Meet Hans Schöler

Image courtesy of MPI Muenster, Sarah Eick

Hans Schöler joined the Journal of Biological Chemistry as an associate editor in May. He is currently a director of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Münster, Germany. Schöler’s laboratory investigates how mature body cells can be reprogrammed into pluripotent stem cells. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Would you briefly explain what your research group is studying?

We study how pluripotency is induced and what mechanisms drive this process. We have shown that a gene called Oct4 plays a key role. Normally, it is expressed only in gametes, two types of cells that are completely undifferentiated: embryonic stem cells and the precursors of egg and sperm cells. In contrast, in all mature cells, Oct4 persists in a Sleeping Beauty-like state and therefore must be targeted and activated if we want to transform mature cells into pluripotent ones.

Although we have several reprogramming techniques at our disposal today, none of them has proved optimal. We are striving to develop methods that enable reprogramming of Oct4, and any other required gene, in a more targeted way and with as few adverse effects as possible for the patient.

Tell us about your academic background and research training.

I studied biology at the University of Heidelberg. For my diploma thesis, I purified and studied topoisomerase I, a rather biochemically oriented topic. My Ph.D. thesis concerned studying transcriptional enhancers. At that time, those elements had just been described in mammalian cells, and I was the first to show that cellular factors have to interact with enhancers to be functionally active.
After completing my Ph.D. in molecular biology at the University of Heidelberg, I was appointed head of several research groups in Germany, namely at Boehringer Mannheim, now Roche, the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg. In 1999, I was offered a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania, where I served as professor of reproduction physiology at the School of Veterinary Medicine and director of the Center of Animal Transgenesis and Germ Cell Research.

In 2004, I was appointed director of the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Biomedicine in Münster and moved back to Germany. I am also a professor at the University of Münster and an adjunct professor at University of Pennsylvania; Hannover Medical School; and two South Korean universities, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology and Konkuk University. Actually, I visit South Korea quite often, because a number of Korean professors were trained in my department and I make a point of maintaining a close collaboration with them.

Did anything occur, in a milestone sort of way, that made you choose science as a career?

Not really. I have always been excited about biology. Even as a boy, I loved watching insects and studied their behavior. “The Dancing Bees” by Karl von Frisch was one of my favorite books at that time. I wanted to understand how insects develop and was extremely happy when I had earned enough money from my summer job to buy my first microscope. That was when I was 14. In my high-school years, I was fascinated by books like Erwin Schrödinger’s “What is Life?” and Jacques Monod’s “Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology,” to name just a couple. There were countless other books on similar topics that I found extremely stimulating to read. You could say I was a bookworm. I gradually developed into this person who wanted to understand developmental processes at the molecular level.

During grad school and/or postdoc, did something especially impress you to choose the path you’ve taken in research?

One paper that really struck me right between the eyes was the report on the cloning of Dolly by Ian Wilmut, Keith Campbell and co-workers published by Nature in 1997. I had an incredibly hard time believing that the transfer of a somatic cell nucleus into an enucleated unfertilized egg could actually result in a viable organism. Just imagine what it meant to repack all those chromosomes! Then Teru Wakayama, Ryuzo Yanagimachi and co-workers showed in 1998 that this was also possible in the mouse, again in Nature. I wanted to know how reprogramming works. And we’ve been working to break down the process since then, but still there is a lot to explore!

What does it mean to you, on a personal level, to be an associate editor for the JBC? What was your reaction when you were asked to be an associate editor?

I was surprised and also very happy. I was surprised, because so far, the JBC, albeit quite broad in scope, has not really been known as a platform for stem cell research. But quite clearly, this is what I should stand for — to encourage stem cell scientists to send their exciting work to the JBC! I was very happy, because it acknowledges that the manuscripts I have submitted are as solid as possible, even if it meant we only came in second. I am also proud and honored to take on this role for the journal, because the JBC has such an amazing tradition. The first issue was published in 1905! To be part of such a long tradition means a lot to me, and I look forward to expanding coverage of the stem cell field to the readership of the JBC.

How is the new role going so far? Have you been surprised by anything during your tenure with the JBC?

I was actually quite surprised by how much fun it is to be part of the JBC family and to take part in the associate editor meetings. So far, I’ve attended two. Certainly, being an associate editor comes with a lot of responsibility and work, but the meetings and discussions with the other associate editors are a real treat and a great forum where I can share in discussions and learn a lot. I am on the editorial boards of top-notch journals such as Cell, Cell Stem Cell and other stem cell journals, but with the JBC, I am really on the other side of the process. The JBC allows me to serve other scientists in the most direct way. My hope is that I will deal with their submitted work in the most respectful manner.

What do you do outside of the lab? Hobbies? Do you have any advice for balancing life in the lab with life outside of the lab?

I always tell my friends that I am paid for my hobby. Isn’t it exciting to see something that nobody else has seen before? It is like being Columbus and discovering America over and over again. But of course there is more to being a scientist than just doing the science — and I guess every scientist knows what I mean — like administrative meetings. Life outside the lab is also important to me, and that means finding time to be together with my family, to meet friends and to enjoy the arts. I went to Africa (last) year for the first time in my life. While my friends and my wife especially enjoyed the large animals, the amazing beetles that I watched in Botswana and Namibia fascinated me.

For scientists in training, do you have any words of wisdom or a favorite motto?

Be curious and critical, but also respect the accomplishments of other scientists.

Maggie Kuo Maggie Kuo was an intern at ASBMB Today when she wrote this story. Today she is a writer at the American Physiological Society. She earned her Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at Johns Hopkins University.