On a beautiful spring day such at ETH Hönggerberg, we sit outside at the café to talk. Rebekka Wild seems very relaxed, as if she had nothing more important to do than enjoy the sun. However, appearances are deceptive: she works pretty much 150 per cent of a normal working day, reads specialist literature in the evenings - and yes, sometimes even a book.
In conversation with this young woman who chooses her words carefully, it is only gradually possible to sense the passion and determination with which Rebekka Wild pursues her life's goal. The desire to become a researcher first emerged during her schooldays. She ended up studying proteins more or less "by ruling everything else out", after various internships, one of which was in a hospital. She explains the continuing fascination of structural biology by the fact that you can "really see something" at a fundamental level. And that the structures allow conclusions to be drawn about how biological processes work in detail. She closes with a smile: "I just like to look at protein structures."
Luckily for Wild, there is still a lot to be looked at and explained. Her still-young career has already followed a somewhat zigzag path. In her doctoral thesis at the University of Geneva, which was awarded the Prix Schläfli, she showed - in close cooperation with plant biologists - how the amount of phosphate in cells is regulated. Specifically, she has elucidated the structure of what is known as the SPX domain, which appears in various proteins (enzymes, transport or signalling proteins) and interacts with a phosphate-specific signalling molecule. Recently, she has been working intensively at ETH Zurich on the enzyme that attaches sugar chains to proteins. In other words, a completely different department of the big biochemical cell factory.
And so she familiarised herself with a completely new biochemical field, read and studied, let herself be swept away by the flood of research results. Of course, you can't read every paper. But that doesn't cause her any anxiety or feeling of being overwhelmed: "I think of it more positively: you know you'll always find the information you need."
More than mere success and the competition to publish
Yes, the complexity of the field is becoming ever greater, but it can also be mastered, with computers becoming increasingly important. She is convinced that human researchers will still be needed in the future. She sees herself leading a "contented, happy" group in 30 years' time. So it's really about more than mere success and the competition to publish ever more, ever faster. It would also be nice if the gender ratio in this group were more balanced than it is today, especially at higher levels of the career ladder. She wishes "that it would no longer matter whether you are pursuing a research career as a woman or as a man". She knows the structures still stand in the way of that. "Politics should perhaps do more there," Wild suggests.
The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) has awarded the Prix Schläfli 2019 to the four most important insights gained by young researchers at Swiss universities. Rebekka Wild has been awarded by the Prix Schläfli "Biology" 2019 for her findings on the structure and function of a unit in biological cells that contributes to regulating phosphate concentration.Image: Rossitza Irobalieva
Controlling the amount of phosphate in cells, the processes involved in catalysts, land use in Madagascar and a paradox of quantum physics – these are the topics for which the Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) has awarded the Prix Schläfli 2019 to the four most important insights gained by young researchers at Swiss universities. Murielle Delley (Chemistry), Matteo Fadel (Physics), Rebekka Wild (Biology) and Julie Zähringer (Geosciences) receive the prize for the findings arrived at in their dissertations. For the first time, six of the candidates for the Prix Schläfli in Physics were also selected to participate in the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting.Image: SCNAT