Blue T-shirt, jeans, sneakers - anyone who sees Prof. Till Ischebeck standing in front of the Institute building at Schlossplatz 8 could easily mistake him for a PhD candidate. That, however, is a career step he took a while ago. Till Ischebeck was recently appointed to a position at the University of Münster: as of September, he is Heisenberg Professor at the Institute of Biology and Biotechnology of Plants. On a sunny September morning he wears a broad smile as he welcomes his visitor - someone who has come to meet him and write an article on him for the University newspaper.
A walk through the Botanical Garden is on the agenda for this purpose - and Ischebeck talks about himself and his research: married, two daughters aged 10 and 14; post-doctorate at the University of Göttingen from 2008-2010, after that a good two years at the University of Vienna - including a few months of parental leave - and then back to Göttingen, where, beginning in January 2016, he headed a team of junior researchers. Those are the outlines of his life - and now he is in Münster.
The appointment to Münster University was a twofold stroke of luck for Ischebeck, who is also a passionate amateur guitarist. For one thing, he grew up in Münster and his parents live here. "It’s great to be back in this city again," he says. "And also, Münster University is one of the biggest centres for plant biotechnology in Germany - with outstanding opportunities for working with people in the Faculty of Biology, as well as in the Faculty of Chemistry and Pharmacy."
He stops in front of the Alpinum in the Botanical Garden. In reply to the question of what he plans to devote himself to in the coming years, he says, "My favourite subject is green biotechnology. What I want to work on, in particular, is finding practical applications for results from basic research." Take oleosomes, for example: these tiny components of plant cells are what Till Ischebeck pays particular attention to. They are natural production centres and act as storage facilities for vegetable oils and other water-insoluble substances, making them practically miniature factories and storage facilities in one. In dandelions, for example, rubber is produced in modified oleosomes - and this has become a focus of public attention as a raw material for bicycle and car tyres produced in an environmentally friendly way. So far, Ischebeck has been doing research above all on thale cress, an unassuming little plant with white flowers which is very often used in work carried out in plant research, enabling basic processes to be well researched. In future, however, he will be extending his research work to include agricultural plants such as camelina (gold-of-pleasure) and tomatoes.
Till Ischebeck is especially interested in the question of whether the oleosomes in plants can be repurposed in such a way that they produce new substances of interest for applications, such as terpenoids - which include for example scents and antibodies in plants and which are precursors to several vitamins. Another research subject concerns the possibilities of using oleosomes to protect crop plants from stress, for example through heat or pests.
The word "biotechnology" crops up frequently in the conversation, and Ischebeck then becomes thoughtful. "The subject is not popular in our society if it concerns the use of biotechnological methods in agriculture," he says. "In the field of medicine, though, biotechnological methods are accepted. What is important now in our research work is that we set the course for the future so that Germany is not left behind as far as green biotechnology is concerned. In other countries all over the world, modern methods like these will soon be used as a matter of course - and in some cases they already have been for a long time now." For example, biotechnological methods could be used in future to produce plant-based raw materials which can be used for manufacturing products that are currently made from oil. Or yields could be increased in an eco-friendly way. "It is also the case that producing interesting substances in plants is cheaper than in a fermenter," says Ischebeck. "But sure, there are also biotechnological approaches which can be viewed critically," he says. So, in his view, the decisive thing should be a critical assessment of every single possible application. "But the focus should be on the product and not on the method used to develop it."
It was a series of chance happenings that led to the 41-year-old Ischebeck ending up in the field of biology. He actually wanted to become a professor of mathematics. "My father was a professor of mathematics at Münster University, and as a child I sometimes accompanied him to his office. In the office there was a couch, which I thought was just great. At that time it was clear to me that I too wanted to become a professor of mathematics - ideally with a splendid couch like that in my office," he says with a laugh. "Maths was my favourite subject at school."
In class 12 he had a new ambition: to study medicine. Then things turned out differently again. In class 13, Ischebeck took part in the selection rounds of the Biology Olympiad, succeeded in qualifying to join the team - and won a silver medal in Sweden. "That was the initial spark," Ischebeck recalls. He studied biochemistry in Berlin, He has remained true to the Biology Olympiad, though - not as a participant but as a mentor. "I’d like to continue to be involved in this competition in the future," he says.
Our walk draws to a close, and the Institute building comes into view again. Till Ischebeck will soon be having to take part, via Zoom, in the defence of a PhD candidate - something left over from his duties in Göttingen. Also, the list of his "inaugural appointments" in Münster is long. He is still supervising three PhD students in Göttingen, with four more to come in Münster soon.
Till Ischebeck seems very happy to be walking in his father’s footsteps. "One thing is clear: being a professor is the best job in the world," he says, adding with a smile: "But I won’t be getting a couch for my office yet. I don’t have enough time at the moment to put my feet up."
This article first appeared in the University newspaper "wissen leben" No. 6, 6 October 2021
The Heisenberg Professorship
The Heisenberg Professorships, funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG), are considered to be particularly prestigious. With this programme, the DFG supports outstanding young scientists over a period of five years. After this, the Heisenberg Professorship is converted to a regular professorship by the university. The pre-condition for a Heisenberg Professorship is an appointment announced by the university.