Robert Prevedel is a group leader at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany. There he develops novel imaging tools and methods for the life sciences, especially non-invasive techniques that allow imaging of cellular processes in live and deep tissue. From 2011 to 2016, Robert was a senior postdoctoral researcher at the IMP and the MFPL (now Max Perutz Labs) with Alipasha Vaziri. Until then, Robert – a physicist by training – had worked on quantum computing in Canada, Austria, and Australia.
Robert, your academic background is in quantum optics, you did your PhD with last year’s Nobel laureate Anton Zeilinger here in Vienna. How did you first get interested in this field?
When I started to study physics, Anton Zeilinger just joined the University of Vienna from Innsbruck. Quantum teleportation, quantum entanglement – these were very hotly debated topics among us students at the time, and they drew me to his work. I did my Master thesis research in the Zeilinger Lab and it worked out really well, so I stayed for my PhD. This is how I got into scientific research - which was unexpected, because when I had taken up my physics studies, I saw myself working for a technology company in the future, and not as a scientist. But working with Anton and his very international group of people had a big impact on me.
You did a first postdoc at the University of Waterloo in Canada, you had experienced academia in Australia before, and yet you decided to return to your native Austria for a second postdoc. What made you make this move?
By then, all my research had been related to quantum computing. It is a topic you often read about in science news, but I always felt it was a bit of a stretch to claim that we were doing something “practical”, because possible real-world applications still seemed so far from our work in the lab. At the time, I thought it would still take decades for quantum computing to become useful, and for me it was always motivating to work on “useful” things.
And then one day, Alipasha came to Waterloo to give a seminar. We shared a background in quantum optics and roots with the Zeilinger lab, but by then, Alipasha had moved on to biophotonics and microscopy and was a group leader at Janelia at the time. This immediately caught on to me, because his work seemed a lot more applied than what I was working on. Alipasha and I ended up talking about how our physics knowledge and our skills could contribute to other fields such as neuroscience. So soon after that, Alipasha started his lab in Vienna, and I became his first postdoc.
From a pure physics background, you got immersed in a community of mainly biologists - how was that?
The IMP environment opened a whole new world for me. My biology education was from high school, so every discussion, every seminar was highly educational and stimulating. I constantly got new ideas and learned new things. Indeed, the IMP postdoc was a super-important phase in my career as it was here that I learned to work in an interdisciplinary setting and environment.
I also realised that with my experience, I could make key contributions to biology by building useful tools. This brought me closer to what I always wanted to do. The IMP was very international and the science of very high quality. It was also great to experience the appreciation of our biology colleagues for the things we enabled – we could apply our quantum optics skills to concrete biological questions and related technical challenges. We were the only microscopy research group at the IMP and at times, I felt a bit isolated, but in hindsight, I think this setup and intellectual challenge created the perfect environment and shaped what I am now: I see myself as an interdisciplinary scientist, a mix of physicist, engineer, and hobby biologist, finding technical solutions to tackle biomedical questions in novel ways.
How did you experience the IMP at the time you were here?
It was a completely new world on many levels: being affiliated with two institutes of the Vienna BioCenter, I experienced the entire place as super international and vibrant. I had enjoyed this also in Anton’s group, but there it was limited to his lab, whereas the remainder of the institute had been quite traditional and uniformly German-speaking. The internationality and the interdisciplinary spirit at the Vienna BioCenter were great, and I really liked learning about molecular biology and neuroscience.
Something else I enjoyed was the framework and various activities that the IMP provided: the annual recess, the Monday Seminars, but also the weekly social hour on Friday nights, ski trips, or the Christmas play by the Amateur Drama Club making fun of everyone. This was all new for me, and exciting. It sounds a bit cheesy, but I really enjoyed this “work hard, play hard” mentality – all in a closely knit “family community” – this was really special. It was so special and satisfying for me that I eventually decided to stay in science. This was already my second postdoc and since I still enjoyed my work after all these years, I started applying for group leader positions. And I am still super happy that I made this choice!
Your work was not only touching on two fields, your position was also anchored at two institutions - the IMP and what are now the Max Perutz Labs. How did this affect your work?
I think mostly in a positive way. It made the administration a bit complicated at times, but it also brought many benefits. Physically, we were mostly at the IMP, but we could dip into the resources and contacts to people at both places and so we had the best of both worlds - the university and a basic research institute. It also made it easier to spread when we needed more space since in the old IMP building space was very limited. We also had lab space in the building of VBC5.
You are now a group leader at EMBL in Heidelberg. Can you explain what you are currently working on?
In essence, my work continues from what I did with Alipasha. We develop novel microscopy technologies and try to directly apply them to current biological questions. While I worked on neural activity imaging in zebrafish, C. elegans, and others during my time at the Vienna BioCenter, my research is now a lot broader, and spans cell biology, developmental biology, and neurobiology. These are three areas we work on at EMBL, and I am affiliated to multiple research units here.
How does the work environment at EMBL compare to your experience at the Vienna BioCenter?
The spirit at EMBL is much the same in the sense that people are eager to collaborate and work across disciplines. Our fellow biologists are not afraid to work with us physicists and engineers, and they realize they ultimately gain from the microscopes we develop. EMBL also has a high turnover of PIs, so most of them are young and full of new ideas. There is an open, dynamic and sharing culture, just like I experienced it at the IMP.
After leaving the IMP and Max Perutz Labs, was there anything you missed?
I miss Vienna a bit, being Austrian. As long as I was there, I tended to be a bit annoyed about various things – which is quite natural for a Viennese person - but now, having been away for ten years, I am starting to miss many aspects of the city. It is vibrant, well-organised, has great cultural things to offer; and it is close to beautiful landscapes such as the mountains.
The Vienna BioCenter keeps growing and developing. Do you remain in touch with people here?
I am still very much connected to the Vienna BioCenter and its alumni base, often people who stayed in Vienna. In fact, I visited the Vienna BioCenter last autumn to give a seminar and meet with group leaders for discussions. And I am also still in touch with former colleagues from the Zeilinger lab, some of whom are still in Austria.
How about developments in your research field – which directions do you see as emerging and promising? How fast is the innovation?
Compared to quantum computation, developments in microscopy are extremely fast paced. I joined Alipasha in 2011. At that time, neurobiologists could record the activity from just a few neurons of C. elegans. Two years later, we published a paper that demonstrated whole-brain imaging in the worm. Within the lifetime of a PhD or postdoc, one can make a huge impact. We quickly expanded to whole-brain imaging in zebrafish and started to work with mice. In the meantime, Alipasha’s lab is recording from a million neurons in the mouse!
Here at EMBL, we have the same dynamic change in research topics as at the IMP. EMBL recently started an exciting direction called “planetary biology”, and one of our current projects is to develop custom 3D microscopes that are portable and can be used in the field. They will travel around Europe in a truck and will be used to look at samples from the various coastline regions. With this we can study organisms on-site close to their natural habitat when previously, this required bringing them back to the lab.
Published in April 2023.
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