Humans of EMBL: Senses

Christian Arnold. PHOTO: EMBL/Marietta Schupp.

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People across EMBL’s sites reflect on the ways they perceive their world

Christian Arnold

Bioinformatician, EMBL’s Heidelberg site

I discovered bouldering about seven or eight years ago; I can’t remember when exactly. It’s like if you’re asked when you first met a friend – usually you don’t remember, it just happened at some point. Unlike regular climbing, in bouldering you have no ropes, no security whatsoever. The routes typically are shorter but more intense in terms of the movements you make and the muscles that are engaged. Touch is very important because often you can’t see beyond an overhang, or you can’t turn your head to look at your hand. You have to just extend your arm and feel if there is something to grasp. If there is, it’s the best feeling in the world at that moment!

Bouldering fascinates me because it’s a mental as well as a physical challenge: you have to figure out how you go from down here to up there. You have a theoretical plan in your head, but when you’re on the wall it rarely works out in the easy way you imagine at the beginning. In a way, it’s like working in science: projects often turn out to be more complicated than you thought, so you have to be ready to adapt and try new strategies. When I climb a route I’m really focused on climbing that route; all other thoughts are off the list at that moment. It frees you from all the things that are bothering you because you’re just focused on getting the job done: the job in this case being to go from here to there.

In bouldering you have no ropes, no security whatsoever


Neil Dear. PHOTO: Courtesy of Neil Dear

Neil Dear

Head of Transgenic Facility, EMBL’s Monterotondo site

My work involves gene editing in mice, which allows us to learn about human health and disease. When I’m at home, I like DIY. I like repairing things, building things, laying floors. I even like things like rewiring. Most of all, I like knocking down walls! I like the fact that something’s better at the end than it was when you started. A few years ago I went on a plastering course. I actually find plastering more difficult than what I do at work. When I’m doing gene editing I’m meticulous but I don’t have to be super-quick. In plastering, you have to be both. You get about fifteen minutes before the plaster sets, so fifteen minutes to cover the wall and get it completely flat. You can iron out a few things later on but not much, so you’ve got to be fast. I’m not great at it but I love it when it works. Whatever I do, I’m always aiming for perfection.

Most of all, I like knocking down walls!


Yad Ghavi-Helm. PHOTO: EMBL/Marietta Schupp

Yad Ghavi-Helm

Research Staff Scientist, EMBL’s Heidelberg site

I grew up in France, in a place just south of Paris called the Vallée de Chevreuse. When I was a kid, maybe five years old, my father’s sister lived with us for a while. She was studying pharmacy, and to learn things by heart she would tell them to me, so I ended up learning them as well. At the time you could buy a series of booklets that each came with a model of a human bone, so you could put together a whole skeleton. She was buying this for me and I liked it a lot. Since then I’ve been interested in science. Now I study the way DNA is packed up and organised in cells.

One of the high points of research is when you do an experiment and it works, but 99% of your time is failed experiments. That’s why I like to do other activities outside work such as taking part in the cooking club at EMBL, because you get something out of it right away. People tell you that they like what you made, that they are happy. It’s also a relaxed way to meet new people. I’ve always enjoyed cooking. My family is from Iran so my mother makes a lot of Persian food, which I really like. The other day I was walking in the street and suddenly I smelt a Persian dish. I thought, “I haven’t eaten this in ages!” Just by the smell, you can really recognise it. It’s a popular dish called Ghormeh Sabzi which has a lot of fresh herbs in, so there’s this special taste of the herbs and the meat together – it’s not like anything else.

One of the people who started the cooking club is a friend of mine. She was getting ready to leave EMBL and was looking for new people to take over. One day she told me, “Oh, there’s this French guy who just joined EMBL and he’s OK to take over the club but he can’t do it on his own, so it’d be easier if you could help.” I said “OK, why not?”, and a few years later that French guy became my husband!

I’ve been here more than seven years, but I’m leaving EMBL in a few months and going back to France to start my own lab. I’m really excited.

People tell you that they like what you made, that they are happy


Anne-Sophie Humm. PHOTO: EMBL/Franck Felisaz

Anne-Sophie Humm

Research Technician, EMBL’s Grenoble site

Three years ago I cycled from Strasbourg to Istanbul. I did it at the end of my master’s degree because I knew once I started work I wouldn’t get the chance. Nobody around me was really motivated to train, so I decided to go on my own. I didn’t want to wait because otherwise I might wait forever. I also think when you’re alone you’re much more open to meeting other people, and people want to talk with you because they have a kind of curiosity about what you’re doing.

I took my flute on the journey – along with my bike, it’s one of the two things I need wherever I go. I played it just for myself or for people who asked me. It was good to have it with me and to have music whenever I wanted.

It was a crazy feeling when I arrived in Istanbul, to think I did it by myself – I just pushed on the pedals and came here. I was taking a picture in front of Istanbul’s most famous building, Hagia Sophia, and this guy came up to me and wanted to sell me a boat trip on the Bosphorus. He asked where I’d come from with my bike and I said from France. He told me he didn’t believe me, so I said: “You believe whatever you want – I know what I’ve done!”

I didn’t want to wait because otherwise I might wait forever


Arina Rybina. PHOTO: EMBL/Marietta Schupp

Arina Rybina

EMBL Interdisciplinary Postdoc, EMBL’s Heidelberg site

When I was in school, our chemistry teacher took us to Heidelberg University for the Christmas colloquium, where the chemistry department prepares some exciting experiments that have a lot of colours and explosions, accompanied by music. They demonstrated a reaction where the equilibrium periodically shifts back and forth, causing a change of colour in the solution. There was a flask of liquid and the colour kept oscillating from one to another. It felt like magic. I couldn’t get it out of my mind after this lecture and I thought, “I want to understand how this happens.” This fascination for colours was one thing that brought me to chemistry, because I’d actually been thinking of studying art.

Painting, singing, and dancing are all things that I love. In painting you can take a thought or an emotion and capture it on a piece of paper; in singing you can put it into your voice; in dancing you can shape it using your body’s momentum. Then you can catch it for a moment – it’s like a snapshot of your life that you can share with others.

When I do microscopy or spectroscopy, I make observations and sometimes even small details can reveal something really fascinating about nature’s intelligence. When you paint you try to do the same thing: to observe details and ask why they happen and what’s behind them. In both fields I’m thinking, “How can I help people see the beauty that I see?”, “How can I make it clear?” Science and art go hand in hand with me, although it’s not obvious. I’m happy that I have an opportunity to combine them.

How can I help people see the beauty that I see?


Jim Sawitzke. PHOTO: Courtesy of Jim Sawitzke

Jim Sawitzke

Head of Genome Engineering Services, EMBL’s Monterotondo site

When I was doing my PhD in Oregon, I had a huge pear tree in my yard. The pears would fall on the roof of my house every night and keep me awake. I tried fermenting them to make perry, but it was a year before it was ready and most of it was bad. I thought, “This was a disaster, I don’t want to do this any more,” but I had friends who made beer and they suggested I make beer instead. I wasn’t convinced, but I tried it and it turned out great! I’ve now been brewing award-winning beer for more than twenty years, and in 2011 I achieved National ranking as a judge at beer competitions. I also oversee exams for people aiming to qualify as beer judges, and in the space of two months I’m doing that in Spain, Italy, Israel, and Poland. When people hear you’re a beer judge they think: “Great! You get free beer!” but it’s actually a lot of work. The exam you have to pass is amazingly hard – other than getting my PhD, it’s probably the hardest exam I’ve ever taken.

The beer that started it all for me was Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Its aroma is a mixture of citrus and pine with subtle sweet malt. When you take your first sip there’s some caramel up front, but quickly the bitterness takes over and keeps it from being too sweet. Although it’s bitter, it’s a pleasant, smooth bitterness. In any great beer, the flavours must be balanced.

Brewing is like science at home, and I approach it the same way. I have a notebook that I write up my beers in, because if I make a fantastic beer I want to be able to recreate it. Some of my recipes I’ve made fifteen times, and I’m always trying to perfect them just a little more.

In any great beer, the flavours must be balanced


Emmy Tsang. PHOTO: EMBL/Anne-Flore Laloë

Emmy Tsang

PhD Student, EMBL’s Monterotondo site

We’re quite a small site over here, almost like a family. I enjoy baking, and I often make things for the lab and the Institute. When you do that, everyone’s happy. Having some cookies or sweets at four o’clock in the afternoon often helps, I think. People relax and spend some time in the kitchen and talk to each other. I think that’s important for our science and our sense of community here. It makes you feel supported.

Being so close to Rome is amazing. I love the architecture, with all the old buildings and monuments. It seems like every time you turn a corner you see a fountain that’s been there for about a thousand years! I remember the first time I saw St Peter’s Basilica. It was before I started my PhD and I was there with my family. It was very hot. It’s overwhelming to stand in the plaza and feel how incredible it is that someone built this. Some people get used to living here and passing things like St Peter’s or the Colosseum every day – I don’t think I could ever get used to that.

Having some cookies or sweets at four o’clock in the afternoon often helps