Summer 2014

5 Questions with an Immunopathologist

A conversation with Ulrich von Andrian

Body Language Issue

  • by Elizabeth Cooney

What prompted you to become a physician-scientist?

I grew up in Munich and, as a youngster, my interests were more in playing soccer and tennis and having fun. I was not an excellent student. But I always was intrigued by science.

My godfather, who was a vascular surgeon in Munich, told me about the Institute for Surgical Research. It was like walking onto the set of Star Trek. There were rooms with fancy things they called computers, which were not really commonplace at the time. I thought to myself, I want to do something really amazing here.

What drew you to immunology?

One organ that is not definable by its location is the immune system. This makes perfect sense because this system has evolved to attack infections that can occur anywhere in the body, and its forces must be deployed wherever they are needed.

The ubiquity of this system has always fascinated me. My early years in science were spent trying to understand how white cells in the bloodstream get pulled into tissues, how you make this process efficient, how you make it specific, and how it may explain some of the interactions you see not only in response to infections but also in inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.

Did having the ability to create recombinant proteins—the process of cloning—change how you looked at your research?

Learning how to design chimeric molecules was really fun. I remember looking through the microscope at fluorescent cells expressing a protein that I had made, one that hadn’t been conceived by nature. This amazing ability to harness the principles of nature to do things that come out of your mind was spectacularly cool.

Did you have a mentor when you were a young researcher?

I consider Karl Arfors, a recognized expert in inflammation research, to be my mentor. He would repeat a German saying: probieren ist besser als studieren (to try is better than to study). Do a lot of experiments. Acquire data. Try to understand the data and see what you can learn from what comes out on the other end.

I followed his advice and, at one time, thought that some things I did during my early postdoc days seemed rather desperate. Now I think they were some of the most valuable experiences I had.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I never in my life had a single lesson in real immunology. I was trained as a physician to have a reasonable understanding of how the mammalian body works, how it all hangs together, how one part influences the other parts. I think you need to be able to have the big picture, but then you also need to be able to dig deep and have very high resolution in certain areas.

Image: John Soares