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Frank Allgöwer: an engineer with wild ideas

At the age of 19, Frank Allgöwer did not have the faintest idea that he would one day be head of the Department of Technical Cybernetics at the University of Stuttgart. There was no way he could have known this, as the high-school graduate had never even heard of the subject. Neither could he have known that the methods developed in this department would one day be used to control robotic arms as well as to analyse biological processes. These days, Prof. Dr. Allgöwer is one of the leading figures in the area of systems biology, which still remains a very young field of research.

Prof. Dr.-Ing. Frank Allgöwer © SimTech, University of Stuttgart

After graduating from high school, Frank Allgöwer was fed up with learning, like many other pupils after 13 years of school. So without further ado, he packed his rucksack and headed off to the USA accompanied by one of his friends. "We planned to stay for a whole year in California," recalls Allgöwer with a smile, adding that they had no intention of just lazing around. Equipped with shovels and other heavy tools, they had decided to follow in the footsteps of the gold diggers of 1849. Allgöwer also planned to go to university after his trip to the USA. "I asked my father to enrol me for mathematics, architecture and law," said Allgöwer explaining that he wanted to take the final decision just before the start of the semester.

 

Allgöwer's father, a civil servant, was worried that he was making a mistake and decided to do a test run under real conditions. He chose a subject with an exotic name of little interest to his son. When Frank Allgöwer returned home on an empty stomach, his father's Christmas present was a letter from the University of Stuttgart accepting him as a technical cybernetics student.


From gold digger to systems biologist

“At the time, I did not have the slightest idea what technical cybernetics was,” said Allgöwer. Due to the lack of alternatives – and the gold digging not having been half as successful as expected – he decided to give it a try and so he started his technical cybernetics course. The study of the structure of regulatory systems, which is what cybernetics is all about, turned out to be a direct hit. He graduated and did his doctorate, and then spent a couple of years in the USA and Switzerland, before, at the age of 37, he was appointed head of the newly created Department for the Systems Theory of Technical Processes in 1999.

“I was working on the development of cybernetic methods which could be used in mechanical engineering, process engineering as well as many other technical areas,” said Allgöwer. Shortly after he had taken up his new post, Professor Dieter Gilles, director of the institute and founder of the technical cybernetics course in Stuttgart, asked to talk to him. Gilles’ recommendation to his former doctoral student led to a complete career change for Allgöwer, setting him on the path towards a completely new area of research – systems biology.

Nature is not often linear

“I eventually accepted Gilles’ proposition just because I wanted to do him a favour. You have to realise that I did not have a biological background,” said Allgöwer. It was not long before he was really enthusiastic about the subject. “I realised very quickly that the combination of systems theoretical methods and biology was very fertile.” In addition, the field was very new. At the time, when Allgöwer started working on the first biological problems, there were just a handful of research groups worldwide dealing with systems biology. “Eight years ago, systems biology was still quite a wild idea,” recalls Allgöwer adding “and today it is an established field of research.”

Systems biologists integrate biological knowledge into mathematical models – the picture shows an investigation into the bistability occurring during apoptosis. © Prof. Allgöwer

Since then, biological topics have become a key part of the research carried out by Allgöwer and his team. Integrated in the Centre for Systems Biology at the University of Stuttgart, the scientist regards himself as an important link between biologists and engineers. Working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers, he develops methods and models for the analysis of non-linear systems, which are far more difficult to describe mathematically than linear systems due to the lack of proportionality. However, Allgöwer knows that “the majority of biological processes are of a non-linear nature.”

One of his current research projects involves the basic mechanisms of programmed cell death (apoptosis). “For example, we want to find out how the tumour necrosis factor (TNF) binds to cancer cells and induces their death,” said Allgöwer. This type of therapy already works well in the mouse model, but the dose required to generate an effect in humans is very high and thus too toxic for the human organism. The systems biologists are now developing models to find ways to bring TNF molecules closer to cancer cells and thereby reduce the concentration required.

USA is attractive and offers fantastic work conditions

In order to achieve his goal, Allgöwer does not shy away from occasionally sitting in lecture halls. During his visiting professorship at the University of California in Santa Barbara, Allgöwer would get up early to attend biology lectures. And during his stay in southern California in 2004, he received the most important telephone call in his life so far. Shortly after midnight local time, the President of the German Research Foundation called to tell him that he was going to be awarded the renowned Leibniz Prize. “At first, I thought he was joking,” said Allgöwer laughing. But when he started receiving the first calls asking for interviews, he was convinced that he was indeed one of the awardees.

Allgöwer’s success has also been noticed on the international level. While he was doing his doctorate, he was invited to come to the USA. “This was an excellent motivation to finish my doctoral thesis,” said Allgöwer who nevertheless rejected the post in Berkeley in order to accept a post at the ETH in Zurich. “I chose Zurich for professional reasons, although my wife would rather have gone to the States. But the next opportunity to go to the USA came last year when he was offered a professorship at the UC Santa Barbara. “I thought about this for a long time. The Californians even offered me an office with a view of the Pacific Ocean, and of course a high salary was also on offer.”

Sustainable research is more important than short-term success

The fact that Allgöwer decided to stay in Stuttgart has something to do with the research location of Germany. “In Germany, we can work over the long term on a specific topic. In the USA, there is a risk that you may have to completely change your field because the funding organisation suddenly loses interest in your current topic,” the engineer says from his own experience. For him, this kind of strategy prevents the sustainable establishment of knowledge, and this was something he did not want.

The Stuttgart students were also happy with Allgöwer’s decision. Two years ago, the committed university lecturer who also enjoys playing the piano, was awarded the Baden-Württemberg Education Award. His aim is to motivate his students, and in order to do this, he occasionally uses psychological tools. The engineer not only develops excellent online modules for private studies, but also attracts students to his lectures with clever learning games or other attractive tricks. “We have just started to show the trailers of the films currently screening at local cinemas in the lecture hall during lecture breaks,” said Allgöwer. It is not just his students who are curious to discover what this inventive engineer has in store for the future.

Further information:
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Frank Allgöwer
Institute for Systems Theory and  Automatic Control
University of Stuttgart
Pfaffenwaldring 9
70550 Stuttgart
Tel.: +49 (0)711 685 67734
Fax: +49 (0)711 685 67735
E-mail: allgower(at)ist.uni-stuttgart.de

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