With great enthusiasm and passion – Former nanoscience student Natascha Kappeler returns to Switzerland after many years abroad

She originally wanted to be a vet at a zoo, but Dr. Natascha Kappeler went on to study nanosciences at the University of Basel. After completing this challenging degree, she completed a PhD at University College London, where she then worked as a postdoctoral researcher. Now, the young scientist has returned to Switzerland to lecture at the FHNW School of Life Sciences, and hopes that her research will bring fresh impetus to the fields of diagnostics and bioanalytics.

Immediately fascinated by the nanosciences
Natascha Kappeler wanted to study veterinary medicine and work at a zoo almost until the time when she was taking her school-leaving certificate (Matura). However, since the career prospects were anything but ideal, the young student from Obwalden, Switzerland, began to look at the alternatives. At a University of Basel outreach event in Lucerne, she learned for the first time about the recently introduced nanosciences degree in Basel. On discovering this new subject area, she was so taken with it that she decided to write an assignment on nanotechnology for her “Maturarbeit”. She read books, scoured the internet, and wrote to various students and professors. Christoph Gerber, then director of scientific communication and a module leader in the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) Nanoscale Science, responded to Natascha’s inquiry and helped her with her assignment. This ultimately led to her organizing an exhibition entitled “Nanotechnology – The doorway to the 21th century” at her school in Sarnen.

Still enthusiastic about her degree
Since she herself wanted to play an active part in opening this doorway, Natascha began her degree in nanosciences in Basel in October 2005. “It was great,” she recalls enthusiastically. “There was a fantastic team spirit among the students, which we still maintain to this day.” Natascha herself has done a great deal to ensure that, even today, the students on the nanosciences program are well organized, stick together like a family, and support one another. She served as president of the nano student association and is now a member of the board of the alumni association. “Back then, I learned that nothing is possible without a close network,” she says. “And that is one piece of advice that I can pass on to the students: build a network and utilize your contacts.”

It began with cantilever probes
At the time, the topic that particularly interested her was sensor technology. “I was fascinated by Christoph Gerber’s enthusiasm,” she tells us. It will come as no surprise, therefore, that she completed her first project on cantilever probe sensors in Christoph Gerber’s group. His contacts to the group of Professor Rachel McKendry, who had worked as a postdoc under Christoph Gerber, led Natascha to University College London (UCL) for her master’s thesis. There, she used cantilever probe technology to study multidrug-resistant pathogens. By that point, she was hooked on the topic. Her master’s thesis was followed by a doctoral dissertation in industry and a period spent working as a postdoc. “The whole topic of antibiotics and multidrug-resistant pathogens is highly topical and something I’m really enthusiastic about. On top of that, the perfect team and the city itself kept me in London a lot longer than I’d originally planned.”

Time for new impressions and experiences
After 6½ years, however, the time eventually came to leave UCL in search of new experiences in 2017. After bidding an emotional farewell to the team in London, Natascha Kappeler spent some time doing research at the National University of Singapore. She was offered a postdoc position there but then stumbled across an advertisement from the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW). “To succeed Professor Daniel Gygax, the FHNW was looking for a scientist who had worked on therapeutic drug monitoring and in vitro diagnostics. Those were the precise topics of my dissertation and postdoc,” she says. During her doctoral dissertation in industry, Natascha had developed tests to determine the concentration of antibiotics in the blood. As part of her postdoctoral research, she led a project aimed at developing a nanomechanical sensor to detect bacterial infections and determine the effectiveness of antibiotics.

Taking pleasure in research and teaching
A professorship at the University of Applied Sciences, however, calls for broad industry experience. Although Natascha had worked closely with industrial companies during her dissertation and her postdoc, in addition to stints at various companies over the course of her career, she lacked the breadth of experience that the professorship called for. Nevertheless, her path led her to the FHNW School of Life Sciences, where she now works as a lecturer and research associate. She is also being coached by Daniel Gygax to help her expand her professional network in Switzerland and gain the necessary experience by spending extended periods of time in industry. “I really enjoy the teaching side of my work here. I have a fantastic group that inspires me, and it gives me great pleasure to pass on my knowledge,” says Natascha Kappeler.

This paper test can be used to detect legionella in water. The left line (C) indicates that the test has worked, while the thin right line is evidence that some legionella were present in the analyzed sample. (Image: Natascha Kappeler)

Simplifying tests
In her current research, she has also remained faithful to the field of diagnostics. However, she now no longer relies on cantilevers but rather on simpler approaches such as paper-based testing systems, which are more robust. In one example, she is working to develop an antibody test for legionella. A test of this kind works in a similar way to a pregnancy test. Specific antibodies are fixed to a paper strip. If the matching antigen is present in the analyzed sample, it will bind to the antibody and a colored line will appear. Tests of this kind can be carried out quickly and easily, even by non-experts, while still yielding definitive results.

As part of a strategic FHNW project involving a network of universities, institutions, and private companies, the 31-year-old scientist is developing test systems that can be used by trained staff in the homes of older patients who are no longer mobile, for example. The project involves planning how the test results would be analyzed and passed on to doctors, as well as achieving smooth logistics.

Here in the Basel region especially, there are numerous opportunities not only to expand research aimed at simplifying analytical and diagnostic processes and methods but also to initiate exciting new projects. And maybe, one day, Natascha Kappeler will also be involved in a Nano Argovia project – thereby closing the loop from her nanosciences degree back to the SNI network.