Looking Back: Kathrin Lang
Kathrin Lang was a Postdoctoral Fellow within the Structural Studies Division with Venki Ramakrishnan and in the PNAC Division with Jason Chin between 2009-2014. She is now Professor for Chemical Biology at ETH Zurich where she works to develop new tools to study and control biological systems.
For the 2023 LMB Alumni Newsletter, Kathrin shares some memories from her time at the LMB.
I have very fond memories of my time at the LMB and for me the LMB has become synonymous for scientific heaven. That’s where I learned how to become and love being a scientist. I found my fascination for biology actually quite late: drawn to mathematics and physics in high school, I first studied technical mathematics, but changed to chemistry during my undergrad studies. After earning a Ph.D. in RNA chemistry, I joined the group of Venki Ramakrishnan in 2009. The ribosome had always been the molecular machine I was most fascinated with and I wanted to expand my chemical skills to more biological and biophysical techniques. My education was – at least at a practical level – very chemistry-based: I had never purified a protein before I came to the LMB, and I am thankful to Venki for having enough trust in me to take me on as a postdoc despite my lack of experience.
I spent a great year in Venki’s lab and learnt a lot about the ribosome and X-ray crystallography. I was very lucky in getting diffracting data for a couple of back-up projects on the bacterial ribosome on our first synchrotron trips. This was obviously exciting, but also meant that I then spent quite a large amount of time at the computer fitting electron density maps and I was starting to miss the bench and chemistry, and realized that structural biology might not really be what I imagined as a future for myself. I felt a bit uncomfortable bringing this up, but Venki was a fantastic mentor and said that one should really care about what one does. He suggested I talk to Jason Chin, in his lab I may have the possibility to combine my interests for chemistry and my love for the ribosome.
After having finished my projects in Venki’s lab, I joined Jason’s lab in May 2010, where I then found my scientific home in chemical and synthetic biology. I spent four great years in Jason’s lab, working on new ways of labeling proteins within their physiological environment by incorporating non-canonical amino acids and developing bioorthogonal reactions. The years in Jason’s lab were very formative and scientifically rewarding. I loved the open lab culture, the interdisciplinarity of the science, the exchange with Jason and postdocs and PhDs from different backgrounds, the freedom, curiosity and drive of the lab to work on things we deeply cared about. I fondly remember also the many social events in the lab, in PNAC and at the LMB. I got to know two of my closest friends at the LMB and although we now live in different countries, we meet regularly to reminisce the good old LMB and Cambridge times.
There were many memorable events at my time at the LMB. First and foremost, obviously Venki’s Nobel Prize in October 2009 and the trip of the whole group to Stockholm in December. Later, the inauguration of the new LMB by the Queen: I was one of the coworkers to present the postdocs and had to learn how to curtsy to greet the Queen! The open science days, the Christmas parties, the skits and the many Happy Hours all contributed to this special ‘We, the LMB’ feeling. But what made and makes the LMB so special at an everyday level is the greatness of the people who work there, and the open-minded and ambitious culture they foster. Too often scientific drive and curiosity get buried by an overburden of administrative tasks, but also personal egos. At the LMB you would meet the smartest, but often most humble people, and you would get input for your science from PhD students, postdocs, young PIs, established group leaders and Nobel Prize winners. I think this interactive, creative, engaging and critical thinking atmosphere is the key to LMB’s success. The LMB has greatly shaped my way of thinking as a scientist and I am proud and grateful to have been part of this unique culture.
I left the LMB in 2014 to start a tenure-track professorship at Technical University of Munich, where I got tenured to Associate Professor in 2020. In 2021 I moved to ETH Zurich to take over a professorship in Chemical Biology. Our lab combines organic chemistry and protein engineering to develop tools to study protein-protein interactions and shed light on post-translational modifications, such as ubiquitylation.
Kathrin Lang, December 2023