In the beginning there was biotechnology and now biology doctoral studies. Have your interests changed?
It’s all the same strand of science. I’ve been interested in biology for a long time. And I think it’s perfectly natural what with human curiosity that we’re interested in everything around us – nature and everything else connected with human life. Gradually I learnt that apart from biology, biotechnology also exists and it allows you to use micro-organisms, and they have interested me for a long time, to help people, in the production of medicines, enzymes and other medications we need in our everyday life. Biology has always interested me from the practical point of view, i.e. how people can use it and how it can help people. So biotechnology suited my interests perfectly, hence the studies at the Faculty of Biology. It was in a way an accident, since my MA promotor knew Professor Węgrzyn, with whom I’m now doing my PhD, because the latter had been the reviewer of his doctoral dissertation. He knew what Professor Węgrzyn’s interests were and that they were connected to mine. During my MA, he recommended that I contact him because he knew that I really wanted to do a PhD. I contacted Professor Węgrzyn and it turned out that there was a place and that it covered a very interesting topic that involved a lot of biotechnology. That’s why I decided to study for a PhD at the University of Gdańsk’s Faculty of Biology.
Or isn’t it just that biotechnology is a cross between chemistry and physics only with biological material?
That’s an interesting attitude to take. Why do you say that?
Because you use methods from physics and chemistry.
I’d say that there’s a lot of chemistry there but more of the biochemical. In other words we use loads of chemistry but we’re always working according to the rules of biology. And that’s probably the most important tool in biotechnology – the biological knowledge that we can use later in the specific manipulation of micro-organisms. That’s how it seems to me.
As a physicist by education I will defend the idea that there is knowledge from physics in there as well as a bit of spectroscopy and electophoresis – and that’s pure physics.
Well, of course. All the exact sciences are linked in some way.
And that is exactly the conclusion to reach. Everyone starts swearing when cyanobacteria start to appear in the Bay of Gdańsk, and you’re happy!
Why are you researching the genomes of cyanobacteria?
They are incredibly interesting organisms. In fact they’re some of the oldest organisms known on Earth. And scientists have been fascinated for years about how they have been able to survive in the world basically unchanged, how they’ve managed to cope through years of evolution when everything else was changing. Well, it turns out that these organisms which live in very difficult, often extreme conditions, like the very high temperatures. In the sea environments that I study, we’re talking high salinity, low temperatures and limited amounts of nutrients. And these cyanobacteria have to cope with these conditions. It turns out that sometimes they cope by producing a great number of little particles which they direct against other organisms that are competition or a threat, because they may be predators which live on cyanobacteria. It’s these compounds that I study and look for, as well as trying to use as medication in the treatment, for example, of cancers.
I tried to meet you last Friday but it wasn’t possible. Your excuse was an experiment. What was it?
It was an experiment linked to the compounds we’re isolating from cyanobacteria from the Baltic. From these cyanobacteria we create extracts and we check if they work on cancer cells. If they affect their resilience, in other words, if they kill them, then that could be a potential medicine in the future. As we know, cancer is at the moment one of the main issues in medicine and one of the main causes of death in people all over the world. These natural compounds isolated from different organisms are the largest base of medicines that we are now using in medicine against cancer.
On a completely different subject. How did you infect the whole Department of Molecular Biology with the ‘Szlachetna Paczka’ (Noble Parcel) bug?
It wasn’t easy. When a few girls from the department and I decided to prepare the first parcel for the programme, we had planned to do it alone. It later turned out that doing a parcel for a family of seven isn’t that easy and it got a bit much financially. That’s why we wanted to get lots of people involved so that the parcel would look nice and people could really get some use out of it. So we collared everyone in the corridor and told them what the ‘Szlachetna Paczka’ programme was. For most of them it was the first time they’d heard of it. Eventually it became easier and I managed to get the email addresses of everyone at the Faculty of Biology, and eventually Biotechnology, and I sent out information to both departments that we were doing a parcel. Interest was high and loads of people wanted to help. In the end we managed to create eight parcels for eight families and in this way help over 40 people. This year we did two parcels. One was for a single mother with ten children and it was enormous. As was the satisfaction. Every year we get help from around seventy people from all over the university who we started this action with.
But you don’t only help in this way. Could you tell us something about the ‘fisherman philosophy’?
After the ‘Szlachetna Paczka’, I got involved in another project of the ‘Stowarzyszenie Wiosna’ (Spring Association). I’m co-founding a project called ‘Akademia Przyszłości’ (Academy of the Future), where we help young people who have lost faith in themselves, and who people have basically lost faith in, to show them that they are as valuable as individuals as anyone else, that they are of great value and that they can cope with life like any other child. One of the methods we use to help them is the ‘fisherman philosophy’ approach. What that means is that we don’t want to give them a rod, we don’t want to give them fish, but we want to shape them so that they can manage in life by themselves. That’s the ‘fisherman philosophy’. We don’t want to give them help or relief but rather allow them to believe that they can cope in life and that they have many wonderful qualities that will help them to succeed in life every day. That helps them later when it comes to coping in school, and outside school as well – at home and in everyday life.
You take pride in the fact that you love baking. Tell us about the most original cake you ever baked.
I often bake cakes to order from friends and family. Last year my sister celebrated her eighteenth birthday. For the occasion she wanted me to bake her a rainbow cake. I used a range of food dyes to bake eight different sponge cakes with layers of coconut cream and almonds. It was a very good cake and it looked beautiful.
Thank you for very much the conversation.
Gdańsk, 24 February 2016
Interview: Dr Tadeusz Zaleski
Photo: Piotr Pędziszewski