Who are you? What is your current research project? What did you have for breakfast? And why did you enter the field of science? Portal Wissen wants to find out. And asks. Not once, not twice. In the “33 Questions” section, researchers introduce us to their laboratories, their offices, and their lives. In this issue, Dr. Stefanie Mikulla interviews nutritionist Prof. André Kleinridders.
1. Coffee or tea?
Although I drink a lot of tea, coffee wins because it is the better pick-me-up early in the morning.
2. Mountains or sea?
Difficult question, but the mountains win. I enjoy endurance sports very much and prefer to climb the mountains on a road bike or do high-altitude runs and alpine skiing in winter, even though I like being near the water.
3. Is the glass half-full or half-empty?
Half-empty – I’m more of a pessimist.
4. Cheese or sausage?
Cheese, also with a glass of good red wine in the evening.
5. Early bird or night owl?
Early bird. You cannot do anything about this anymore when you have children.
6. Fruit or vegetables?
I eat a lot of fruit and vegetables and I like both very much so I can’t decide.
7. Lab or desk?
I definitely miss the lab but it is great to plan things, achieve results and to discuss them with colleagues.
8. Do you have a motto?
Not really. Work hard, have perseverance and then your diligence will hopefully pay off.
9. What’s healthy doesn’t taste good, what tastes good isn’t healthy. Is that correct?
No, definitely not. You can also cook very healthy food that tastes great.
10. Why did you study biology?
I already knew that I wanted to study biology when I was 12. When I learned more about the subject at school through my biology teachers, I was completely fascinated. Later in high school, the DNA helix structure, deciphered by Watson & Crick, was so fascinating that I was hooked on biology forever. I was in the fortunate position that I have always wanted to work in this field and was allowed to do so.
11. What was a key moment on your path to becoming a researcher?
These were definitely the formative years under my mentor Jens Brüning when I learned a lot about metabolic diseases, diabetes, obesity, and malnutrition. A key moment, I’d say, was our observation that the presence of the saturated fatty acid palmitate in the brain is enough to worsen metabolic processes.
12. What is your research topic?
We are very interested in understanding the causes and consequences of central insulin resistance: Why does insulin no longer work in the brain, what is responsible for that? Which kind of malnutrition causes insulin to stop working properly and then changes our food intake as well as our emotional behavior? Are there approaches to either avoid or improve this through a novel or preventive forms of nutrition?
13. Has your research already influenced your diet?
I think it goes a bit hand in hand. Intermittent fasting –- having a longer break between food intakes – can help you live healthily. Yes, definitely, research has had an influence on me: healthy eating, lots of fruit, lots of vegetables, very rich in fiber, but nevertheless an ice cream from time to time. I’m not so restrictive that I would let things like this be taken from me.
14. You have only recently come to the University of Potsdam. What are the first things you are going to do?
Building my research group and also advancing teaching, especially during this difficult COVID-19 situation. It’s definitely a new challenge to record lectures and give webinars to enable students to study optimally. I would like to establish good relationships with the students and at the same time pursue internationally competitive research.
15. What would you like to achieve during your time here?
I would like to convey the fascination of nutritional sciences to the students, particularly the strong influence of the central nervous system on food intake. The students should learn early on to make the right decisions and counteract the stigma that overweight people do not have enough strength of character to keep a sensible diet and to eat less. All this is much more complex than you might think. We want to understand to what extent mitochondria and insulin interact in the central nervous system and thereby influence brain function but also metabolism.
16. What was your greatest success?
Privately: My wife and I got married and have two great children.
Scientifically: My team and I were able to demonstrate the importance of insulin action in the central nervous system on metabolism but also for our emotional behavior.
17. What was your biggest failure?
I can’t think of a really big failure. To this day, however, we have not been able to define exactly in which brain regions insulin controls our emotional behavior. This is a scientific question that we are still working on ...
18. You studied and did your PhD in Cologne. Are you a real carnival reveler?
Yes, of course! I’ve already taken part in carnival processions and my children love carnival.
19. Who would you like to do research with?
Among today’s researchers: Stephen O’Rahilly, an incredibly gifted human researcher from England who, among other things, is researching the genetic forms of obesity in humans. Among the deceased, it would be Dr. Frederick G. Banting who won the Nobel Prize for the discovery of insulin.
20. What discovery would you like to have made yourself?
The discovery and research of insulin is still one of the great scientific highlights for me, and Frederick Banting was the youngest Nobel Prize winner in medicine to receive this prize in 1923.
21. What do you do if laboratory experiments don’t work as expected?
This is, of course, part of our daily routine. Research results are often different from what you expected. I try to take my mind off things, ride my bike a lot. That is relaxing and gives me new ideas.
22. What do you like most about your job?
… to work creatively, to be together with people who have the same creative mindset and the same passion. You meet incredibly exciting people in this profession and can work excellently in an international environment.
23. You spent five years at the Harvard Medical School in Boston. What have you gained from this stay?
I spent five great years in the United States. The researchers in our laboratory, who have also become friends, influenced me a lot. They are all people with a similar mindset. You are strongly focused on science. You enjoy doing research and you help each other. These networks remain. When you have to find your way around a new system it later helps you welcome international guests since you now know what it’s like to live alone in a new city, in another country. Of course, we remain connected to the US because our youngest daughter was born there and has German-American citizenship.
24. What advice would you give to a young researcher?
Perseverance, perseverance, again and again. It’s one of the most important things for a researcher to not get frustrated, not give up, and believe in your own research. I also think it’s important to change labs, preferably even to go to another country, not just for the sake of research. When you live in another country, it broadens your horizon. You also establish a new social and scientific network. This shapes you and helps, because as a researcher you always work at an international level.
25. Diabetes is a widespread disease: What is your advice - what is the best way to prevent it?
Exercise and eat healthily. You should consume complex carbohydrates, good fats, and sufficient trace elements and vitamins. The data shows that the two major factors that can cause this widespread type 2 diabetes are not enough physical activity and a bad diet high in calories, sugar and salt.
26. How do you like to spend your free time?
I really enjoy exercising in the evening. When I come home I first have dinner with my family and enjoy the time with my children. But then I often ride my road bike or I go jogging in the evening.
27. When was the last time that science changed your life?
On the one hand, of course, the Corona pandemic: We all stay home and try to implement the required measures as best as possible. On the other hand, for me personally, it is still intermittent fasting. There is so much data these days showing that this temporary fasting can be very beneficial. I do it myself and I see benefits, too.
28. What comes to your mind when you think of your childhood?
… that I had a great childhood. I grew up right next to a nature reserve, I got fresh milk from the farmer and was basically outside all the time. That influenced me a lot and is why I am a strong nature enthusiast to date.
29. Who would you take with you on a desert island?
My wife and my children. I’m sure we would get along very well on a desert island as long as it’s big enough because we all love to do sports.
30. Which book that you have recently read has remained in your memory?
“War and Peace” immediately comes to mind. A classic, of course, but it shows the pointlessness of wars and the ups and downs of emotions. This has really stayed with me - an incredibly good book.
31. How do you create a balance to research?
Through sports: endurance sports, cycling, running, sometimes also triathlon. However, I haven’t competed for a long time.
32. In which situation in your life were you lucky?
Two things come to my mind. In my private life: that my wife didn’t bail on me on our first date. I was half an hour late and she waited for me outside for half an hour. That was very good luck. The other was that I ended up doing metabolic research even though I was actually interested in inflammation research. When I chose a laboratory for my diploma thesis in Cologne, I was one of the first students to go to Jens Brüning’s lab. That was a stroke of luck because otherwise I would never have focused on this scientific field. Brüning had a strong academic influence on me and is my mentor to date.
33. What do you like about Potsdam?
Quite a lot. Potsdam is a beautiful city and has exactly the right size. Big enough to be anonymous and nevertheless small enough to have an acquaintance just around the corner. A great city, good schools, very well-kept, the lakes, the many forests: as a nature lover, I really enjoy it. We feel very comfortable here.
Prof. André Kleinridders studied biology at the University of Cologne. Since 2020, he has been Professor for Molecular and Experimental Nutritional Medicine at the University of Potsdam.
This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Two 2020 „Health“.