(C) Wolf G Kroner 2017 - Thomas BadenBiropipette Inventor Receives
2017 Eppendorf Young Investigator Award

June 2017. Sussex University researcher Thomas Baden won accolades for his experiments and research in visual neuroscience. He received the 2017 Eppendorf Young Investigator Award at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Heidelberg. In her laudatory speech at EMBL Heidelberg, EMBO Director Maria Leptin particularly highlighted his independence of mind in pursuing his career in scientific research and medical experimental ophthalmology.(C) Thomas Baden 2015 Biropipette

Freedom of Research with Do-it-Yourself

One example of creativity is Dr. Baden promoting do-it-yourself tooling in the Open Labware network (https://open-labware.net/). It is part of the broader movement towards do-it-yourself biology, or citizen science (the European version of the club). Essentially this movement is focused on creating tools for science-based experiments which are affordable, quickly available, designs shared without IP restrictions, in order to speed up research projects, neither to beg manufacturers, nor to wait until suppliers deliver. And certainly, Open Labware and other do-it-yourself initiatives in science enable manufacturing of prototypes which until recently were unimaginable for those working in low-resource environments.

(C) Thomas Baden 2015 - Do-it-yourself Biropipette components (C) Thomas Baden 2015 3D do-it-yourself pipette rack

During the last three to four years the Eppendorf laureate has been experimenting with 3D-printing and suitable polymers (Baden et al. 2015). One of the lab tools he invented is inspired by Canadian Konrad Walus’ Straw Pipette which Tom Baden further developed for serious scientific experimenting, nicknaming his instrument “Biropipette”. He claims it to be accurate to a few microliters and offers instructions how to further customise to the needs of the individual user. He also created an accessoire, describing it as a “quick and dirty rack” which is a 3D-print adjustable in length, height, strength, or number of slots, all of which can be freely copied, reproduced, or improved without license.

It is only recently that manufacturers of lab consumables and scientific instruments are beginning to realise this new power of the demand side, and start to attend the need of personalised tools for laboratory scientists. Wilhelm Plüster, CTO of Eppendorf is not afraid of this development, because it strengthens demand for high-quality products. He told B2Bioworld that his company is already exploring how to attend to these needs which obviously imply to adapt manufacturing to a wider range of batch sizes, while maintaining profit margins, and without sacrificing standardisation as well as other quality features of products. However, he added that this year’s winner of the Young Investigator Award has been primarily chosen for his pioneering academic research.

(C) Tom Baden 2017 Eyes are different natural evolution of visual information processing (C) Wolf G Kroner 2017 artificial eyes for visual information processing

Understanding Visual Information Processing in Nature a Prerequisite for Automation

Dr. Baden’s research is focused on species-specific visual information processing and how it is (phylo-) genetically structured by the habitat. Key processes are sampling optimisation, filtering, compression of the incoming stream of visual information, or partitioning it into parallel streams to forward it to the brain. One example of the impact of ecology (https://badenlab.org) is “horizon” which divides the visual field and is reconstituted by an animal or human organism through regions sensitive to typical colours of the split horizon such as “blue” and “green”. Seeing is not necessarily noticing. Research questions then are how photoreceptors retain critical visual inputs (e.g. signals, signs, symbols, etc.) and how other environmental inputs present are discarded as “noise”; how processing evolves during biological development (e.g. from larvae to zebrafish); or, adaptability of feature recognition to a changing habitat which is particularly relevant for understanding how new (visual) niches are discovered.

A complementary research question is to unravel the “computational power» of neuronal networks. The vertrebrate retina has been chosen, says Dr. Baden, because it is a model system of choice to study neural circuits. The retina is a feed-forward system with no or little feedback from the brain which reduces complexity of measurement. Moreover, his research can build on a wealth of previous studies of the retina. Last not least, the range of parameters is narrowed by nature, because «individual retinal microcircuits tile the retinal surface, such that the same computations are effectively performed at every retinal position» which then implies simpler computational models, easier comparisons among species, and finally «may yield more general insights into how neuronal networks can evolve to best serve an animal’s needs.»

Scientific Research in the Brexit Shaker

Nature is a long-time partner of the Eppendorf Award which is in its twenty-second year. Richard Hughes, Publishing Director, Nature Research with Macmillan surprised the audience mentioning that the University of Sussex where Tom Baden moved from Tübingen (DE) last year is a “rising star” in terms of scientific publications. According to Nature’s market intelligence of institutional research proficiency the University of Sussex ranks first in the UK and 24th globally. UK universities continue to be oriented to research collaborations with Europe. At Sussex the university’s ten top international collaborators (C) Macmillan 2017 Nature Index University of Sussexare from Germany (ranks 1, 6, 7, 9), Switzerland (rank 2), France (3), Italy (4), Spain (5), and the United States (8, 10). However Mr. Hughes pointed to growing concerns among scientists in the UK over the Brexit hodgepodge. Uncertainty has not diminished since Nature (Cressey 2017) published the results of a survey among researchers in the British Island. Over 75 percent of EU citizens in the UK said they will consider to leave the country. While this may be expectable, it is interesting that uncertainties about being welcome appears to have toxic effects with domestic researchers and the non-British outside the EU. About a third of UK citizens and two thirds of non-EU nationals said they are likely to consider leaving England once the scission is implemented.

While political uncertainties largely linger on the livelihood of foreign scientists employed in the UK, funding of (C) Wolf G Kroner 2017 Laura Lucía Prieto Godinacross-national research collaborations or the workings of EU-wide science hubs such as the European Molecular Biology Organization, it is encouraging to see how personal relations, non-partisan industry support for scientists, and dedication to science counterweigh creationists, political hooligans, and beneficiaries of the Brexit. The Award Winner 2017 unfortunately fell ill, but bravely struggled through his presentation via Skype. In his absence Lucía Prieto Godino received the prize for Tom Baden. In January 2018 she follows him to the UK starting her own lab at the Francis Crick Institute at London. Like German Tom Baden the Spanish scientist yearns for doing research in England leaving Université Lausanne at beautiful Lac Léman, Switzerland, where she worked in the laboratory of Richard Benton, the winner of the Eppendorf Award 2009.

Wolf G Kroner

Baden T, Chagas AM,, Gage G,, Marzullo T, Prieto-Godino LL, Euler T (2015): Open Labware: 3-D Printing Your Own Lab Equipment. PLOS Biology. March 20.
Cressey D (2017): Brexit vote drives UK academics to think about leaving. Nature News, January 10: http://www.nature.com/news/brexit-vote-drives-uk-academics-to-think-about-leaving-1.21259.

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