FEBS Excellence Awardee spotlight: Kristina Haslinger

A quick Q&A with an early-career group leader, including career insights and tips.
FEBS Excellence Awardee spotlight: Kristina Haslinger

Kristina Haslinger is Assistant Professor for Pharmaceutical Biology, at the Faculty of Science and Engineering, University of Groningen, the Netherlands. After her PhD in a structural biology research group at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg (Germany), she did a postdoc in a metabolic engineering laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge (USA). Her research group studies and engineers biosynthetic pathways producing pharmaceutical drugs. Kristina was selected for a FEBS Excellence Award (funds for equipment/consumables for early-career group leaders) in 2021.

What is your current research focus?

My current research revolves around how organisms synthesize secondary metabolites and how we can use the underlying enzymes for the sustainable synthesis of pharmaceutical drugs. My research group uses computational tools to look for interesting enzymes in genomic sequences – and we express single enzymes or larger pathways in model organisms such as Escherichia coli and Aspergillus nidulans to assess their enzymatic activity. We also build combinatorial pathways in these model organisms. I am particularly excited about the research direction that we are now taking funded by the FEBS Excellence Award, where we aim to elucidate the biosynthetic potential of microbes associated with the green parts of plants. We recently acquired a benchtop mini sequencer from Oxford Nanopore and are now starting to sequence our fungal isolates and hopefully soon entire microbial communities enriched from plant tissue.

Lab webpage: https://haslinger-lab.com/

Looking back at your career trajectory, what would you pick out as high or low points?

This is a difficult question. Of course, scientific success and failure jump to my mind immediately – the endorphin rush of an acceptance letter for a publication or research funding on the one hand, and the anger and sadness after rejections on the other hand. But there are much more important moments such as the first social get together of my research group last year, which filled me with pride and happiness. Or my first in-person conference talk since COVID-19 and becoming a group leader.

What would be your advice to PhD students and postdocs who would like to eventually start their own lab?

I always advise students to be very strategic in choosing their postdoc labs. They should assess what they need to become a well-rounded, successful academic and see which environment will allow them to get there. Since everyone’s PhD experience, skills and personality are different, the perfect environment for one student will not be the same as for another. It’s also crucial to talk to current and former group members of the target lab to get a feel for the atmosphere. For postdocs looking to start their own lab, I can only recommend starting to make a research plan early, network with scientists in potential future host institutions and don’t wait too long to get on the job market.

How have you found being a group leader and what do you see as the most important role of this position?

Being a group leader is very exciting. I enjoy the interactions with my group members and, even more, I enjoy observing their interactions with each other – how they discuss science, how they support each other and how they collaborate. For me, fostering a friendly, collaborative environment is one of my most important tasks. This starts with hiring the right people and choosing the research projects carefully to generate some overlap but not too much. So far, things are running quite smoothly, and I am very lucky to have such great team members.

What are the biggest challenges in your role currently?

The biggest challenge for me is currently to find the right level of involvement in our ongoing research projects. My goal would be to take on the role of an advisor or coach but sometimes students are looking for more direct instruction or I feel the need to be more directive in order to make more research progress. I hope that with more experience in guiding PhD students I will switch roles more deliberately and smoothly.

Top image of post: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay