Finding your own path in biology | Interview with Dr. Burkhard Rost

Finding your own path in biology | Interview with Dr. Burkhard Rost

We met with Dr. Burkhard Rost to discuss STEM fields, the importance of personal passions, his unconventional path towards a career in biology, and much more. Enjoy!

Biologist and professor Dr. Burkhard Rost talks with student Karina Macosko about his unconventional path towards a career as a biologist. Beginning with an interest in history and eventually becoming a theoretical physicist, Dr. Rost entered into biology with an unconventional perspective that has allowed him to be an influential scientist. He advises students to learn to think through exposure to STEM fields regardless of the specific subjects they choose to study. Dr. Rost also encourages students to find a field that they love and form their own path based on their personal passions.

But my advice at the same time is be yourself, do whatever you believe is right for you and follow that through. That's the only thing that's gonna get you there. And maybe learn some martial arts so that when you run with your head against the wall that you can sort of take it.” – Dr. Burkhard Rost

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Interview with Biologist Dr. Burkhard Rost

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:23.4The path to Biology

Karina Macosko: Hi, my name is Karina Macosko from and I’m here with Professor Rost, who is a biologist, and we just wanna know…

…how did you get into your field? And if you could go back and go to college again, do your whole career over, is there anything that you would have changed?

Burkhard Rost: Very, very complex involving question Karina, this begin from, I believe I am not the this standard path, let’s put it like that. In the final classes of school, for me, I studied a lot of Physics and Mathematics because I was not good at it. I believed that I would become ultimately a journalist or somebody doing history, because this is something that was very easy for me, and I felt that I have to learn really Physics and Math because I would not learn that by books myself, but the other things that interested me, I would.

So then I liked it, so began liking it so much that I decided to study that. And I studied Math and I studied Physics and that in fact, hooked me as simple as that, so I finished the degree as a physicist, I did do some other studies in between. So I have a Bachelor in Philosophy as well. I studied history, I studied Psychology, but I really completed, fully completed Physics, and after Physics, I decided that Physics alone, I was a theoretical physicist, I worked on machine learning devices, so-called neural networks, and I decided that this is not quite, Physics is not enough. I want to really do something that matters for Biology because Biology is totally interesting.

So you already see that I had not been prepared for this career switch in my school, the way I chose the subjects at school, I had not really been a major in Biology, and I had not really done anything in my studies to become a biologist, and there I was doing a PhD essentially in Biology, in the European Molecular Biological laboratory in Heidelberg, and that sort of is one of the primary institutes to do Biology in Europe, and I became ultimately somebody who crossed into it from the side, so that tells you from my perspective, you can do anything as long as you like it, you can enter any other job because you can cross fertilize.

That gets me to the next point, and I believe is a very important one. Maybe there would have been a more direct path for me, but I doubted because I believe it helped me a lot that I had this orthogonal perspective through that I was lucky enough to discover things that maybe others had not seen because they did not... And that had a lot to do with me being dumb and stupid, limited, with me not having enough insights into Biology when I came... I came into this field as somebody who really understood the methods, and that also gets back to what I believe is a message that I have at school.

…if you do enjoy at all to study methods, whatever that means, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Math, follow that passion. Because understanding principles and sort of learning to think, is the most important thing for the early years of your career, no matter where that is.” – Dr. Burkhard Rost

If you do enjoy at all to study methods, whatever that means, Chemistry, Biology, Physics, Math, follow that passion. Because understanding principles and sort of learning to think, is the most important thing for the early years of your career, no matter where that is. That could be Philosophy, I admit that I’m a scientist in many ways, changed by becoming part of STEM, if you wanna call it that way, and I may not be as positive to people who would never do any science as I was before, because I see that there’s a way of thinking that is specific to more than anything, you could call it really STEM, not only the sciences or the natural sciences, it is something in that field, and I do believe that no matter what you do, try to at least get enough experience in STEM, in anything that has to do with STEM in order to put the way of thinking into your head, or some of it, at least.

In this Corona... At these Corona times, I believe it’s very important to see that it is complicated for the society to understand facts of this pandemic, and a part of that has to do because they do not have enough education in sciences and that is missing, but you still asked a question that I cannot answer. What would have happened had I done it differently? I obviously do not know the answer to that question, I do not know how important it was that I decided what I did, but my feeling is it was happenstance, my feeling is that the only thing that is really relevant is that you do what you do with a lot of fun. Enjoying it.

0:05:19.8Find your path

Karina: Wow. Well, that is such great advice. And if somebody is going into college and they think that they really do wanna be a biologist or they’re considering it, what advice would you have for them for what they might wanna study, and if they should major directly in Biology or if they should try something else, first?

Burkhard: So, that again, depends on the school, that depends on you. I do not have any advice, this is very specific, ultimately the very same way, and I say that for myself. So how much are you driven by your subject, how much... If I told you, well, learn Chemistry or learn some Math and learn some Physics, if you really want to major in Biology, do these others too, because a lot of what is Biology is in those. Learn to program.

Now, if that distracts you from really becoming good at Biology, if that distracts you from what you would like in your heart, don’t do it, so in that sense, there is no advice that I can give anybody, so this is like, I can only give advice to people when they talk to me and I get an idea how they are. So find your own path that is as simple as that, and it takes a life, I know. So I cannot help you at all except for my advice to you is stay positive, stay optimistic and follow your heart and don’t give up, and the harder it gets, the more you know you’re in the right path, except that not everybody has the same way of looking at it.

And again, for me, the science view, what I appreciate really very much in science is that it has allowed me to have a different perception, to see things differently from others, and in science, this is an advantage, because it allows you to discover things that others haven’t seen. I believe it’s an advantage all over in life, but it’s much easier to pull that through in science than in other fields, and, I don’t know, whatever else you like, my daughter likes art, for instance, it’s tough in arts, right? Yeah.

0:07:23.4Sign off

Karina: Wow. Well, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. It was really interesting hearing all that you had to say, and I think you gave some really great advice, so thank you so much.

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