Creativity and niches: Excellence in research

The interview with Molecular biologist Herta Steinkellner at the SURPRISE FACTORS SYMPOSIUM 2015 in Gmunden

Mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gist Her­ta Steinkell­ner describes the path to the best from her own expe­ri­ence as a path of coura­geous deci­sion, pas­sion and the search for nich­es. She was one of the experts at the SURPRISE FACTORS SYMPOSIUM “From Good to Great” in Gmunden 2015.

Herta Steinkellner in the interview:

If you think of my life, my career, as a jour­ney, I would have to say there was no mas­ter plan behind it. My fam­i­ly back­ground has noth­ing to do with sci­ence. In the vil­lage where I grew up there were three high-edu­ca­tion pro­fes­sions: become a teacher, become a lawyer or become a med­ical doc­tor. From those three options I chose to become a teacher. I went to Vien­na and since I had to decide what to study, I chose biol­o­gy. It could have been any­thing, but why not biology?

I real­ized as I was study­ing that I had extra time. So why not get a job, earn some mon­ey? I joined a human genet­ics lab to do basic work and it was love at first sight. I looked into the micro­scope and I start­ed to real­ize a new sense of what I was study­ing and why I was study­ing it.

Niches in science

Just by chance there was a per­son at this lab who was start­ing a new tech­nique in Aus­tria, mak­ing cells from a human body grow in a Petrie dish. You put solu­tions into the Petrie dish and you can grow human cells with­out a body. This work needs reg­u­lar “feed­ing” cells to keep them alive. I was so fas­ci­nat­ed that I vol­un­teered to come in at evenings and week­ends for feed­ing these lit­tle things. Sud­den­ly I was a per­son in Aus­tria who could do an emerg­ing tech­nique that near­ly no one else could do. I didn’t even think it was hard work, because I liked what I did. Actu­al­ly, I felt priv­i­leged that some­one would pay me for some­thing that I loved to do.

MindMap: Inter­view with Her­ta Steinkell­ner (en)

When the Ebo­la virus work start­ed, it was at a time when nobody was inter­est­ed in it. Most of the large com­pa­nies were going into can­cer research, and there was no sense in com­pet­ing with them. So I was look­ing for nich­es, and choos­ing that niche was a deci­sion that I did make on purpose.

I found I was in a unique posi­tion. There was already a gen­er­al tech­nol­o­gy that allowed the trans­fer of a human gene into a plant and then the plant would pro­duce the human prod­uct. At the time I start­ed work­ing, there were two groups: you either worked on mol­e­c­u­lar med­i­cine or on plants. The two groups were more or less sep­a­rate. I was able to com­bine the two top­ics, to form some­thing new. It was a result of bridg­ing the two sep­a­rate groups.

„It’s not about the plan. It’s about hav­ing curios­i­ty and passion.”

But in the appli­ca­tion of that sci­ence, the Euro­pean cul­ture didn’t work. A lot of basic sci­ence is done in Europe. But to trans­fer the sci­en­tif­ic data into a com­mer­cial prod­uct, Europe was total­ly out. Even though I was mem­ber of a large con­sor­tium with 30 labs and com­pa­nies in one of the largest Euro­pean-fund­ed projects, we still had the night­mare of work­ing with the Euro­pean reg­u­la­to­ry agen­cies. We had a new tech­nol­o­gy and we want­ed to go fur­ther but it was sim­ply not pos­si­ble. Reg­u­la­to­ry author­i­ties put con­di­tions on what we had to do, what we had to show – it was sim­ply too complicate.

At the same time I was attend­ing sci­en­tif­ic con­gress­es all over the world. In 2008, when I intro­duced my plant based pro­duc­tion sys­tem, two US-Amer­i­can com­pa­nies asked for coop­er­a­tions. I asked them, “You real­ly want to work togeth­er? It’s so com­pli­cat­ed.” It wasn’t com­pli­cat­ed to them. Now the large scale pro­duc­tion of a promis­ing Ebo­la drug is underway.

One of the rea­sons I love this work is that it’s not just a two-year or five-year goal. It’s some­thing that goes beyond just one life span. Knowl­edge and sci­ence accu­mu­lates from one gen­er­a­tion after anoth­er. It’s a long-term issue and the suc­cess does not rely in a sin­gle per­son. It’s actu­al­ly up to everybody.

Creativity and responsibility

Part of think­ing about going from good to great is rec­og­niz­ing road­blocks that pre­vent peo­ple from mak­ing that jour­ney. In Aus­tria, to me, school-edu­ca­tion has a strong ten­den­cy to be one of those road­blocks. I would rad­i­cal­ly change the edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem. I would cut the learn­ing duties in half. With the gained time I’d encour­age chil­dren to solve prob­lems, to work out solu­tions, to devel­op their own cre­ativ­i­ty and to find their own talent.

I don’t think we have enough of a chance to show or to express our indi­vid­ual tal­ents. If we sup­port our chil­dren to find their abil­i­ties, to do cre­ative work and to devel­op their own sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty, then I think every­thing else will take care of itself. That’s my own sto­ry. I fol­lowed my curios­i­ty and took advan­tage of oppor­tu­ni­ties that were put before me. There was cer­tain­ly no top-down plan from some­one else of what was best for me. I think every­one has that kind of tal­ent. They just need the chance to find it.

If we give our chil­dren a chance to find their tal­ent, to do cre­ative work and to devel­op their own sense of respon­si­bil­i­ty, then I think every­thing else will take care of itself.

Peo­ple also need to be allowed to fail. In Aus­tria, if some­one starts a com­pa­ny and it fails, there is a long last­ing neg­a­tive spir­it on that per­son. In the Unit­ed States, if you fail, there are more pos­si­bil­i­ties to start again. Peo­ple are allowed to learn from failure.

Final­ly an impor­tant ques­tion of doing sci­ence is “What is the goal”? For me, sci­ence should con­tribute to human pros­per­i­ty and hap­pi­ness. That is the ulti­mate goal, what­ev­er we do.

How can Aus­tria go from good to great? One way is to empha­size sci­en­tif­ic achieve­ments. For exam­ple, sci­en­tists should be treat­ed like ski­ing heroes if they get good results. And indeed some Aus­tri­an sci­en­tists are excel­lent! They should get a gold medal and should be reward­ed, also finan­cial­ly, to do even bet­ter. This is how we go for ski­ing, and the results are con­vinc­ing! I am deeply con­vinced that Aus­tria has the poten­cy to become world cham­pi­ons in sci­ence if we fol­low the strat­e­gy we apply for win­ter sports.


teinkell­ner stud­ied biol­o­gy and earth sci­ences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Vien­na before she joined the BOKU Vien­na first as a PhD stu­dent and then as a lec­tur­er. Dur­ing her stud­ies she worked at the human genet­ics lab­o­ra­to­ry of the Vien­na Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal, which sparked her pas­sion for her lat­er work.

In coop­er­a­tion with oth­er research­es, Steinkell­ner devel­oped tabac­co plants in 2008 that pro­duce human pro­teins. They can develp high­ly effec­tive anti­bod­ies and are con­sid­ered a promis­ing ther­a­peu­tic approach in the fight against the Ebo­la virus.

Due to the­ses achieve­ments, Steinkell­ner was nom­i­nat­ed as “Aus­tri­an of the Year” in the field of research in 2014. Steinkell­ner has co-authored numer­ous pub­li­ca­tions in jour­nals and antholo­gies and con­tributes to sci­en­tif­ic conferences.