Professor Uwe Pieles

PortraitsMost SNI members know Professor Uwe Pieles, who is based in the School of Life Sciences at the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW). He has been actively involved in all SNI activities ever since the institute was founded. He has participated in more than ten projects in the Nano Argovia program alone, mostly as project leader. His excellent network with local industry repeatedly give rise to exciting collaborations in new subject areas. Read on to find out how Uwe arrived at the nanosciences, how he comes up with new project ideas, what drives him, and what he does when he is not working.

Fascinated by chemistry at an early age
Even as a child, Uwe Pieles was fascinated by the practical applications of science. He analyzed his ink eraser and filled his neighborhood with smoke from homemade firecrackers. Little wonder, then, that he decided to study chemistry after graduating from high school. After completing his Vordiplom at Bielefeld University, he moved to the University of Göttingen and then to the Max Planck Institute for Experimental Medicine, where he wrote his Master’s and doctoral theses. While Uwe was working on blocking DNA replication, he learned interdisciplinary skills from being surrounded by biologists at the Max Planck Institute. Biochemistry remained his focus when he took up a postdoc position at EMBL in Heidelberg. This was where he began studying biosensors, which was an entirely new field of research back then. «I had a wonderful time at EMBL. Everything was right – the atmosphere, the facilities, the working conditions,» recalls Uwe. However, the future was uncertain for EMBL researchers. Permanent contracts were rare, so in 1991 Uwe decided to accept a position as a laboratory head at Ciba-Geigy in Basel. Once there, he continued his research into biosensors and focused on antisense DNA, which has the potential to regulate protein biosynthesis. The position at Ciba allowed Uwe to make full use of his expertise in nucleic acid chemistry. He also learned how to deal with entirely new challenges. Managing a team and taking responsibility for budgets were just two of the many tasks he had never tackled before. When Ciba unexpectedly merged with Sandoz, however, it threw the future of entire departments into doubt, and jobs that had been considered secure suddenly disappeared.

The appeal of a new start
Uwe quickly found a place in the new Novartis organization, but after seven years at Ciba/Novartis, he was ready for a complete change of professional scene. And so, in 1997, he accepted a position at Altana, a pharmaceutical company based in Konstanz, where he would be responsible for setting up a new group for nucleic acid chemistry. «It was an exciting role. We got started under excellent conditions and employed a lot of motivated young people who had a great spirit,» says Uwe. Despite the new job, however, Uwe and his wife continued living in Müllheim and it was clear to both of them that he could not do the commute forever. An offer from Professor Ernst Hugerbühler of the department of Chemistry at FHBB (the former university of applied sciences in Basel) came at just the right time. Uwe’s scientific background and nearly 10 years of experience in industry meant he was an ideal candidate to set up a nanoscience group at the School of Life Sciences. As he had done with every new start in the past, Uwe approached this role with enthusiasm.

He values the freedom that he has in organizing his work. However, like all his colleagues at the School of Life Sciences, he has to finance his research via third-party funding. This means he has spent a lot of time writing applications since beginning his professorship in 2000. Uwe’s ability to come up with the right ideas and sell them well is reflected in, among other things, the impressive list of Argovia projects that he has initiated. The range of subjects is remarkable, covering everything from cooling textiles and dirt-repellent coatings to catalysts for decomposing hydrogen peroxide vapor, tailor-made bone implants and treatment for dental caries. As a practitioner, Uwe finds this diversity fascinating. «I really value the fact that I can get involved with so many different topics here. Being able to expand my horizons all the time is incredibly motivating.» The SNI and the University of Basel are the main partners for his research projects, but ETH Zurich, PSI, CSEM and industrial companies also regularly participate in joint undertakings.

Working with students is stimulating
Uwe also feels enriched by his work as a doctoral supervisor, which allows him to participate in projects at the SNI graduate school. Since 2014, he and Professor Patrick Maletinsky have been supervising Marietta Batzer, a doctoral student working on NV centers in diamond. In addition to doing basic research, Batzer is also aiming to investigate whether the technology can be applied in (bio)sensors. Uwe draws a great deal of pleasure from working with students. His group also includes University of Basel students who are writing their Master’s theses. Uwe likes to send his own students on placements to industrial companies so that they can acquire practical experience. This has resulted in successful collaborations with businesses based in the region. «Personal contacts are always very important,» says Uwe in response to a question about how new collaborations come about. «If we sit down together to discuss a Master’s thesis, for instance, a narrowly defined topic can quickly develop into an idea for an Argovia project.» And as the past has shown, these projects often end up being continued as KTI projects. Uwe himself is about spend some time working very intensively on a single research topic. During a four-month sabbatical in Sweden, which begins this August, he will study how surfaces influence protein folding and therefore how Alzheimer’s develops.

A keen photographer
When he is not working, Uwe keeps fit through jogging, squash and badminton, and loves visiting museums anywhere in the world. He is also a keen photographer. As you would expect from a nanoscientist, he particularly enjoys photographing small subjects. Unlike in his work, however, he does not look for applications, but rather simply allows himself to be caught up in the beauty of the world. His photographs have featured in the FHNW annual report for some years now, and have also been shown in exhibitions. Hopefully, Uwe will submit some of his pictures to the next Nanoimage Award so that the SNI community can discover this other side of him.