What is the matrix? In the science fiction film of the same name, the protagonist only finds out the truth about the matrix when he swallows a red pill. Even though the question is just as existential for Prof. Katja Schenke-Layland, she prefers to look for the answer under a microscope. As a biologist, her research is centred on what is known as the extracellular matrix (ECM) - that is to say, the tissue between cells. Among other things, these structures are also partly responsible for cell development. They are hugely important in the development of tissue and organs outside the body, i.e. tissue engineering. "You can only create tissue if you know how it is produced naturally," she explains. Schenke-Layland teaches and carries out research in the field of biomaterials for use in regenerative medicine at the Research Institute for Women's Health at the Medical Faculty of the University of Tübingen (FFG). She encountered this research topic, which is still fairly new, early on, when in 2000 she completed a nursing internship at a hospital in Jena and a consultant in heart surgery offered her a PhD position. That consultant, freshly returned from Harvard in the USA, had brought from
there the idea of manufacturing replacement tissue from the patient's own cells and biomaterials. He encouraged Schenke-Layland to write her PhD on the subject of "cardiovascular tissue engineering" - the production of replacement tissue for the cardiovascular system from patients' own cells and biomaterials. It's a topic she has continued to focus on to this day: "Whether bioengineering or personalised medicine, we'll only make progress in research if we understand the basics. I try to build bridges between cell biologists, doctors and engineers."
Spearheading your own subject area
It isn't just for scientific reasons that she sees herself as a bridge builder and relishes overcoming obstacles. Even as a schoolgirl, she frequently encountered obstacles - back then, they took the form of international borders: "My father opposed the GDR regime. He often had problems, partly because, as a self-employed baker, he ran a private business. He never forgave the regime for splitting up our family by building the wall." Having grown up in a small village in Thuringia, an academic career seemed completely impossible to her. "I had no chance of taking high school leaving examinations. I'd never have gone to an academically oriented high school, because my parents weren't in the party. As my father had a friend at the Wartburg works in Eisenach, I'd have become a car mechanic there - if the Berlin Wall hadn't fallen." Overnight, all options were open to Schenke-Layland from 1989. Now she was allowed to go to an academic high school and at the same time she worked at a veterinary practice. As she was prevented from studying veterinary medicine because of her allergy to cat hair, she opted to do something totally different: "The biology, sociology and psychology course in Jena was an exciting combination of science and humanities subjects, but it required a huge amount of work. 25 other students started with me at the same time, and all of them switched courses at some point." In her master's thesis, Schenke-Layland focused on aggression and its biological causes - and then asked herself the question: "What will I do with this degree?" It was at this point that a close friend of hers died very unexpectedly. "He was young and healthy, yet suddenly he was in intensive care. At that moment I realised I wanted to do something useful and I began the nursing internship at the hospital in Jena." Despite putting in long night shifts in the intensive care unit, she also worked during the day at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in Jena. "They were looking for an assistant to wash glassware in the laboratory, and I was able to do my first PCR. That was a light bulb moment," she says, describing this time. When asked today whether her career is the result of a plan, she is dismissive: "I've always simply done what I really wanted, and I've often been lucky to be in the right place at the right time and to have the right people behind me." She would describe herself as "not shy" in her approach. "I've always had the courage to ask." A career always has something to do with assertiveness, in her view, but she also sees herself as a committed team player. She doesn't see any contradiction in that: "In the laboratory, scientists work together, but you have to act as a spearhead in your own subject area - not just contribute but open doors and overcome obstacles." Since 2018, she has been the director of one of the leading non-university research institutes in the health sector in Baden-Württemberg. With around 200 employees and annual sales of 15 million euros, the NMI carries out application-oriented research at the interface between biosciences and material sciences and develops technologies of the future for areas such as personalised medicine. In this context, she really does need to be able to do everything - open doors, build bridges and act as a spearhead.
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