TUM San Francisco: From Munich to San Diego – Matthias Pauthner develops strategies to combat HIV

TUM San Francisco |

Alumni Experience Stories: HIV Research at Scripps. Matthias Pauthner started his academic career at the Technical University of Munich by obtaining a Bachelor of Science degree in ‘Molecular Biotechnology’. As part of the TUMexchange program, he completed a 1-year Master of Science program at the Georgia Institute of Technology. During a 3-month-internship in the Burton lab at Scripps, the scale and relevance of developing antibody-based vaccination strategies to combat HIV ultimately led him to transfer permanently to the lab. He is currently a PhD candidate in the 4th year of his program.

[Translate to en:] Matthias Pauthner ist einer von über 480 registrierten TUM Alumni, die in den USA leben. (Bild: Jean Branan, TSRI)
[Translate to en:] Matthias Pauthner ist einer von über 480 registrierten TUM Alumni, die in den USA leben. (Bild: Jean Branan, TSRI)
[Translate to en:] Matthias Pauthner pipettiert HIV DNA aus einem Eppendorf Reaktionsgefäß im Burton Labor. (Bild: Westley Dang, TSRI)
[Translate to en:] Matthias Pauthner pipettiert HIV DNA aus einem Eppendorf Reaktionsgefäß im Burton Labor. (Bild: Westley Dang, TSRI)

Why is developing a vaccine for HIV so difficult?

The biggest challenge in fighting HIV is the extraordinarily high mutation rate of the virus, which continuously alters the three-dimensional shape of key virus proteins. One of these proteins, Envelope, is the exposed surface protein that the virus uses to bind and subsequently infect cells of the immune system. A majority of vaccines work by mimicking the three-dimensional shape of viral or bacterial compounds so that, in response, the immune system can create protective antibody proteins, which are complementary in shape and fit with high specificity to their target – like a key into a lock. As you can imagine, this is very hard to accomplish for a ‘moving’ target like HIV that constantly changes in shape; specific antibodies quickly lose their ability to bind once the virus mutates.

What is your research at Scripps about?

Our lab works on creating and testing vaccine candidates for HIV. What our lab and others found, however, is that there are certain regions of the HIV Envelope protein that the virus cannot change without losing its vital ability to infect cells. A small percentage of people infected with HIV naturally develop antibodies that bind to these ‘fixed’ or conserved regions and, as a consequence, can bind and neutralize up to 99% of known HIV isolates. In the Burton lab we are trying to learn from these particular antibodies, dubbed ‘broadly neutralizing antibodies’, to create a vaccine capable of protecting people around the globe from diverse strains of the HI virus.

How would you describe studying at TUM?

Studying at TUM was a fantastic experience. The class of 2009 in Molecular Biotechnology, combined with the closely intertwined Biochemistry class, was only ~100 students strong, which created a collegial and cozy learning environment surrounded by the most brilliant fellow students and friends you could wish for. In fact, whenever I visit academic strongholds in the US, Great Britain or Germany, I often run into former classmates who are currently enrolled in PhD programs there or have moved on to other positions in academia and industry, which certainly underlines the quality of education at TUM. Besides TUM being a great university for the scientifically minded, Munich is an outstanding city, offering cultural and recreational opportunities galore – and it is still my #1 shortlisted city to return home to (in case I do make it back to Europe, that is …).

What was your goal after graduating from TUM?

In my final year at TUM, I decided like many German students that I would like to study abroad to leave the comfort zone of Western Europe and gather new experiences elsewhere. After the rather widely focused Bachelor program in Molecular Biotechnology, I wanted to dive deeper into cell biology and immunology and was keen on going for more than a single term. This endeavor of mine was greatly facilitated through the TUMexchange program, through which TUM manages exchange relations with many universities around the globe. I enrolled in a 1-year Master’s program at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and TUM further supported my acquisition of a prestigious travel scholarship, the direct and networking benefits of which have helped my career ever since.

In your opinion, how have your studies at TUM prepared you for your following career?

While I sometimes felt overburdened by the amount of coursework for each term, seemingly preventing deeper immersion into any specific subject, I came to realize later that - especially as an undergraduate program - Molecular Biotechnology did an outstanding job at preparing me for a career in science. I often encountered bachelor students in the US, for example, who had an excellent theoretical understanding of a subject but lacked any background in analytical techniques that would have allowed them to devise an experiment in the same field. The dense and broad focus of the lectures at TUM ultimately empowered me to connect analogous concepts in different fields and fostered my ability to learn quickly in new areas, which is arguably the best thing any graduate can take away from their education. An anecdotal quote from a later mentor of mine on the subject was, “I wouldn’t like anyone to work for me who can recite Wikipedia; I want somebody who can get 10% more out of Wikipedia than everyone else”.

Could you tell us a little about the ways in which you have maintained a connection with TUM?

I stayed in contact with some of my fellow students and I am a registered alum. I like to browse through the ‘KontakTUM’ magazine, which TUM kindly ships to California for me, and I also go through the alumni newsletters – however, the geographic distance never allowed me to participate in any events. Nevertheless, I hope that the publication of the interview could be a turning point. I already managed to locate a few TUM graduates in San Diego and we are hoping to launch a SoCal alumni group sometime this year. If any readers are interested to participate, they should not hesitate to reach out to me or the TUM office in San Francisco.

What do you consider to be the most memorable highlights of your time at TUM?

The Freibier-Fest (free beer festival) in Weihenstephan comes to mind … also the annual address of the president to the new undergrads never ceased to humor and inspire. Truth be told, I had a great group of friends within my year and scenic Weihenstephan and vibrant Munich provided a steady stream of memorable moments.

Is there anything you would like to tell new students?

It’s a bit cheesy, but in my opinion now more true than ever, when you’re contemplating what to study, don’t overly pay attention to current job prospects and simply follow your heart. Job market demands turn over rapidly (e.g. data scientists didn’t even exist a few years back), and the bar for top-performance in STEM disciplines continuously rises as a result of global competition and collaboration. In other words, do what you love and, as a consequence, be good at it. Also, make sure it is really your own dreams you are following, and not expectations that your parents/society/professors burdened you with; this is possibly the most rewarding, but also the hardest ideal to live up to. Lastly, I want to challenge all new students to not only think about designing and researching ‘the next big thing’ that will appease some Fortune 500 or DAX company, but to come up with something disruptive that addresses any of the pressing needs the world is facing – like water and food security, climate change, infectious disease, education, violence – you name it. Final note: Don’t forget to enjoy the ride - those years ain’t coming back!

Did you study or complete your doctorate at TUM? Currently, there are already more than 50.000 TUM alumni and students who benefit from the TUM network, which will accompany them throughout their lives: www.together.tum.de

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