"Biology and evolution give the most satisfying explanations for the surprising phenomena of the world"
Prof. Anne von Philipsborn joined the University of Fribourg early in 2022. She shares what brought her to Fribourg, her research focus and how she approaches teaching. Interview.
What lead you to choose our University for your laboratory/research?
"When I saw my current position advertised, I did not know Fribourg. I got curious, because Switzerland in general was very attractive to me, due to the high quality of its universities and the strong scientific communities in neurobiology and Drosophila research. Fribourg is big enough to have an interesting diversity and good synergy of scientific expertise, and small enough for a genuine collegial atmosphere and efficient local collaboration. I appreciate that the Section of Medicine is well connected to other departments in Science and Technology.
Personally, I love to be back close to the mountains and under a more southern sun after living for more than seven years in Denmark. The bilingual environment makes Fribourg a charming and lively place – I can send my daughter to German school and refresh my almost forgotten French."
Tell us about your research. What is your research focus and what are your objectives?
"In general, I am interested in how the nervous system controls and coordinates behavior. This question can be asked on different levels, depending on how much one zooms into the complex networks and the organizational scales of the brain. In the model organism of our lab, the fruit fly Drosophila, we can manipulate genes and nerve cells with great precision, and map the neuronal circuits from sensory input to motor output. We are mainly investigating reproductive behavior. Reproductive behavior is fascinating, because it is so important for every animal, and a big driving force in evolution. Males and females show differences, they have to communicate and coordinate during courtship and mating, and choose their partner very carefully, depending on the sensory information they receive and their own physiological state. In all of this, their nervous system plays an important role. We are interested in how the nervous system fulfills this role and how it interacts with the reproductive organs and the rest of the body during the different mating strategies of the two sexes."
Why did you choose your field as a career?
"I always liked animals and their diverse behaviors. For me, biology and evolution give the most satisfying explanations for the surprising phenomena of the world and for the unique characteristics of humans and all other life forms we rely on and interact with.
After school, my other interest was literature and philosophy. However, I decided for studies in which I could also work with my hands and get technical expertise, learn how to perform experiments and potentially contribute to scientific progress."
Do you remember your first experiment?
"My experiments in childhood were rather of a chemical nature. I remember that I mixed different household cleaners, vinegar, crushed plants, ink and other things in order to create something toxic. I even climbed into the public glass dumpster to secure rare trace ingredients. One of my potions dissolved small pieces of aluminum foil – what excitement and pure sense of achievement! Before I could further test its toxicity, my mother discovered and dismantled the secret lab in the wardrobe drawer."
What is your teaching philosophy? What message do you want to convey to students?
"People often say that you only really understand something when you are able to teach it to others. Since I am passionate about basic research and all we know in Biology and Medicine stems from basic research, I try to teach with research in mind, according to the Humboltian model of higher education. In Fribourg, I now teach pre-clinical medical students. This is new to me. Compared to biologists, medical students have to learn many more things by heart and focus on their challenging curriculum. Still, I hope I not only explain what they need to remember to them properly, but also show them a bit how exciting it is to follow new developments in research. Curiosity and critical thinking will make them better doctors. Ideally, students should feel enriched by education and knowledge. Once gained, it can never be taken away. I might not always have felt like that when I studied myself. However, today, I certainly consider myself privileged to understand what goes on in the scientific world and to be part of its international community."