June 17, 2020 / All Stories

Scientists Rock! Honey, I shrunk the scientist

Take a journey of epic (and microscopic) proportions into the imagination of postdoctoral researcher Julian Röwe.

Julian Röwe, postdoc researcher, cell programming & transduction, medicinal chemistry & screening biology, AbbVie, climbs to new heights on a hiking trail in Germany.

Scientists Rock! is a monthly Q&A where we pull an AbbVie scientist out of the lab to hear what makes them tick. This month we travel to Ludwigshafen, Germany, to chat with Julian Röwe, postdoctoral researcher, cell programming & transduction, medicinal chemistry & screening biology, AbbVie.

As a group of neighborhood kids were being reduced to the size of an ant in an 80s sci-fi cult classic film, Julian Röwe’s curiosity began to grow … and grow. Fascinated by the idea of a hidden world just beyond his grasp, he became intent on using his unique observational powers to solve life’s great mysteries. Now immersed in a world of microscopic details and epic unknowns, he dedicates his time and efforts to advancements in the field of neuroscience research.

Tell us the story of how you fell in love with science.

As a kid, I loved all science-related movies starring “mad” professors. One of my all-time favorites was the 80s cult classic film “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” in which a quirky inventor accidentally shrinks his own kids with a home built electromagnetic laser beam. After unknowingly depositing them in the trash, the kids are forced to fight their way back into the house through the garden while facing threats from giant-sized insects, lawn mowers and other hazards. This idea of being shrunk and catapulted into a completely different world, a world right beneath our feet, absolutely fascinated me; I remember running around my own garden with a magnifying glass for quite some time after watching the movie. Through this and other experiences, I became keen on learning more about nature and technology and started to read as much as possible in these areas. Additionally, my older brother encouraged my passion and played a huge role in paving the road to my eventual career in science.

What motivates you to keep coming into work every day?

In my opinion, Alzheimer’s disease is one of the most devastating health issues as those suffering from this disease (and their relatives) lose the essence of what defines them – their character and memories. Furthermore, this disease already affects the lives of millions of people today, and those numbers are only continuing to rise. What motivates me is the knowledge that every little step of scientific progress – even if that means disproving favorable hypotheses with valid research – brings humankind that much closer to a potential therapy for this debilitating disease.

I understand you are a member of AbbVie’s Neuroscience research & development team. For us non-scientific people, can you explain what exactly it is that you do?

Imagine being shrunk to microscopic proportions by a nutty professor and being doomed to find your way back through his garden; only then might you realize how complex even something superficially trivial as a lawn can be. It is an intricate network of different plants, fungi and microscopically small insects which all fulfill certain important functions and rely upon each other. If one of these elements in the chain is extinguished or impaired, it can have devastating effects on the overall network, causing the lawn to dry out or never even grow at all.

Now imagine our brain as such a network, but instead of distinct plants, fungi and insects, it is a complex network inhabited by various types of human cells. Neurons form a very large portion of this network (transmitting and processing signals), as well as microglia and astrocytic cells, which help sustain these neurons by helping them to develop and form connections. In our research in Alzheimer’s disease, we observe different pathological hallmarks like plaques (or bad weeds in the lawn) and activated microglia (or lawn grubs) which can potentially harm this neuronal network. To understand this multi-faceted disease, we must understand the basic underlying mechanisms first. We focus our studies on these distinct types of cells (both alone and in interactions with one another) so we can determine what drives them to cause disease. It is very fascinating to observe how these cells behave under different circumstances.

What impact has the COVID-19 outbreak had on your work?

We have implemented a rotation system which enables us to finish various long-lasting experiments and other necessary lab work; the remaining time is conducted in a work-from-home environment. When in the lab, we are feeding long-lasting cell cultures in compliance with strict contact reductions. While working from home, a series of web-based Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease seminars are being offered by internal leadership to ensure all employees remain up to date with current scientific progress. These online seminars focus on the basics of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, mixing both current and historical facts, as well as showcasing innovative solutions for improving small molecule medicines for neurodegenerative diseases. As a relatively new employee, I appreciate the versatile and informative training available at the touch of my fingertips.

I understand you spent some time working as a nursing assistant. Any experiences that stand out from this time in your life?

After graduate school, I did mandatory civilian service as a nursing assistant in a hospital. I really enjoyed helping people in need and was always amazed by their appreciation. At the same time, it was difficult to encounter the sad fates of severely sick patients and the unspeakable grief their relatives and friends often experienced. One patient stands out in my memory: a father of two children who had been diagnosed with cancer. What began as a series of extremely enjoyable discussions between the two of us turned into a genuine, but short-lived friendship, as the disease advanced and his mind began to deteriorate. After a couple of months of therapy, he ended up passing away. I felt such empathy and sadness for this gentleman and his loving family, as their last few months of interactions were heartbreaking. His family had to face the sad truth that they had already lost him much earlier to the disease. This and various other emotional experiences nourished my passion to use my talents to help those patients in need.

Can you tell us a little about your love of photography and nature, and what this has to do with an angry army of squirrels?

One of the ways I like to express my creativity is by combining my love of photography and nature, and I do this often by capturing photos of landscapes, birds, plants and insects. Oddly enough, this hobby can be quite painful for those around me, especially my wife, who oftentimes ends up waiting for me to capture the perfect frame; this has been known to significantly extend the duration of our “short” walks around the neighborhood. My desire for the perfect shot has also led me to some interesting situations. During one such event during a recent visit to London, I was innocently looking for a nice spot in Hyde Park to rest and enjoy some cinnamon rolls from a local bakery. When a seemingly trusting squirrel approached, I quickly grabbed my camera and was quite amazed to find the squirrel waiting patiently as I took a dozen or so photos. Upon setting down my camera, I was surprised to find myself surrounded by an “army” of angry squirrels who absconded with my precious cinnamon rolls. Nowadays, I am a bit more cautious when approached by innocent-looking squirrels.

What is your advice to kids interested in a career like yours?

One of the most important things is to identify what you are passionate about. Try not to concentrate too much on the interests of those around you, or what seems to be expected of you – instead, focus on what interests you the most and follow that path. When you are young, stay open to life’s possibilities and don’t be afraid to take chances or try new things: take advantage of open-door days (a popular practice in Germany when institutes or companies are open to the public); identify a cool mentor; discover and participate in an exciting internship to get real world experience; or simply ask a scientist how they tackle their day-to-day activities. Hopefully, with any or all these experiences, your heart’s passion will quickly reveal itself.

In your opinion, why does science rock?

To me, it is absolutely fascinating to ponder the unimaginable things’ humankind will be able to achieve with new technologies in the not-too-distant future – much like predicting the invention and the impact of the world-wide web decades before it actually happened. Without science, humankind would lack basic knowledge and would be unable to make advancements in human health. As an example, it is astonishing to see how the average human life expectancy has nearly doubled over the last 70 years; this development would not have been possible without scientific research and innovation. At the same time, this increase in life expectancy also forces us to face an increase in age-associated disorders such as cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease. Even so, I am very enthusiastic, and extremely hopeful, the scientific community will come together to discover new ways to further invent and improve upon medicines to combat these debilitating diseases.

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Jaquelin Finley
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