The Official Story of Christoph Harms

Christoph Harms studied human medicine in Berlin. His medical doctoral thesis dealt with endogenous neuroprotective systems under the supervision of Prof. Heide Hörtnagl at the Institute for Pharmacology and Toxicology of the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and was awarded summa cum laude and the Humboldt Prize Berlin in 2003. This was followed by a research period at the Department of Neurology (Director Prof. Dr. K.-M. Einhäupl) in the Department of Experimental Neurology (Director Prof. Dr. U. Dirnagl and Supervision Prof. Dr. M. Endres) and from 2004-2005 a postdoc at the Max Delbrück Centre for Molecular Medicine Berlin under the supervision of Prof. R. Harsdorf in an experimental cardiology research group. In 2006, he was appointed as a research instructor of the Lichtenberg Junior Research Group of Prof. M. Endres at the Neuroscience Research Centre of the Charité in Mitte (Director Prof. D. Schmitz) and at the end of 2008, he was appointed as assistant professor 'Cell Cycle and Stroke' at the Centre for Stroke Research Berlin (Director Prof. U. Dirnagl). In 2012, the junior professorship 'Molecular Stroke Research' was approved. In 2015, Christoph Harms followed the call for a permanent W2 professorship at the Centre for Stroke Research Berlin (CSB) at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and in 2018 this was taken over by the faculty as a permanent professorship.

 

His Unofficial Story

Christoph Harms grew up as the youngest child with two older siblings in a family of musicians in a village in the western part of Germany. From the recorder at the age of three to the violin at five to the cello at 9 and piano at 12, as well as in orchestral and chamber music ensembles, singing in various choirs and on stage at the Landestheater Detmold and in ensembles at the Musikgymnasium in Detmold also dominated the period from 1984-88 (participation in a musical production and seven operas as a child soloist). Christoph Harms received cello lessons from Prof. Güdel at the Detmold Academy of Music and Prof. Haesler in Hanover, among others, and singing lessons from General Director of Music Edwin Scholz at the Detmold Theatre. Although an artistic career seemed preordained, Christoph Harms became interested in supervising youth camps and decided at the age of 15 to study medicine with the aim of becoming a child and youth psychiatrist. This decision was probably more of a rebellion, because Christoph stood out at school, apart from in the musical field, more for his stubbornness and argumentativeness than for his good performance and willingness to learn. His salvation came in the form of an entrance test for studying human medicine (Medizinertest) in the twelfth grade, which gave him a free choice of university place even before his Abitur. After doing his civilian service in a home for the elderly and in a day-care centre for chronically mentally ill adults, he studied medicine at the Charité in Berlin. After completing his physics examination, Christoph looked for a doctoral thesis that would tie him down as little as possible and got stuck in pharmacology. Intensive experimental work followed from 1997 to 2001 with three research semesters and a fascination for the realisation of new ideas. Initially, the focus was on endogenous neuroprotection against models of stroke in cell culture, followed later by the cell cycle and regeneration capacity of postmitotic cells, which also led to a postdoc in a cardiology research group with postmitotic heart cells. Although he succeeded in bringing differentiated neurons into division capability, the results were disappointing in that the electrophysiological profile was more reminiscent of glial cells. In 2012, Christoph Harms left the field of cell cycle control and renamed the research group Molecular Stroke Research. Due to the crisis in translational research, endogenous neuroprotection was also no longer a brand to use. The focus of the working group slowly shifted to imaging techniques in stroke (KFO) and the role of local inflammation and the microbiome in the plasticity of neuronal networks and vessels (SFB-TR43) including brain collaterals. Today's focus is on brain resilience in stroke in addition to inflammation, stimulation of network plasticity (TRR295) and the role of intra- and intercellular communication as well as endomembrane systems and protein transport in neurons, glia and the vasculature in mouse and rat stroke models.

 

My Biggest Mistakes

Many — here are just a few:

At the 2003 Nobel Laureate Conference in Lindau, Prof. Torsten Wiesel (Nobel Prize for Medicine 1981) advised me to abandon the idea of cell division of differentiated neurons in favour of a postdoc in a large laboratory abroad. Unfortunately, I was too taken with my idea for that and too offended that he didn't think it was viable. He just replied to me: 'The project is great, but you can also do a postdoc in a great lab abroad'. I did not get his point.

Prof. Wieland B. Hutter (Director of the Max Planck Institute for Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden) provoked me in 2006: 'If you get the motor neuron of a giraffe to divide - then I believe you!' That could have been food for thought for me.

However, it was even more stupid not to publish the data then. I did not even submit it.

 

My motivation for telling this story here

I believe to this day that it was not my talent that made my career possible, but that any success can be explained by chance, luck and my ability to communicate.

One of my mentors once told me that he kept dreaming of failing his A-levels - that reassured me a lot at the time that other people also have a great sense of insecurity and can still make a difference in their field.

My basic tension and vigilance has never subsided, even as a tenured professor. There always remains an uncertainty and fear as to whether the next proposal or paper will be accepted or whether staff positions can be extended. That is probably normal. Reporting on this can perhaps help to overcome weaknesses and one's own limitations and fears in people from the audience.