Systems biology starts where traditional biology ends. Using mathematical analyses, systems biology simulates dynamic processes inside living cells. “What happens when….,” is a question that researchers are looking to answer in future using such models. As junior professor of “systems theory in systems biology” at the University of Stuttgart, it is Nicole Radde’s task to establish this field of research at the university. The 32-year-old is hugely committed to her work as well as having a great deal of scientific curiosity.
As a child, Nicole Radde wanted to become a ballet dancer or a stunt woman. “I loved everything spectacular,” recalled Nicole Radde who could never have imagined sitting behind a university desk when she grew up. The work of a university researcher might, at first sight, appear less spectacular than jumping out of a moving car. But a closer look at her present work soon makes it clear that her work is actually quite spectacular: she uses the insights gained in classical biology, combines them with the factor “time” and simulates processes in the cells of living organisms. To achieve this, she uses mathematical tools. This is just a simplified explanation of the complex and relatively young and dynamic field of research in which Nicole Radde works.
Nicole Radde has been junior professor of systems theory in systems biology at the University of Stuttgart since 2008. Her appointment was part of the “Simulation Technology” (SimTech) excellence cluster, which brings together three professors, 13 junior professors, seven post doctoral and 70 doctoral students. The scientists are hoping to achieve significant progress in modelling and simulation technology. They hope to develop new methods to generate reliable, accurate and clear predictions, both for processes in the human body as well as for production processes in factories. Although Radde is part of the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, she does not work with technical processes as such. She is more interested in cybernetics, a sub-field of mechanical engineering. Radde explains: “For me, cybernetics is a term that combines systems theory and control engineering. The point of departure is technical systems, such as robots, cars or machines and the ways in which they can be effectively controlled. The idea can then be transferred to biology.” In other words, to Radde’s special area of systems biology.
Nicole Radde is a physicist who did her initial mathematics and physics studies in Darmstadt with the objective of becoming a teacher. Now she is aiming at the borders of research areas where she hopes to establish an own field in the quantitative analysis of cellular networks.” She explains why she eventually changed from physics to biology: “I was more interested in the application of results, in seeing that what I was doing had some effect and I also wanted to work with people who produce experimental data.” A doctoral position at the University of Cologne offered her just the opportunity she was seeking. “I think biology is still an up-and-coming field, where new measurement methods have been developed and where some classical approaches reach their limits.” And it is at the point of these limits where she wants to bring in systems biology: “It is not possible to analyse complex systems by simply breaking them down and investigating the individual parts, because things need to work together in order to work effectively. They need to be analysed mathematically,” said Radde explaining that it is known from classical biology that, for example, protein A modifies protein B, but that no details are known about the kinetics of this process – information about the temporal course is missing.
Nicole Radde’s modeling of intracellular systems can range from the interactions between proteins, the regulation of gene expression through transcription factors, to transport, signalling and secretion pathways. During her doctoral thesis in Cologne, as well as during her post-doctoral period at the University of Leipzig, Nicole Radde investigated the joint regulation of a group of genes in Escherichia coli, for example. Another topic focused on the nitrogen uptake of corynebacteria in dependence from different nitrogen concentrations in the bacteria’s environment. Another project focused on the reaction of tuberculosis-causing mycobacteria when DNA damages occur, for example as a result of UV radiation or drugs. “We wanted to find ways to attack these dangerous bacteria,” said Radde. One of her current research projects focuses on the regulation mechanisms of proteins that are transported out of the cell, in order to function as secondary messengers of antibodies.
“Understanding cellular processes on the molecular level, allows me to intervene specifically,” said Radde who is simulating cellular processes in order to be able to come up with excellent predictions. However, the science of systems biology also has its limits. The junior professor explains: “There are many unknown parameters, because some measurements can only be carried out with difficulty or are extremely expensive. In addition, cells are an open and complex system that maintain a constant exchange with their environment. This makes it difficult to come up with reliable predictions.” Nicole Radde explains that the possibility of identifying model parameters is an own area of research, and one that is close to Radde’s heart.
In her new position as junior professor, Nicole Radde cannot exclusively focus on research. She is required to publish numerous papers in prestigious journals, be active in university affairs, establish her own research group and her own field of science for which she will be evaluated by a group of professors and external reviewers in about three years’ time. She is also required to receive excellent assessments from her students. Only then will she have the possibility of taking on one of four full-time professorships for which the 13 junior professors can apply. “The decision is made in a kind of competition,” says Radde who gives no visible sign of being under pressure. “Initially, I would like to focus on a university career,” said Radde who can well envisage remaining in Stuttgart because the “area is just beautiful”.
The fact that she has had to compete exclusively with men in her professional career is something that she does not even mention, nor does she refer to the fact that she applied for her current junior professorship and was selected. She explains: “I think that I fit in quite well here. I have already undertaken cooperative work, I have established a special research interest and I was very interested in this position. The fact I was successful indicates that I prepared my application quite well, which is a positive thing,” explains Nicole Radde, modest but decisive at the same time.
Nicole Radde Junior professor of "Systems Theory in Systems Biology"Institute for Systems Theory and Automatic ControlUniversity of StuttgartPfaffenwaldring 9 70550 StuttgartTel.: +49 711 685 677 29E-mail: nicole.radde[at]ist.uni-stuttgart.de