First-Person Report: Vitor Alexandre Pires Martins dos Santos
Dr. Vitor Alexandre Pires Martins dos Santos is Systems Biologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig. He gained his degree in Environmental Bioprocess Engineering in the Netherlands.
Why did you decide to do your research in Germany?Germany is an ideal location for my research interests. I gained my degree in Environmental Bioprocess Engineering in the Netherlands and I worked as a molecular biologist in Spain. My boss at that time introduced me to a professor from Germany, to whom I presented a project proposal on mathematical modelling of microbial interactions.
I applied for a research grant from an international funding agency and I then joined his Environmental Genomics team. There, I combined these different fields in Environmental Systems Biology, and made a number of significant contributions, including to the first oil-degrading marine bacterium to be sequenced. This field is very advanced in Germany and research funding conditions are also excellent. I have now been working in Germany for five years, heading my own research group, and coordinating several international research projects in the field of systems and synthetic biology.
What are Germany's strengths as a research and development location?Concepts in Germany are thorough and well-founded and research processes are well organised. If the Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), or the German Research Foundation (DFG) formulates a particular idea, then it will be worked through to an end.
What I always notice is that everyone in Germany is an expert in his or her field. This availability of a critical mass of capable people means that things work rather well, in fact, very well indeed.
Over the last few years, Germany has been making determined efforts to create networks of competence. For instance, at our establishment in Braunschweig, there is an ongoing development to interconnect various competences. This is how a cooperation between the Medical University in Hannover (MHH) and the Helmholtz Association, which allows us to access and use practical and theoretical knowledge and experience from both clinical and scientific fields, came about.
What do you think are the best ideas ever to come out of Germany?Lots of fundamental mathematical models go back as far as Leibniz or Gauss. German philosophers decisively changed ways of thinking throughout the world. The same applies to physics. That had an amazing attraction for the world of science. At the time, everyone wanted to study in Germany. And I personally believe that Germany has revived this potential today.
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You've been here for five years now. How do you like living in Germany?I find it very pleasant here. The people are friendly, uncomplicated, open to reason and modest. Things run according to plan, which is a great help when I consider my rather chaotic southern European mentality. Perhaps books are a good example for how Germany works. They are simply well made here. High-quality paper, well printed, well bound. It is a pleasure to pick up a book in Germany. That's really not the case in some other countries.
What research projects are you currently working on?We always say: biologists do the understanding for what engineers build. My work covers both fields. I'm presently working on bacterial genome sequencing, which has particular relevance for environmental and biotechnological applications. This process is followed by mathematical modelling and computations based on the genome information of these bacteria.
These computations are important in determining and controlling the behaviour of bacteria. The knowledge gathered from the results can among other things be used to develop processes for the degradation of toxic substances, as in the case of oil pollution. The resulting applications are also important for the production of secondary raw materials and refined chemical products.
» :: March 2008