Perfect timing paves the way for a dream jobPortrait
Michael Gerspach is starting his career at BÜHLMANN Laboratories AG
Michael Gerspach was one of the SNI PhD School’s first doctoral students and was, for many years, a reliable contact for the Swiss Nanoscience Institute when it came to outreach activities. A few days after defending his doctoral thesis on nanofluidic platforms, he was offered a permanent position as a research scientist at BÜHLMANN Laboratories AG in Schönenbuch. There, in collaboration with three colleagues, he is setting up a group to develop new technologies for medical diagnostics based on biomarkers.
It all began with glass and silicon
Michael Gerspach studied nanosciences at the University of Basel before beginning his doctoral dissertation on nanofluidic platforms for the analysis of individual nanoparticles in 2013. In the early days of his doctoral research, he spent many hours in the clean rooms at the Paul Scherrer Institute, attempting to apply a grid of tiny channels and pockets to glass and silicon chips. Due to electrostatic forces, charged nanoparticles can be stably captured and studied between the negatively charged walls of these channels. Michael optimized the method until he could isolate individual gold particles – measuring just 40 nanometers across – inside the channels for a period of several minutes in order to study them. Although the system worked excellently, it is expensive, time-consuming and requires access to clean rooms.
To develop a more cost-effective alternative that can also be used in laboratories without high-tech equipment, Michael Gerspach then focused his efforts on a platform made of polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). In this case, the clean room is only needed to produce a casting mold and a punch. First, electron-beam lithography and ion etching are used to produce a silicon model of the platform. With the help of this model, a punch is produced that can then be used to transfer the desired depressions to PDMS. “The first two steps are quite complex, but then the PDMS platform can actually be produced in a completely normal laboratory,” says Michael Gerspach in relation to the technique he developed, which allows tiny individual nanoparticles to be captured without any marking or external forces and made available for examination.
Michael carried out most of the practical work in the laboratories of the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), where he was supervised by Dr. Yasin Ekinci. There, he always found people ready to offer advice and assistance on all matters, both large and small. “The PSI is a great place to work, with excellent equipment and extremely helpful colleagues,” he says in our interview. At the University of Basel, Michael received intensive support from Dr. Thomas Pfohl in particular, who was always on hand to discuss matters and to offer suggestions.
Various criteria tipped the scales
By January 2017, Michael had already begun looking for potential jobs for the time after his thesis. There were a number of positions that sounded interesting and a few that matched his profile perfectly. For example, the private company BÜHLMANN Laboratories AG in Schönenbuch, which specializes in medical diagnostics. They were looking for a research scientist to develop and optimize new detection methods for biomarkers as part of an interdisciplinary team. Michael felt this was an ideal position for him and applied. He was invited to several rounds of interviews and was offered the job the week after he defended his thesis. The topic of biomarkers is not entirely new to him, as he had already studied a biomarker for HIV as part of his master’s project at the London Centre for Nanotechnology. “That probably also tipped the scales in terms of getting me the job,” Michael says.
The company’s owner, Dr. Roland Bühlmann, made the decision to hire Michael Gerspach personally: “We were impressed by Michael’s specific training in the nanosciences, as well as his expertise and his personality, and we’re delighted to have him on board,” he says.
There is no doubt that the breadth of training during his degree and at the PhD school have helped him stand out from the other candidates. In addition, he is sure to have earned plus points for his open nature and the SNI activities he took part in outside of his scientific work. For example, in recent years Michael has been involved in organizing three instalments of INASCON, an international conference held by and for nanoscience students. He began by assembling a team in 2015, with whom he then planned and executed a perfect conference in Basel. “It was a lot of fun, and we all learned a great deal. Beforehand, no one had any idea how difficult it is to obtain sponsors, for example, or to run an advertising campaign,” Michael recalls. Likewise, the many outreach activities in which he brought nanosciences research to life for a wide variety of groups are also bound to have given him an advantage over the numerous other candidates.
Much to learn and plenty to research
His first task at BÜHLMANN Laboratories is now to set up a new laboratory. Accordingly, Michael Gerspach has spent most of the first few weeks reading up on the subject matter, getting to know his new colleagues, and planning and ordering equipment for the new workplace.
Early 2018 will then see the research start in earnest. The four-person team will study a variety of biomarkers that are expected to provide important information regarding intestinal diseases. Established as a corporate research lab, the new group is to test innovative approaches and to adopt the role of ‘think tank’ at the company.
When he began his job search, Michael expected to find something a bit more straightforward, but he is now exactly where he wanted to be. “It’s great to be setting something up here, to be on board from the outset, and then to research a topic that can benefit so many people. My aim was always to stay in research – but to work in an applied field in industry on a long-term basis,” he says.
For the SNI, it is great to see that those leaving the SNI PhD School have such good opportunities on today’s highly competitive labor market, and also that industry values their broad, interdisciplinary training.