A little “Outbreak” every day

Susanne Talay heads the HZI high security lab.

You always meet twice in life, and this is certainly true for Susanne Talay and the HZI. When the biology graduate started her doctorate in Microbiology and Genetics at the then Gesellschaft für Biotechnologische Forschung (GBF) in 1988 and finally turned her back to the campus in 2004, she would not have expected to return as early as 2006. She has stayed ever since and has never regretted this decision. When she talks about the HZI, it is accompanied by her beaming smile: "It starts with this beautiful campus, then the collegial atmosphere. It's something very special and we are grateful for it."

Initially, Susanne Talay was employed in the "second round" as a research assistant in the department of "Microbial Pathogenicity" under Prof Singh Chhatwal and accompanied many doctoral and diploma students there. In her former research area in the field of Cellular Interactions, there is "still a lot to do", as she says, but a new task was already waiting for her. As a Biosafety Professional, she has been in charge of the Security Level 3 (S3) facilities at the HZI since 2011. These are high-security laboratories where work is done with pathogens that can lead to serious diseases. At the HZI, these are mainly viruses with pandemic potential. To prevent infectious particles from escaping the labs, the safety precautions include, for example, a ventilation system with special filters, airlocks and pressure differences between individual areas. "Employees receive three months of training and are then valuable specialists. A high staff turnover rate is therefore a real challenge," says Susanne Talay. She is responsible for the experiments taking place in the S3 laboratory and for ensuring that all safety standards are met, about which she must remain constantly updated. Susanne Talay is also in demand when it comes to everyday troubleshooting. Mistakes in this area could have serious consequences. Therefore, the guidance of her staff is crucial, because everyone in the team shares some of the responsibility.

Since 2020, the S3 lab has been working almost exclusively on SARS-CoV-2. The number of users was increased from 20 to 45 people, half of them are established and prospective researchers, the other half are technical staff. The changeover was quick because flaviviruses had previously been researched using comparable, already established methodology. The S3 unit functions perfectly. Nevertheless, there were memorable moments. For example, when 300 litres of water mixed with red bubbling disinfectant briefly turned the lab into a foam party. Susanne Talay counters even such incidents with her beaming smile. 

With work avoiders, on the other hand, she switches "into wolf brain", as she says. Cold also puts her in a bad mood. "Soul food" such as red lentil soup and oriental spices, which are mood lifters for her, help against this. Regardless of the temperature, she is out and about several times a day in her native Harz region, because it not only keeps the body healthy, but above all the mind. Not everyone could bear the great responsibility in the S3 lab. Susanne Talay can, not least because of her very own way of "governing through and being sensitive at the same time", as she herself describes her way of working. So this important unit at the HZI is known to be in safe hands.

Author: Christine Bentz

Published: December 2021

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