I am a scientist with a lifelong passion for history. So far, my most exciting historical moment was witnessing the fall of the Berlin wall (I am getting old!) As a West-Berliner, I remember being called by my father on the evening of November 9, 1989. “You need to turn on the TV,” he said. "The wall is open.”
Carrying pieces of history with me
I turned on the TV, then quickly called my best friend, and we headed to the wall at the Brandenburg gate.
The situation was weird, as there was no official checkpoint there. People were standing on the wall, and we got up as well to join the first who were trying to hammer pieces out of the wall. I took one of the hammers and broke the handle when hitting the concrete, but the piece of the wall was mine!
The next evening, we returned and there were literally thousands of people, some even jumping from the wall to the other side. Eastern German police were just watching. We knew that this would change the course of history and we were right there in the center of it all!
Getting to be a part of this important part of history was an unbelievable experience. Holding that piece of the wall then felt the same way I feel now when I hold a model of a molecule I helped to discover: you get to “feel” history.
Someone recently asked me what advice I would give my 30-year-old self, the one there in that moment when the wall was being torn down and everything seemed on the verge of something new.
First, I would tell myself that I should not worry about the future. I already was together with the woman I will be with for the rest of my life, and the second of our two children had just been born. Professionally, the path of my science career was already paved, as I had recently been appointed to lead a research group. “You will also have grandchildren pretty early in your life,” I would tell myself. “Four of them, at least! You will enjoy life even more then.”
Next, I would encourage my young self to “make sure to adapt to changes. As long as you do this, you will enjoy life. Be curious – the rewards come to the smart ones. Remember to take opportunities in a way that you can say, ‘If it ends tomorrow, it will be OK.'”
Knowing how life can be in other parts of the world, I would also remind myself that I was born into a place where there is not much suffering, no hunger and many opportunities, so I should properly appreciate it. As a scientist, take it as a gift that you can work to understand the pieces and how the world is formed from living organisms. You can contribute to make a difference in terms of safety for all of us. Do that and you will not only help people with diseases, you will make history one day.
Roche has given me and my teams many chances to make an impact in several areas of medicine – but as believers in science, we have been especially impactful against Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a genetic neuromuscular disease that is the leading genetic cause of death in infants and toddlers. Being part of this work not only made it possible for me to use science for its best purpose – helping ease the pain of people who suffer – it has, to my amazement, also allowed me to be a part of the future and a part of the history I love so much.
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