An expert in tiny medical helpers

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 Simone Schürle has just started a position as an assistant  at ETH Zurich. (Pho

Simone Schürle has just started a position as an assistant at ETH Zurich. (Photograph: ETH Zurich / Peter Rüegg)

Simone Schürle likes to get to the bottom of things. Since August, the microand nanotechnology expert has been working as Assistant Professor of Responsive Biomedical Systems at ETH Zurich to develop tiny machines for medical applications in the human body.

It is early morning on Simone Schürle’s last day working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, USA. The very next day she will depart to Europe to take up a position as Tenure Track Assistant Professor of Responsive Biomedical Systems at ETH Zurich for the Autumn Semester. Before the interview, which we conduct over Skype, she launched a final experiment. ‘That’s typical for me,’ she says, smiling into her laptop camera. ‘I always work right up to the last minute.’

Her work is her passion

What she calls work is more accurately her passion. Her enthusiasm for her research shines through in every sentence. For an hour, the 32-year-old describes her journey from a young tech enthusiast to an expert in medical tools on an unimaginably small scale. She was as little distracted on that journey as she is during our Skype interview; the interruptions from other scientists entering the room never cause her to lose the thread of conversation. She takes up the narrative without hesitation again and again.

Her research is her world, and one which she gladly invites others into. This is why she is very much looking forward to becoming a professor at the Department of Health Sciences and Technology (D-HEST) and explaining to students the design and manufacture of the smallest diagnostic and therapeutic systems. These systems may be able to, for example, convey active substances precisely to diseased parts of the body or detect diseases earlier.

She has already taught students as assistant during her master studies, as well as during her time as postdoctoral fellow at MIT. Preparing lectures for children, like she did for Scientifica at ETH Zurich, is a particular joy and responsibility for her. ‘It is important to get children excited about science as early as possible - both boys and girls. There shouldn’t be made any difference,’ she says.

Closer to her family in Europe

Another advantage of her move back to Europe is that she will be closer to her family and her fiancé, who is working in Berlin. The couple met while studying in Karlsruhe, and he is also interested in medical topics. ‘He is currently working in the field of telemedicine for cancer patients,’ explains Schürle.

Schürle had no medical or technical role models in her family. ‘As a child, I already built cars for my dolls. Later, to my family’s astonishment, I chose maths and physics as my special subjects at secondary school,’ says Schürle, who grew up in Ulm, Germany. At the age of 18, she began studying at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), where she had to prove herself against a cohort strongly dominated by males. ‘Unfortunately, women are still often perceived as less capable,’ she says. Schürle has repeatedly encountered this misjudgement in male-dominated subjects such as mechanical engineering and engineering sciences. ‘I wish it would not be an issue aymore,’ she says, ‘but as a woman you have to stand up to more obstacles, although I did also have mentors who encouraged women.’

Using robots in human tissue

One of those mentors was Professor Volker Saile, who supervised her thesis at KIT. He noticed her strength in microsystems technology and encouraged her to pursue a research project in Japan in 2008, at the Nano/Micro System Laboratory in Kyoto. In nanotechnology, Schürle found the scientific depth she was looking for. From 2009 to 2014, she worked as a doctoral student at the Multi Scale Robotics Laboratory in ETH Zurich’s Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering and, among other activities, was involved in the development and control of nanoand micro-robots in ETH Professor Bradley Nelson’s team.

In the US, she then tackled the question of how such robots can move and orient themselves in human body and how they can help drugs to reach more specifically and deeper into unhealthy tissue. For example, the lower pH value and solidity of tumour tissue are indicators that the tiny robots can use to orient themselves on their journey through the body, in order to bring active substances to the right place. ‘After learning the foundations of engineering, I wanted to know more about biology and physiology so that I could make better decisions about medical system designs. The fluid dynamics of the human body are fascinating and there is still much to learn about how to stage effective and minimally invasive therapeutic interventions under such complex conditions.’

Filling these gaps in our knowledge is a challenge she is happy to take on. Her life to date has proven that she has the necessary perseverance. It’s not surprising that she likes to take on endurance sports in her spare time, including hiking in new terrain, often on her own. This year, she walked along a wild, unrestored part of the Great Wall of China - a meditative experience for her. And next, she is looking forward to returning to the Swiss Alps.

Exploring the basic principles of life

Schürle describes her professional motivation as: ‘I always wanted to explore the basic principles of life.’ For this, the natural sciences alone were not enough. Her models are the great thinkers of antiquity, who combined mathematics with philosophy. She is also very concerned with philosophical questions regarding the management of knowledge. Since 2016, she has been a fellow at the World Economic Forum’s Council for Human Enhancement. ‘For me, it’s about taking responsibility for the overall outcomes of science,’ she says, adding that scientists should not leave their field of research without considering what meaning their research, in conjunction with the results of other researchers, has for society.

Institute of Translational Medicine

Simone Schürle was appointed as a Tenure Track Assistant Professor at ETH Zurich and will now lead one of five groups at the newly created Institute of Translational Medicine. The institute was formally founded on 1 January 2017 and has been operational since this summer. The first head of the institute is Viola Vogel, Professor of Applied Mechanobiology. The other members are the professors Collin Ewald, Jörg Goldhahn and Michael Ristow. Their expertise covers a broad spectrum of medical research, from biomechanics and energy metabolism to biomedical micro and nanorobotics. One of the institute’s goals is to introduce scientific knowledge into clinics as quickly as possible.