Getting to the bottom of bacteria

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(Photograph: Annick Ramp )
(Photograph: Annick Ramp )
Gregor Weiss is fascinated by the inner workings of our cells and is driven by the hope of finding a non-antibiotic therapy for urinary tract infections.

Urinary tract infections often require antibiotic treatment. Could your research change that?
That’s my ultimate dream. But before we can start developing new therapies, we need to understand how pathogenic bacteria can lodge in our bladder cells and cause recurring urinary tract infections. In my research, I explore the strategies bacteria adopt to evade our immune system and resist antibiotic drugs.

One of the methods you use is electron cryotomography. What makes that approach so fascinating?
Cryo-ET allows us to see the tiniest details inside cells, such as proteins. Sitting in front of a microscope and knowing you might discover something nobody has ever seen quite that way before makes you realise just how complex - and how marvellously functional - our cells are.

What was so special about your collaboration with the children’s hospital in Zurich?
Working with patient samples is incredibly exciting for a biologist, but it also poses some challenges. Every sample is different, and unfortunately they behave differently to samples in a test tube! It’s tremendously motivating to know that behind each sample is a sick person who we might one day be able to help.

You’ve already achieved a lot in your work. Are you equally ambitious in your private life?
The second great passion in my life is biking and skiing in the mountains. But it’s not about setting some kind of personal best. I simply like the feeling of being in nature with my friends. It’s a great contrast to my work in the lab, and I can’t think of a better place to combine those two things than at ETH in Zurich!

It’s been a decade or so since you worked as a research assistant at Caltech in California. What lessons did you learn there?
In the US, and particularly at Caltech, there was an incredibly open-minded research community that introduced me to all sorts of new opportunities and laid the foundations for the work I do today. As a young researcher, it was tremendously inspiring to work there and to be accepted so readily as part of the team. That feeling of openness and trust is something I try to pass on to my own students.