Kathrin Plath, PhD Professor, Biological Chemistry
We all start out at as a single cell that gives rise to pluripotent cells that, given the right environment and the right cues, develop into all the different cell types in the human body. Dr. Kathrin Plath’s research has advanced our knowledge about this process, and her contributions inform our understanding of human development and how stem cell technologies can be applied in regenerative medicine. Dr. Plath steps into the U Magazine Spotlight.
When did you begin to think about science?
In school, I was always good at math and sciences — chemistry and physics more so than biology. My mother is a chemist, so that might also have had something to do with it.
What was your first experiment?
My mother brought home some salts that I could use to grow crystals — blue crystals, green crystals. It wasn’t that exciting, really, but I enjoyed it. In school in East Germany, science was taught very differently than it is here, not very hands-on. Now, I get to teach elementary school kids things like how to prep DNA. They find DNA very goopy; they like that. And I think they really do learn something. They realize that there is stuff inside of us that determines if we are going to be a tomato or a strawberry or a grasshopper or a person.
Who are your science heroes?
I should answer Gregor Mendel or Marie Curie, but I don’t feel that way. My science heroes are probably my PhD advisor and my postdoc advisor because I have learned so much from them. Those guys are quite amazing and have taught me a lot.
Where are you happiest?
With my family and friends, being with people who I am close to and doing something together — going skiing or hiking or traveling together. We went to Hawaii, and I tried surfing for the first time! What do you consider to be your finest achievement? I don’t think of my science like that. I feel like every paper contributes to the bigger goal a little bit. We make little steps with every paper, and I hope in the long run that everything together will achieve something that is useful for the greater public. What do you appreciate most in your colleagues? Honesty. I don’t want to hear that I’m the greatest and the best. I want to hear constructive criticism. What is your greatest fault? Impatience. Sometimes I just can’t wait. And I’m a fast driver, too. I can’t deal with slow people driving in front of me.
What is your greatest virtue?
Tenacity. Fairness. I try to be fair to everyone. When do you not think about science? It’s always there a little bit. I guess when I am doing something with friends or family is the least likely time that I think about it. But usually it’s somewhere in the background.
If not a scientist, what would you be?
I wanted to become a mathematician when I got out of school. But my math teacher told me I wasn’t good enough. I guess I would be a surgeon.
What is your most treasured possession?
What I really value is my cappuccino in the morning, so it would be our espresso machine at home. If I don’t get it, I’m in a bad mood.
What keeps you up at night?
Writing grants and papers.
To which superhero do you most relate?
I actually never read superhero books, so I don’t know them. I guess I know of Batman and Superman, but I don’t know what they stand for.
Where does your inspiration come from?
I think from talking to colleagues or lab members or friends about science and about new ways of approaching our problems and what we could do differently or what are good questions.
What is your biggest ‘aha!’ moment?
I’m still waiting for it.
How do you want to change the world?
I don’t want to change the world in a big way. I think in little steps. If I can contribute by educating students and friends or by interacting with people, or if my science makes little achievements, that’s good enough for me.
What is your definition of happiness?
That I’ve done something as well as I can. That I’ve tried hard. That I did something productive.
What’s your idea of misery?
Cooking. I don’t like cooking — it stresses me out. Everyone says to me, “Well, you can do experiments in the lab, and cooking is just putting A and B and C together.” It’s not my cup of tea. I’m totally stressed when I have to cook.
What music do you listen to when you work?
I can’t listen to music when I work. It distracts me and gets my mind off what I’m doing. When I’m not at work, I like to listen to classical music.