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MWP network opens doors - interview with Nora Kory

MWP alum­na Nora Kory stud­ied bio­chem­istry at LMU Mu­nich and spent nine months at the Whitehead Insti­tute for Bio­medi­cal Re­search/Massachu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nolo­gy (MIT) for her mas­ter's thesis. To­day, the 38-ye­ar-old heads her own inde­pen­dent re­search group at the Har­vard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and en­courages young re­searchers to try new things and be cou­ra­geous.

Ms. Kory, you are an Assistant Professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. What research questions are you currently working on?

I am cur­rently work­ing on find­ing out how mito­chon­dria, the power plants and meta­bolic spac­es of our cells, ex­change meta­bolic prod­ucts and en­zy­matic co-fac­tors with the rest of the cell. Mito­chon­dria play an im­portant role in cen­tral bio­logi­cal pro­cess­es. In order to fulfill their di­verse func­tions, mito­chon­dria con­stant­ly ex­change mole­cules with the rest of the cell. This ex­change takes place via transport pro­teins in the inner mito­chon­drial mem­brane. We want to un­der­stand exact­ly how these pro­cesses take place at the mo­lecu­lar level. We are also inves­tigat­ing the role that transport pro­cesses in mito­chon­dria play in age­ing pro­cesses and in dis­eases such as diabe­tes, can­cer and neu­ro­de­gen­era­tive dis­eases.

You work at a university facility named after you, the "Kory Lab". What is behind it and who do you work with there?

I lead an inde­pen­dent re­search group at the Har­vard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Our group con­sists of post­doc­toral and re­search asso­ciates, PhD can­di­dates, and stu­dents from around the world. My lab is part of a de­part­ment at the Har­vard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that fo­cuses on meta­bolic pro­cesses at the mo­lecu­lar level and their con­trol in age­ing-related dis­eases. Therefore, we also col­la­borate a lot with other groups in our de­part­ment and other insti­tutes at Har­vard and MIT. The re­search focus of our lab is evolv­ing in the direc­tion where my team and I see the op­por­tunity to con­trib­ute new knowledge.

You come from Heidelberg and studied molecular biology at LMU Munich. What academic path or what decisions led you to the USA?

As I be­came par­ticu­larly inter­ested in the regu­lation of meta­bolic pro­cesses at the cell bio­logi­cal level dur­ing my stud­ies at LMU Mu­nich, and the Gene Cen­ter at LMU was main­ly spe­cial­ized in struc­tural biolo­gy at the time, I sought re­search expe­rience out­side the uni­versi­ty early on, for ex­ample at ETH Zur­ich and the Max Planck In­stitute of Bio­chem­istry in Mar­tinsried. I first ven­tured to the USA for my Mas­ter's thesis. There I had the op­por­tunity to work for nine months in a world-leading la­bora­tory at the Whitehead Insti­tute/MIT. Ulti­mate­ly, I was at­tract­ed by the way fun­damental ques­tions are asked in re­search here and new meth­ods are de­veloped and ap­plied to an­swer them. That's why I de­cided to do my PhD and post­doc on the East Coast. When I ap­plied for pro­fes­sor­ships and inde­pen­dent group leader posi­tions, I saw a ten­ure track posi­tion in Bos­ton as a unique op­por­tunity not only to build up my re­search pro­gram, but also to de­velop it in new direc­tions in the long term.

Looking back, what role did the Max Weber Program play on this path?

The Max We­ber Pro­gram has given me the op­por­tunity to inter­act with other stu­dents pursu­ing simi­lar goals and to con­nect with men­tors who have guid­ed me along the way. This net­work has opened doors for other schol­ar­ships and re­search op­por­tuni­ties.

Today you work as a professor at Harvard. Would you say that this is a dream come true for you?

When I start­ed my stud­ies, I cer­tainly would never have dreamed of one day work­ing as a pro­fessor at Har­vard. When it be­came clear to me to­wards the end of my PhD that it would be a dream for me to lead an inde­pen­dent re­search group, that was my main moti­vation to do a post­doc and also to stay in the USA. The feel­ing of walk­ing into my lab for the first time and seeing a whole team work­ing on my ideas is inde­scrib­able. I am grate­ful to be able to work with col­leagues from all over the world who are en­thusi­astic about our re­search ques­tions. It's great how often you come into con­tact with other re­searchers who have dis­cov­ered fun­damental corre­la­tions and on whose work entire fields of re­search are based.

You started out as a doctoral student and postdoc in the USA. You now work there yourself with junior researchers. Would MWP scholarship holders have the opportunity to apply to you?

The expe­rience I gained here as a Mas­ter's stu­dent has shaped me in the long term and my team and I are happy to pass on our knowledge and en­thusi­asm for basic re­search into the role of cellu­lar orga­nelles in me­tabo­lism and how changes in them lead to dis­eases. We have inter­esting re­search pro­jects that moti­vated stu­dents can work on. This works best in the con­text of a stay of at least five or six months, so that there is suffi­cient time to famil­iarize your­self with the labor­atory and hope­fully con­trib­ute to a pub­lica­tion. Inter­ested schol­arship hold­ers are wel­come to apply to us - moti­va­tion, previ­ous re­search expe­rience, per­sonal initia­tive and grades are as­pects that we take into ac­count.

What recommendation would you give young people today for a career in science - whether in Germany or the USA?

Invest in your train­ing and take ad­van­tage of the op­por­tuni­ties that are of­fered to you. Ex­pose your­self to new expe­rienc­es and chal­lenge your­self. Go to a la­bora­tory where you will learn to ask fun­damental re­search ques­tions, think inde­pen­dently and ques­tion tradi­tional as­sump­tions and con­texts. Dare to try out new things, for ex­ample exper­iments, and make mis­takes - these often lead to new and unex­pec­ted find­ings.

Text: Svenja Üing, Max We­ber Program