Introducing...Ben Schumann

Meet Ben Schumann, a new group leader using carbohydrate chemistry to study how diseases form and develop. 

Tell us a bit about your work so far.

I am originally from a family of doctors but I’ve always been more interested in finding out how and why things work. I want to understand the mechanistic details of problems and that led me to study biochemistry at university rather than medicine.

It was quite a chemistry-focused course in Tübingen and I think I was one of the few people who was actually interested in the chemistry and didn’t just see it as something that you had to sit through to work on biology. 

I did my PhD in the carbohydrate chemistry group run by Peter Seeberger in Berlin, working on synthesising carbohydrate molecules called glycans for use in vaccines. I really liked learning principles from chemistry and then applying them to biological situations.

After my PhD, I knew that I specifically wanted to work in chemical biology and find ways to probe biological systems using chemical tools. I took up a postdoctoral position at Stanford with Carolyn Bertozzi, the ‘rock star’ of chemical biology, creating a synthetic tool to investigate how glycans function in biological settings.

What prompted your move to the Crick?

Working at Stanford, there are experts around every corner. It’s a really open environment where you can knock on people’s doors and set up collaborations with world-leading scientists. 

I knew that I wanted to find somewhere with a similar atmosphere to start my first group and there just aren’t many places like that in Europe. That’s why I was drawn to the Crick.

I also have an affiliation with Imperial which links me and my group to world-class chemistry and glycobiology. It's the perfect combination!

Working on these glycan tools means that we can collaborate with any biologist who’s interested in glycobiology – which is every biologist, even if they don’t know it yet!

What are you most excited about?

It’s definitely the freedom at the Crick to answer risky, important questions. Alongside the ‘bread and butter’ research that I’ll be doing every day, I will be able to spend time focusing on some big challenges. I can’t predict what will be happening in biology in the next five years but I know that I’ll be in the position to make the most of all the new advances.

I’m also looking forward to seeing the members of my group succeeding. If a student has a successful result, I’m usually just as excited as they are. I’ve had to overcome enough challenges in research that I’m in a position now where I can offer some perspective. I’m looking forward to supporting my group members when things go wrong and helping them to steer their projects.

What are you hoping to achieve while you’re here?

We have great quantitative biology methods now like genome editing and mass spectroscopy and they’re only getting better. But the most advanced techniques aren’t designed to study glycans and they’re not precise enough. I’m hoping to create tools which show how glycans move and develop on the surface of cells, and make the most of the biological tools that we have at our disposal. 

Working on these glycan tools means that we can collaborate with any biologist who’s interested in glycobiology – which is every biologist, even if they don’t know it yet!

How have you found setting up your lab?

It has been a totally new experience but I’ve enjoyed it. I’ve found it really helpful to look for undergraduate and master’s students and laboratory research scientists initially. It has given me a chance to see what kind of culture I want to have in my lab going forward and what kind of expertise we’ll be looking for now that I’m hiring PhD students and postdocs.

What challenges have come up so far?

It has taken me some time to get used to balancing a joint appointment at two institutions. Everyone at Imperial and the Crick has been really helpful but balancing the two commitments is and will be challenging, especially when it’s your first group.

The connection with Louise Walport, another new group leader who also has a joint appointment at the Crick and Imperial, has been really helpful. It has been good to know someone who’s in the same position and has the same questions.

I also benefit from two great mentors, Ed Tate at Imperial and Neil McDonald at the Crick. You get the sense that everyone at both institutions is trying to help you succeed. It’s a good feeling.

What job would you be doing in an alternate universe?

The only other job that I’ve ever considered is playing the trumpet! I played in a few bands during my undergraduate degree but I think it might be better to keep it as a hobby.

It works as a nice break from research and it helps me to go back to an experiment with a fresh perspective.

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