others who are based in a traditional research group.

However, when I asked Markus about this, it didn’t seem to be the case at all.

Markus Draeger

“It feels like being in any other research group, but maybe better.” Markus explained.

“Because I’m supervised by Proteomics team leader, Dr Frank Menke, with Prof Nick Talbot as my secondary supervisor, I get to attend both their lab meetings. That’s been extremely useful since I gain access to a wide range of perspectives and expertise. I feel lucky to have access to such highly specialized technical feedback and research feedback, it makes me feel so much more confident in my research.’

Instead of feeling like he was missing out on a certain research experience, Markus feels like he gets to experience the best of both worlds as he finds himself at the nexus of technology and science.

It is not surprising that a laboratory like TSL is deeply aware of the interconnected nature of these two fields in plant health research. Indeed, technological advances are not only critical for answering fundamental scientific questions, but also to translate that fundamental knowledge into plant health solutions. Therefore, our technical support teams and scientific research groups complement each other’s skills and expertise. The TSL Proteomics group is a great example of this seamless integration of skills.

The TSL Proteomics group has extensive expertise in investigating the role of protein phosphorylation in the context of plant-microbe interactions. While the Proteomics group provides a vital service at TSL in assisting staff and students with their research, they also have their own funded research projects and supervise PhD students like Markus.

Markus is aiming to gain a molecular understanding of the balance between growth and defence in plants using Arabidopsis as a model organism and a proteomics approach.

Plants need to allocate resources to either grow or to defend themselves against pathogens. When one is prioritized the other is left with fewer resources. It’s a fascinating challenge and Markus hopes that by better understanding how this is regulated we could help breeders optimize their crops to allow maximum growth without compromising defence.

I am always curious to find out what inspires someone to pursue such a research career. Plant pathology is a relatively understudied topic, so researchers usually have an interesting journey before landing in this discipline.

“I was initially interested in molecular biology and pursued a BSc degree in Germany.” says Markus, “Most of it was focused on human medicine, but a small portion included plants. I found that I was much more interested in the molecular biology of plants than that of humans and decided to pursue an MSc in crop science. I’ve never looked back.”

Markus found himself fascinated by plant immunity and the strategies behind this critical function. How do plants retain nutrients to stop fungi and bacteria from spreading throughout their tissues?

You may also be wondering how this journey of plant discovery brought Markus to Norwich.

“Part of my MSc included a 6-month research project. I was funded by the Erasmus fund to complete this at the John Innes Centre and I quickly realised what a great place the Norwich Research Park was to do research. The close collaborations between world-leading institutes and the different research groups within them means that you always have help and expertise at hand. It’s a very special place in that regard.”

After his MSc, Markus spotted a funded PhD position advertised by Frank Menke for an exciting new research project right next door at The Sainsbury Laboratory and he grabbed the opportunity with both hands. The studentship was funded by the BBSRC Norwich Research Park Biosciences Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP).

“It was an intensive interview process. Not only by Frank Menke and Nick Talbot, but by a DTP panel as well. However, I was convinced that this was the right project for me, and Frank and Nick provided a wealth of support throughout the process. It all worked out well in the end.”

Markus’s journey may seem familiar to you. For curiosity-driven people, many of our big decisions and research directions come from small, chance interactions. It could be that great lecturer who inspired you to study the fascinating molecular world of plants. Or chatting to another scientist over coffee and realising you want to be a part of their team. Or a chance interaction with a lab technician and realising there was a better, faster and easier method to answer your research question.

In the end, it’s all about opportunity. And when you find yourself in a collaborative environment, those opportunities become more abundant.