"I have an intrinsic love of learning, so I really enjoy working with scientists from different fields and continuously learning new things."
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Switzerland, in a town called Dietikon, which is about 15 km outside of Zurich. My mother’s side of the family is from the Bernese mountains, so as a child, I also got to spend a lot of time enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Swiss Alps.
Were you always interested in your current field?
I always enjoyed science and in particular chemistry. I loved the problem-solving part and rational approach of science. To the bewilderment of my school mates, to me, chemistry ‘just made sense’.
Are you (still) working from home? If so, how’s it going?
I am at University about 3 days a week. I have undergraduate interns and Honours students in the lab who I directly supervise. Still, any other work like writing papers or funding applications I do from home.
What projects are you working on?
My research group works on understanding how small molecules interact with biological membranes. We are particularly interested in compounds from natural sources such as honey, plants or animal venoms. Many of these compounds have exciting activities that make them of interest for drug development. Our research sits at the interface of biophysical and computational chemistry, membrane biophysics, and a bit of structural biology. What makes our work quite unique is that we use both computer simulations and wet-lab experiments in the same research group.
We currently work on projects related to the antimicrobial activity of honey, and the membrane-disrupting activity of spider peptides. Also, we have projects focused on developing new simulation methods to more accurately describe the interactions of small molecules with biological membranes.
Why do you love what you do?
I am fascinated by the molecular world and the complexity of chemical processes; in particular the ones in biological organisms. My curiosity is tickled by questions like ‘why does molecule A kill bacteria yet molecule B, which is very similar to A, does not?’.
I have an intrinsic love of learning, so I really enjoy working with scientists from different fields and continuously learning new things.
I really enjoy problem-solving. I have that inner drive to wanting to understand how things work. While the trial and error and the wrong turns you take can be frustrating at times, wanting to know the answer keeps me going. In a recent Twitter post, someone called this ‘productive struggle’. I find a certain beauty and fulfilment in that process. I also happen to be quite stubborn and persistent, which I think helps if you are a scientist.
I also really enjoy working with students. Seeing them take ownership of their projects and moving from learning from textbooks to actually doing their own research projects with ‘real’ data is quite rewarding.
What is one specific thing that you have achieved (research or otherwise professionally) that you are most proud of?
Since high school, I always wanted to study science, but life took a bit of a detour before I became a scientist. I dropped out of high school as I suffered from mental health issues and had two lengthy hospital stays during my teenage years. After I got better, I did apprenticeships as a car electrician and in the logistics of car spare parts. I also did a business diploma.
I then worked for a few years as a technical project assistant. After I moved to Perth in my early twenties, I wanted to have another go at University. Because I had no Australian high school diploma, I sat the Special Tertiary Admissions Test. That is how I got into studying a double degree in Chemistry and Computer Science at Curtin University in Perth, which then led me to a PhD in Computational Biophysics.
On the one hand, I was privileged to have grown up in a country with free, high-quality education and then moving to Australia. On the other, it also took a lot of determination, commitment and hard work to get my PhD. The fact that I can now pass on my fascination for the molecular world to my students makes it very much worth all the effort.