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Hartmut Vodermaier

Hartmut Vordermaier was a PhD student in the group of Jan-Michael Peters between 2000 and 2004, and now works as Senior Editor at The EMBO Journal in Heidelberg.

Many formative events in one’s life become truly apparent only in retrospect. Although my PhD student years at the IMP were a pivotal chapter in my life, back then I could not have predicted in which way they were to influence my future career. Just like a few years earlier, dabbling in my first IP/mass-spec experiments as an undergraduate exchange student at the University of Colorado, I did not anticipate that this experience would later serve me well for getting a graduate student position in the lab of my choice.

After returning to my home university in Regensburg, Germany, I lamented its lack of internationality as well as the limited choice of topics to work on. Earlier on, an inspiring lecturer, Johannes Lechner, had sparked my interest in cell cycle research, and so I was thrilled when I happened upon articles from the Nasmyth and the Peters groups, affiliated with some place in Vienna, a city that fascinated me as well! I had never heard of their institute before, but an upcoming IMP Spring Conference on my favourite topic - cell division - promised an opportunity to learn more about it.

So I spontaneously joined some friends who were going to attend, despite my ongoing diploma thesis being on a totally different subject. I was determined to approach Jan-Michael Peters, then co-organizer of the conference, and tell him about my interest in his lab; but then I felt too intimidated to interrupt his conversations with all those surely more important scientists from the field. Recounting this pitiful first attempt to him years later, we both had a good laugh about it!

By all means, living in Vienna and working at the IMP was a true privilege.

Hartmut Vordermaier

By all means, living in Vienna and working at the IMP was a true privilege. I had chosen Jan’s lab not least because I preferred working with young group leaders, and my experience in his group proved me right. Jan had assembled a high-spirited and collaborative team of people with diverse backgrounds and expertise, resulting in stimulating and fruitful exchanges especially among those of us working on structure and function of the APC/C ubiquitin ligase.

Following the lab’s start-up years, it had just attained international prominence through the first Cell paper on mammalian cohesin cleavage, resulting in recurrent conference travel for Jan and making the collaborative atmosphere within the group ever more important for keeping things running - we were granted a lot of trust and given the freedom to develop and test even seemingly crazy hypotheses.

Today, whenever I am asked if I ‘miss the bench’ now that I’ve become a scientific journal editor (answer: no, generally not!), it is these playful aspects of bench research that I most fondly remember. At the same time, working at the IMP really provided the foundations for my present position at The EMBO Journal, through permanent exposure to top research in diverse topical fields, guest seminars held by eminent scientists, or the chance to organize a first scientific symposium (The Stem Cell Challenge, February 2002) as PhD students.

Moreover, Jan taught us how to scrutinize data and carefully present them, write research and review articles, and he also gave me various opportunities to review manuscripts, first under his guidance and later independently; this first-hand contact with editors and the editorial process sparked my interest in eventually pursuing that career path myself. Back then, this early fascination culminated in me writing a fake paper by a fictitious Japanese competitor group; originally intended solely as a practical joke on a lab mate, it managed to momentarily baffle Jan too.

But for the time being, I chose to continue studying mitosis and joined the group of Andrea Musacchio in Milan, where the IEO and IFOM institutes were about to establish a research campus structurally similar to the IMP/IMBA campus, including an international PhD program, joint facilities, and great guest speakers. Nevertheless, I remained attracted to editorial work, and when I came across an emailed job add one day, I went ahead and applied. That I was eventually offered that job, despite my still limited post-doc record, is something I very much credit to the education and experience gained during my time at the IMP.

My workdays now encompass many of the things I’ve grown to enjoy most in science - learning about new findings, grasping their key aspects, critically assessing them, and communicating about all this with authors, referees and the journal’s readership alike. In addition, attending conferences and visiting institutes allows me to still discuss science directly with researchers, and also provides opportunities to meet again with old friends and colleagues from IMP days - and when they sometimes ask why I ‘left science’, my answer is that I did not - quite the contrary!

By Hartmut Vordermaier, first published in 2013