Meet the preLighters: an interview with Kristina Kuhbandner

5 July 2021

Kristina Kuhbandner is a postdoctoral researcher at UT Southwestern Medical Center, where she researches gene therapy strategies for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. She has been part of the preLights community for almost a year and has been a very active contributor in that time, posting many preLights related to neuroscience and offering frequent, constructive feedback to other preLighters. We spoke to Kristina to learn more about her research and talk about her passion for science communication.

Back to the start! What inspired your interest in science and why did you pursue it as a degree at university?

I think I was always interested in biology, and I was particularly fascinated by the human body. I was really curious to learn more about how everything works together and what all the different organs do. I had so many questions I wanted the answer to, so I decided to pursue molecular medicine as an undergraduate degree in my hometown of Erlangen.

After your undergraduate degree you pursued a PhD in neuroscience. What were your main research questions and why did you want to focus on them?

I did my PhD in a neuroimmunology lab, supervised jointly by Prof. Dr. Ralf Linker (University Hospital Regensburg) and Prof. Dr. Jürgen Winkler (University Hospital Erlangen), which was a good choice for me. I couldn’t decide which direction I wanted my research focus to go in, so in this project I could combine both immunology and neurobiology. That covered a lot of my interests!

The lab I did my PhD in focused on using models of multiple sclerosis to study neuroinflammation. I was particularly interested in the role of mucosal addressin cell adhesion molecule 1 (MAdCAM-1) in neuroinflammation, which is an adhesion molecule that is expressed in the endothelial cells in the gut and is also involved in shaping the immune system of the gut. What’s interesting about this is that there appears to be a connection between the gut immune system and inflammation in the central nervous system. So, by making knockout mouse models of MAdCAM-1, we found that these mice had less severe neuroinflammation and were also less susceptible to multiple sclerosis-like disease. We could show that this hypothesis appears to be true and that the gut immune system plays a role in neuroinflammatory processes.

After your PhD you moved to UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas for a postdoctoral position with Joachim Herz, M.D. What does your postdoctoral research focus on?

Now I’m working on another very devastating neurological disease called amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. I’m researching gene therapy approaches in preclinical animal models, which ties into my initial interest in molecular medicine and gives me the opportunity to do the background science and research that might eventually help in the clinic. The lab is also connected to the hospital, which I hope could lead to collaborations at future stages of the project, too.

How did you find the move from PhD to postdoc? Did you notice a big change in academic culture between Europe and the US?

I do think the US is quite different from Europe –of course I can only speak for Germany, and the PhD and research culture is probably also quite different between European countries – but the funding and school system in the US is really different from what I experienced. Having said that, the transition was not very difficult for me. My PI here in Texas is also from Germany, and he’s very supportive, as are all my colleagues. Working in the lab is not so different and I’m not involved in teaching at the moment so I don’t have to adapt to that. Plus, there are a lot of international postdocs working at the university, which is great. I like the mix of cultures and learning about other people’s home countries.

Moving from research to preprinting – what made you want to get involved with preLights?

I learnt about preLights from my colleague Theresa Pohlkamp, who was also involved in preLights. She knew I was interested in science writing and editing, and as soon as she introduced me to preLights I liked the concept and thought that getting involved would be a good opportunity to do more science writing. In general, I really like the idea of preprinting too – sharing your data and encouraging communication between scientists is so important.

Do you get a positive response from authors when you get in touch with them about their preprints?

Yes, I really like getting in contact with the authors to ask them questions about their work. I think it’s a really good opportunity to make connections and reach out to people that you might not have spoken with if it weren’t for writing a preLights post.

You often offer helpful comments and feedback on other preLights posts before they go online. What motivates you to do this?

I think it’s both the fact I enjoy reading about research in different fields, and that I really like reading and editing! I like to get comments on my own writing and think it helps me a lot, so I’m always happy when other people provide me with feedback and I want to give that back. In addition, I read a lot of work coming from different fields – so maybe I’d read the preprint anyway, but I’m happy to read the preLights summary in the virtual editing room as a way of helping others.

Given your interest in science writing, is science communication something you’d like to focus on in the future?

I think I’d like to go in the science communication direction in the future, and I’m trying to gain more skills and experience in that area. A role in science writing or editing would be great, and ties into the writing and feedback I try and provide for preLights.

And to finish – what’s something surprising about you?

Given that I’m a preLighter and really enjoy writing, it might be surprising to learn that in middle school I was quite a bad English student. I didn’t like reading or writing, but then overnight it completely switched, and I became a good student! I don’t know what caused it, but I started to enjoy reading and writing. I hope that might give encouragement other people who don’t love writing – I went from being a bad student to a really passionate writer!