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. In East Germany, where I grew up, you had to take all classes through all the grades. You couldn’t choose or drop anything. And I hated — hated — German language. There was a class to teach the socialism stuff, the communism stuff. You had to take it. I didn’t like it. History, I didn’t mind that so much. But I really liked math and chemistry. 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. I think I did it just because my mother had the stuff. 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. I never did anything like that when I was in school. A few colleagues got together and we came up with this idea to get the kids excited about science, so we offer this opportunity for kids to come here to UCLA, and we take them through the labs and they look through the microscopes and we teach them about genetic traits and about DNA and how to prepare it. 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. And they have such very different abilities and they are good at very different things. They are like the two extremes of how you can run science, I think. Those guys are quite amazing and have taught me a lot. They are people I look up to, and I can relate to that much more than to some of the big names.
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. I don’t think that the science I’m doing is made to give rise to some huge event, and suddenly I’ve made a big discovery. 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 are your defining characteristics?
I like to work hard and I’m very detail oriented. And I’m happy to work hard, no matter what it is. You give me a task, I’m going to try to do it as well as I can. I like working.
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. I’m happy to hear positive things but I also want to hear what’s really going on and not just be told something that sounds good.
What is your greatest virtue?
Tenacity. Fairness. I try to be fair to everyone.
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.
Who do you most admire?
I admire different people for different things, and I have different role models. I was on the board of directors of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, and a lot of well-known stem cell scientists are on it. And I admire many of them for their political interest and how they are lobbying in Washington for stem cell science and how that’s really something they have taken to heart. And there are other things. Some people can write grants really well, and I’ve learned from them, and I admire them for that. And other people think and talk about science in a way that really helps people to understand.
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. Sometimes I just wake up in the morning and I have a thought out of nowhere; I must have dreamt about it. Or sometimes I am driving in the car and a thought pops up. It’s always there.
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 didn’t have this total creative math-type thinking. So 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. And just now, my son, who is 7, got books from the library, one on Superman, one on Batman and one on whatever the other ones are — Green Something and Superwoman? So I guess I will learn about them. That’s my East German upbringing — they didn’t exist for me.
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. I enjoy that a lot, and I find that just being able to discuss science with people, I get a lot more ideas.
What is your biggest ‘aha’ moment?”
I’m still waiting for it.
How do you want to change the world?
I just hope that some of the things that we do in life will play out and make a difference. Maybe it is that teaching elementary school kids might get them excited about science. 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, so it totally 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 just not my thing. It’s not my cup of tea. I’m totally stressed when I have to cook. So that’s misery for me.
What music do you listen to when you work?
I can’t listen to music when I work. It totally distracts me and gets my mind off what I’m doing. When I’m not at work, I like to listen to classical music. Now we are trying to educate our son on different kinds of music, so I’m learning to appreciate AC/DC and The Rolling Stones and The Beatles again, and I am enjoying that. But if I had to choose one type of music, it would be classical music.