This interview appeared on the zdi-Heroines-October series that presented female researchers from NRW who can serve as role models for others. Read the German version here
Today in interview: Prof. Dr. Martina Havenith-Newen. She is the Speaker of the RESOLV Cluster of Excellence at the Ruhr University Bochum, mother of two, and she talks to us about her path in physical chemistry. She explains what she researches, which has been her favorite research project so far and what tips she has for young female scientists.
Professor Havenith, you were the first female professor in Physical Chemistry in Germany. Do you remember when your enthusiasm for science really took hold of you?
I had my first encounter with physics when I was about 12 or 13 years old. At that time, the TV show "Gefangen in Raum und Zeit" ("Trapped in Space and Time") by physicist Heinz Haber was popular. With my pocket money I then bought the books about the show. That first contact made me wait anxiously for the physics lessons at school. Unfortunately, for various reasons, the lessons were no longer so exciting. Among other things there was an severe lack of teachers, which is why many of our lessons were cancelled.
Did this affect your enthusiasm for the natural sciences?
Not at all. Of course the lessons at school were a little disappointing, but it didn't hurt my enthusiasm. When I started studying in Bonn, I wanted to become an astronomer. That's why I had chosen the subjects physics and mathematics. Only with the physics intermediate diploma the interest in applied physics increased. Therefore, I decided to do my diploma thesis in laser physics at the Institute of Applied Physics. With the lasers we could perform highly sensitive measurements to study molecules. In the 90s, the topics atmosphere and ozone hole were pervasive in research. And with laser spectroscopy we could see which reactive molecules were forming. Soon afterwards I was given the opportunity to go to the University of California at Berkeley, US, for a year of research abroad. This one year was meant to be the decisive year on my way to physical chemistry. In Berkeley we studied the properties of water in detail. Although I received an offer to extend my stay in the States, I wanted to return to Europe soon afterwards.
When you came back to Europe, you committed yourself to your current field of research. What exactly are you researching?
After my return from the USA, I continued to study the physical and chemical properties of water. Water is the most common solvent on our planet, yet it has fascinating properties. For example, the density of water is highest at 4°C, which is also the reason why ice floats on water.
In my opinion, the role of water has not been considered in biochemistry for much too long. Even today, textbooks very rarely describe water. In our research we have found out that water is much more than a passive spectator of a reaction. This finally allowed us to explain why reactions that take place in water sometimes do not work as expected. Before starting our research, this could not be proven because water is difficult to observe at the molecular level. And in general, what cannot be observed is difficult to incorporate into models. With terahertz spectroscopy (editor's note: THz spectroscopy), we have developed a method to make the rapid movements of water visible. In our observations, we could determine that water actively contributes to biological processes. These processes can best be compared to a disco dance. The water "dances" with a partner but changes its partners again and again. In the past, proteins were the sole "stars" of the reaction, while water was only considered a "spectator". We can now refute this outdated assumption.
Now that we have gained a rough insight into your research area, we would be interested to know if you have a favorite research project?
(laughs) I think it's great to do research on such different projects. But I have a nice example: fish that have antifreeze in their blood. They live in the Antarctic Ocean, where conditions are hostile to life. The water is actually too cold for life, as its temperature is -1.5 degrees Celsius, which is below freezing point. The only reason why the water does not freeze is the high salt content of the sea. And despite these adverse conditions, fish live in these waters. Already in 1970, researchers found out that these fish have a kind of antifreeze in their blood. The question in my team was: Can we observe the influence of these "antifreeze agents" on the water in the cells? One of my PhD students traveled with a group of researchers to the Arctic to study samples on site. Using THz spectroscopy, we were able to show how these antifreeze proteins function and influence the water in the body. Later we found out that this research work is also of general relevance. With our results, the synthesis of artificial antifreeze proteins can be optimized. With the help of antifreeze proteins, the storage time of donor organs for transplants can be increased from 4 hours at 4°C to 21 hours at -1.3°C.
This is really a good example of how research can positively influence our lives. Is that also your general guiding principle in your research work?
I don't need to know from the outset to what extent my research will positively change the future, but without new technologies, without experiments, we as humanity will not make progress. My personal drive is curiosity. When I observe something then the question "why" tantalizes me, I start researching. However, research work is difficult to predict. In the beginning, my research group was not funded and only my own curiosity and the luck that I knew people who were researching proteins pushed me forward.
That sounds like a healthy attitude towards your work. What advice would you give to young women interested in STEM who can imagine a career in research?
If you enjoy brainteasers, then you should keep on going. Follow your own interests and also enjoy standing up to the "mainstream". You come to a conclusion that contradicts the current literature? So much the better!