BAM supports junior professorships through a cooperation with several universities in order to obtain new ideas from the academic world. The chemist Ilko Bald, who received several awards, held one of these positions until the end of 2018. The BAM alumnus talks about his experiences during this time.
What did you conduct research on during the six years you were a junior professor at BAM and Potsdam University?
I established a new field of research in Berlin and Potsdam based on what I had previously learned as a postdoc in Denmark: DNA origami structures. The focus is on how to fold viral DNA into nanostructures – similar to paper origami, but much smaller. Nanostructures can transport medicinal substances inside the human body. My team and I have converted these structures into a kind of sensor that can be used to detect single molecules. We hope to develop a technology that will enable us to track chemical reactions in real time – with a precision that has not been possible until now. One day, these nanostructures from DNA may be able to detect cancer cells in tissue samples.
Why did you apply for a BAM junior professorship in 2013?
I found the job offering interesting, but I wasn’t familiar with BAM– even though I am from Berlin. I was fascinated by how active BAM is in both basic research and applied science. As an academic at a university, one is in a kind of bubble. The junior professorship gave me extensive insight into non-academic research which helped me a lot.
To what extent?
I previously thought of myself solely as a basic researcher. BAM, which task it is to support industry in Germany, was a completely new world for me and a very interesting one. It was helpful to see how research can be pursued in such a way that it can be directly implemented by the industry. I had not even considered that before. I then started to think in completely new directions and focused more on application. For example, with regard to the question: How can DNA origami structures be used for analytical purposes, for example as sensors? Sensor technology is a topic of focus for BAM.
During your time at BAM you received the prestigious Consolidator Grant worth 2 million Euro from the European Research Council. How did this award impact your research und how did your day-to-day work-life look like at the two institutions?
The grant was a great confirmation of our work to date as well as a motivation for the future. As a result of the funds, I was able to expand my research group. My team and I were very dedicated to the cooperation between BAM and Potsdam University. We drove back and forth a lot, had access to laboratories and office space at both locations and were able to take advantage of the entire infrastructure. That was quite a privilege. We often decided to spend the day either at BAM or in Potsdam, depending on which experiments were currently running.
Is working at a non-academic research institute a career path that you would recommend to young scientists?
Absolutely. In my case it was a success story, and I would recommend this path to everyone. Both institutions gave me the freedom to work very independently which was a great benefit. I was able to focus entirely on building my own research areas and my own group. This gave me the opportunity to develop personally – and then one’s own research is perceived as an independent achievement from the outside. As a BAM employee, it is easy to establish new contacts, which quickly results in a larger network than you would have at the university alone.
At the beginning of 2019 you were appointed full professor at Potsdam University. What has remained of the cooperation?
BAM's application-oriented approach has been incorporated into my research and teaching. We continue to maintain the junior professorship model in a way and still use equipment at BAM. I have several collaborations with colleagues at BAM and we are planning joint research proposals. I am also supervising some PhD students who are currently writing their thesis at BAM. So, there is still a lot of exchange and that is what I’m striving for.