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Claudine Kraft

Claudine Kraft was a PhD student in Jan-Michael Peters lab from 2001 to 2005. A recent move has brought her back to the Vienna BioCenter: Claudine now heads a group at the Max F. Perutz Laboratories.

It was the beginning of October, her first day as a group leader at MFPL. As I interviewed Claudine Kraft, she kept meeting former colleagues and spotting familiar faces. I still remember Claudine as a PhD-student in Jan Michael Peters’ lab. One of the last times I saw her around, before she left for Zurich, Claudine was on crutches, following a climbing accident. Mountains still play a big role in her private life and the fact that Vienna is not too far from the Alps was a welcome aspect in choosing the VBC to continue her career.

Claudine Kraft was born in Basel and studied Biochemistry at the University of Basel and the University of Manchester, UK. The choice of her subject was partly due to a charismatic research personality, crossing her life at the right moment. After completing high school, Claudine was not quite sure which of the many interesting paths in science she was going to follow. Biochemistry was one of the options, but she had not made up her mind. So one day she walked into the lab of Gottfried Schatz and enquired about the possibility of doing an internship. The three months that followed not only helped her in deciding the direction of her career, but also provided her with a mentor who she still turns to for advice.

After Claudine had completed her diploma thesis in Manchester, she started looking for a PhD-position. Convinced that she wanted to stay with biochemistry, the research in Jan-Michael Peters’ lab in Vienna attracted her. Once Claudine had set her mind on the IMP, she applied to the international PhD-Program with confidence and optimism. She was hoping to join Jan-Peters’ lab and was convinced it would be the ideal place to match her research interests.

Claudine was indeed accepted into the program in 2001 - and into her preferred team. She believes it was the perfect match. Jan had already assembled a rather large group, but he managed to set aside two hours per week for the PhD-students – and these hours were sacrosanct. Taking turns, each student had a defined amount of time to spend with the group leader every two weeks. It was a time to present raw data, to discuss and develop ideas. This was the kind of personal and intense contact that Claudine appreciates. She still thinks it is not easy to find the right balance between being overly controlling and too easy going, but Jan seemed to have an instinct for how best to treat each of his students.

During her PhD, Claudine started off with analysing the importance of mitotic kinases in activating the Anaphase-Promoting Complex in mitosis as well as their impact on the interaction with its activators. Furthermore, she analysed how substrates are recruited to this complex using a photo-crosslinking approach.

At the IMP, I appreciated the interaction with colleagues, the fantastic science and the functional services and infrastructure that were in place.

Claudine Kraft

Claudine was full of ideas that were creative, ambitious - and sometimes uncertain in their outcome. For her PhD-project, she had to first develop a technique called photo-crosslinking. To this day, she is glad that she was allowed to experiment with this technology. Her work paid off and when she earned her PhD-degree in 2005, Claudine had already published two papers.

Asked what else she appreciated at the IMP, apart from the scientific freedom, Claudine mentions the interaction with colleagues, the fantastic science and the functional services and infrastructure that were in place. “Being able to bring your samples for sequencing in the evening, and receiving the results the next morning makes your lab-work so much more efficient", she says.

For her postdoctoral research, Claudine went looking for someone working with yeast and doing great biochemistry. She found Matthias Peter at the ETH in Zurich and joined his group in 2006. For the non-Swiss among us, this might seem like coming home, but moving to Zurich for someone from Basel is like transferring a soccer-player from Manchester United to Liverpool.

Once again, it was the right choice. Claudine was interested in protein degradation and Matthias Peter had plans to work on autophagy. So it was Claudine who established a new research topic within the Peter group.

Autophagy is an essential pathway during nutrient starvation, and is also required to selectively eliminate proteins, protein aggregates and damaged or excessive organelles. It has recently become evident that defects in autophagy are causally involved in numerous diseases, including cancer and neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. However, despite this intriguing medical potential, surprisingly little is known about the fundamental cellular functions, in particular, about the physiological targets and mechanisms that provide specificity to this process.

To study autophagy, Claudine worked with budding yeast which she regularly had to starve. Even following two weeks without nutrients, yeast cells are able to regenerate completely after about thirty days. Mutants, however, survive much shorter and are dead after ten days.

During her postdoctoral work, Claudine analysed how cargo is selected into autophagosomes, and identified a new selective autophagy pathway, which is regulated by ubiquitination. Furthermore, she studied the signalling events regulating the induction of autophagy. This topic will also be at the centre of her future research at the MFPL.

The ETH in Zurich is an enormous place, and the university with the medical faculty and hospital are only ten minutes away by bus. Claudine enjoyed being surrounded by so much good science. The Campus-environment also attracts her at the Vienna BioCenter, and she is looking forward to interesting contacts and collaborations. The group leaders most likely to share common research interests are Sascha Martens and Gustav Ammerer.

With two children, aged three years and ten months, Claudine leads an incredibly busy life. She finds Vienna a good place to live and is confident that her family will settle in easily, even though. Austrians and Swiss are VERY different, she added, leaving me wondering in which ways…

By Heidemarie Hurtl, first published in 2011