Stefan Schmelz prints his world the way he likes it: The structural biologist sees no problems, only challenges.

"Just be creative"

At outside temperatures of -10 °C, Stefan Schmelz, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, seems to have discovered an alternative energy source for himself. The postdoctoral fellow in the "Structure and Function of Proteins" department at the HZI would seem to need one to master all the tasks in his workday. He calls it a challenge – rather than a problem – to be working to capacity both at work and at home. The father of three small children knows exactly how important it is to be organised and to address tasks with an aim. "Time management is everything," he says. The large range of tasks entrusted to him in the department is impressive: He is responsible for the entire computer infrastructure and the major equipment as well as the X-ray room, the imagers and the crystallography units. Having to change his agenda is his everyday routine – and he is happy with it: He likes his work at the HZI and does not want the routine of an assembly line job.

In addition, Schmelz gives lectures for young biologists, biotechnologists and biochemists at the Technische Universität Braunschweig. It is important and satisfying to him to transfer knowledge to young people. He sees his work with bachelor and master students, trainees and apprentices as an investment into the future.

He discovered structural biology rather by coincidence. Even early on in his studies of physical biochemistry in Darmstadt, he had a strong desire to spend some time abroad – a dream he made come true when he worked as a doctoral student with James Naismith at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. The research group focused on structural biology and Schmelz kept to this focus later on. A guest lecture of a German scientist named Dirk Heinz was his first contact to the HZI, followed by an appointment after his unsolicited application in 2010 – first with Dirk Heinz for three years, then with Andrea Scrima and presently with Wulf Blankenfeldt. "I never regretted embarking on this path," Schmelz says.

Stefan Schmelz has published 15 protein structures since 2010 – and there are some more in his pipeline. And he is well connected: Working with Rolf Hartmann of the HIPS, he studies proteins that contribute to the production of biofilms by Pseudomonas aeruginosa, whereas his work with Melanie Brinkmann of the HZI solved the structure of a tegumental protein of herpes viruses in order to study its influence on the immune defence. A protease that destroys lung tissue in Legionnaires' disease is the research topic of a collaboration with the TU Braunschweig, in the scope of which he and Andriy Luzhetskyy of the HIPS develop biosensors for effective screening of new antibiotics.

One of his private passions is also very future-oriented: 3D printers and their virtually limitless opportunities. Schmelz designed the second of his two printers himself and implemented it with printed components, then optimised it. He missed special functions, like a bright illumination or a remote control, in his first 3D printer and integrated them step-by-step. The raw material for printing is a thin cable on a reel which is then melted during the printing process in order to build up the desired shape layer-by-layer. He uses a range of different materials, from biologically degradable plastics to copper-containing filament, which looks like shiny metal when polished. He can make functional or decorative things such as an inside-illuminated model of the moon, a reproduction of a sculpture from the Easter Islands – or an InFact sign.

He utilises his private technology for the purposes of the HZI as well: Structurally complex proteins with matching binding partners can be well represented as a computer model, "but to be able to hold them in your hand as three-dimensional components and to assemble them easily just opens up very different opportunities," he says. He prints the simulations by means of a special software and obtains three-dimensional moulds. His technology is also useful for immediate help at work: When he found an old fraction collector whose orifices were too large for the sample vessels, he simply constructed a new attachment with smaller holes, and the find from the basement became a useful item again.

3D printing is impressive in its versatility, especially when a resourceful head like Stefan Schmelz's is behind it. Its significance at work cannot be overestimated. "You can use 3D printing to reconstruct spare parts and work materials relatively inexpensively, which might become interesting in the future, especially in emerging countries with a difficult supply situation," Schmelz says. Since research is experiencing an increasing degree of substitution by technology and automation, nobody can afford to ignore this technology in the future. It is easier to just purchase new equipment – there usually isn't enough time for repairs in the busy day of a researcher," Schmelz says. But often a small repair might save you money – "you just need to be creative."

Author: Christine Bentz

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