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Narrative CV

Elmar grew up in Altenbeken, a small rural town in the middle of the second largest nature reserve in North Rhine-Westphalia. In 2003, after graduating from a public high school in the neighboring spa town of Bad Driburg, he moved to Bielefeld, the most populous city in the region, to begin his studies in biochemistry. Toward the end of his studies, in 2006, Elmar spent a year at the University of Notre Dame on the southern tip of Lake Michigan, near Chicago. It was there, in the lab of Bradley Smith, that he learned two important things that would determine his future path: first, that although he really liked organic chemistry, he was not a good hands-on chemist, and second, that he really enjoyed going off the beaten path to solve problems.

Returning to biochemistry, Elmar did his diploma thesis in 2008 in the lab of Reinhard Jahn at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, where he developed a luminescence-based assay for the high-throughput quantification of protein-protein interactions at synaptic membranes. While fascinated by the harnessing the power of visible light to understand protein interactions, he was also frustrated that all interactions found remained numbers and could not be directly visualized. It was a talk by Tom Kirchhausen on cryo-electron microscopy of the clathrin coat that led Elmar to look for ways to use cryo-EM as part of his PhD thesis, in the hope of becoming able to directly see the protein complexes that had remained numbers in his luminescence assays. Fortunately, a young Emmy Noether group leader, Stefan Raunser, now one of the directors of the institute, had started a small group at the MPI for Molecular Physiology in Dortmund. When Elmar joined Stefan's group in late 2008, he experienced firsthand what it meant to establish high-resolution cryo-EM, as the microscope had just been flooded and nothing was really working. During his PhD, Elmar's main success was solving the high-resolution structure of a muscle motor complex, which also required the development of specialized software to account for the conformational heterogeneity encountered in the samples.

To continue using cryo-EM to decipher molecular motion in proteins, but also to try to get away from helical assemblies, Elmar joined Christian Spahn's lab at the Charité for his PostDoc in 2012. As part of a service project for a collaborative research center, Elmar interacted with various groups in Berlin and tried to help them establish cryo-EM in their scientific work. His own main scientific achievement was to obtain structural snapshots of actively translating human ribosomes using cryo-EM. Funding from the Volkswagen Foundation allowed Elmar to establish his own, small lab at the research center caesar, now the MPI for Neurobiology of Behavior, in Bonn in 2014, where he was mentored by Benjamin Kaupp. Similar to his time in Berlin, Elmar continued to apply cryo-EM to a variety of scientific problems, all tied together by the common theme of trying to understand molecular motion and its effects on protein activity. By securing funding from the Max Planck Society, Elmar was able to expand his lab at the caesar research center in 2017. Towards the end of 2017, Elmar accepted a call from the University of Cologne to establish a platform for high-resolution cryo-EM from scratch. Now an associate professor of structural biochemistry, he continues to use cryo-EM as a structural technique capable of working with heterogeneous samples to link molecular motions in proteins to their activity, but with a recent shift in focus towards light-driven processes.

Education and Professional Experience

  • Since 2022: Associate Professor for Structural Biochemistry (W2) at the University of Cologne (Germany)
  • 2017 - 2020: MPG Group leader at the research center caesar, now MPI for Neurobiology of Behavior - caesar (Germany)
  • 2014 - 2017: Group leader at the research center caesar, now MPI for Neurobiology of Behavior - caesar (Germany)
  • 2012 - 2014: Post-Doc at the Charité Universitätsmedizin Berlin (Germany) with Prof. Christian Spahn (topic: cryo-EM of ribosomes)
  • 2008 - 2012: PhD thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology (Dortmund, Germany) with Prof. Stefan Raunser (topic: cryo-EM of helical assemblies)
  • 2008: Diploma thesis at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, now MPI for Multidisciplinary Sciences, (Göttingen, Germany) with Prof. Reinhard Jahn (topic: high-throuput assay development for detection of protein-protein interactions)
  • 2006: Research stay at the University of Notre Dame (USA) with Prof. Bradley Smith (topic: organic synthesis of membrane interacting macrocycles)
  • 2003 - 2008: Studies of Biochemistry at the University Bielefeld (Germany)
  • 2002: Abitur (German university entrance exam) from the Städtisches Gymnasium Bad Driburg (Germany)

Fellowships and Honours