Becoming a lab head

In this new series, we feature FMI alumni and the diverse careers they have chosen after leaving our institute. We start with Sabine Krabbe who was a postdoc in the Lüthi group for eight years. In 2020, she started her own lab at a leading institute for brain research in Germany. The transition to her current position and her first two years have not been easy, but her team is now on track to investigate how neuronal circuits control learning and decision-making — work that may one day help improve the life of people with Parkinson’s disease.

On a rainy fall morning in 2020, when Sabine Krabbe arrived at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE) in Bonn for her official first working day as a new group leader, she felt slightly uneasy — perhaps even a bit scared. Krabbe would have plenty of reasons to be content, though. What is a faraway dream for many early-career researchers had become reality for her: she had landed a tenure-track position at a leading research institute. She put a small group together consisting of an experienced lab technician and two PhD students. She already ordered equipment, and in addition to the institutional funding, secured grant money for her team. Last but not least, her partner, who is also a researcher and had a lab in Basel, was offered a job at DZNE as well. But her sense of achievement that day was dampened by the feeling that the future would reserve many challenges.

Krabbe didn’t always know that she wanted to do research. While studying Human Biology at the University of Marburg, she became intrigued by the brain thanks to the entertaining lectures of one of her professors, and set out to pursue a PhD in neuroscience. After completing her PhD, she took a year off research to ponder her next career step. Eventually, she decided to do a postdoc, and in 2012 joined the lab of Andreas Lüthi at the FMI. Krabbe was fascinated by the innovative methods used in the lab to measure neuronal activity in freely moving mice. Towards the end of her postdoc, she considered a few options outside academia. "But I realized that I enjoyed doing research too much and I really needed to keep on working on the big research questions that haunt me, for example: How is information stored in our brains, and how do we use previous experience to guide our decisions’," she says.

In 2018, Krabbe started applying for positions as a research group leader and was invited to six in-person interviews. She had to prepare for those interviews while doing experiments for a key paper and going back and forth between the FMI and the Janelia Research Campus in the United States, where she was working on another ambitious project as a visiting scientist. "It was quite stressful, but it was also a very exciting time: I got to travel a lot and met many interesting people," she says. "Funnily enough, some of those one might consider ’competitors’ during the interviews have become friends and colleagues by now."

Krabbe summarizes one of the most helpful pieces of advice she got at that time: "As soon as you know you want to apply for PI positions, start telling people about it, so that they think about you if an opportunity arises." Eventually, she was offered two positions, one at a Max Planck Institute in Munich and one at the DZNE, while having another option pending. She decided to join the DZNE because she had a "slightly better gut feeling," she says. The core facilities and shared resources offered by the Bonn-based institute played a big role in her decision. "The FMI has fantastic core facilities. So, joining an institute with good facilities is something I was actively looking for."

Hard work
Accepting DZNE’s offer was only the very beginning of Krabbe’s journey as a new group leader. Obtaining the necessary authorizations to do experiments with animals turned out to be a lengthy process. A lot of the equipment she ordered during the COVID pandemic took a long time to arrive. And of course, it didn’t help to start her lab in the fall of 2020, right before another massive lockdown in Germany. But one of the biggest challenges was finding a team that could work together well, and identify research questions and approaches that suited individual team members. Krabbe feels a huge responsibility towards her team: she wants to make sure everyone has enough support and funding — completing institutional funding with grants — and students get their degrees in time. "Now it’s not only about me," she says.

For some of these challenges, Krabbe was well prepared: as a postdoc, she attended a course at the FMI modelled on an EMBO lab leadership course. A management training offered by the Helmholtz Leadership Academy was also useful as she started in her new role. "The benefits of meeting other young group leaders with similar struggles in such a course can’t be overstated," she says. It was also very helpful that Krabbe supervised two PhD students in the Lüthi lab and got some practice in handling different personalities. Still, during her first two years at the DZNE, Krabbe had to learn how to navigate the managerial and administrative responsibilities that group leaders must take on.

Krabbe’s hard work is starting to pay off: her team has now "found its rhythm" and set out to conduct the research she envisioned: To understand how neural circuits in the brain integrate internal states — such as anxiety, stress, hunger, thirst — with external cues to guide adequate decisions. Since neuronal degeneration in these circuits has been implicated in Parkinson’s disease (PD), Krabbe is also using mouse models to identify how these circuits change in early stages of PD and thereby contribute to the psychiatric and cognitive symptoms of the disease. "A big motivation is that our studies may one day be useful for my colleagues working in clinical research and improve the life of millions of PD patients," she concludes.

The Lüthi lab in 2013. Sabine Krabbe is sixth from the left.

Sabine Krabbe was born in Soest, Germany. She studied Human Biology and got a PhD in Neuroscience from the University of Marburg. In 2012, she joined the Lüthi group at the FMI as a postdoc and in 2020 she became a tenure-track junior group leader at the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE), an interdisciplinary research institute that is a member of the Helmholtz Association. Krabbe’s partner, Jan Gründemann, is also an FMI alumnus and a group leader at the DZNE. In her spare time, Krabbe likes to explore the nature around Bonn on foot and bake bread. A bonus of living in Bonn is that her family, as well as the stadium of her favorite football team — Borussia Dortmund, are just an hour’s drive away.
> Read more about the Krabbe lab

Krabbe was a speaker at the first FMI Alumni Scientific symposium, which took place on November 28, 2022. Along with three other alumni who became group leaders, she presented her current research to the FMI community. On the following day, the four alumni met with FMI postdocs to talk about academic careers.

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