Location: Heidelberg, Germany
Stefan Pfister graduated as an M.D. from the University of Tübingen. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and The German Cancer Research Center, where he was appointed group leader in 2006. Since 2012 he is heading the Division of Pediatric Neurooncology at the DKFZ. He is a board certified pediatrician with a focus on the genetic and epigenetic aspects of childhood brain tumors.
YAAC: Prof. Pfister, thank you very much again for supporting the Young Alliance with this interview. You have been quite successful, both as researcher and clinician. Our readers wonder, how can someone be successful and down to earth at the same time. Especially, given your M.D. background and your impressive career in cancer research. What is your secret?
Stefan Pfister, M.D.: (smiles) I would recommend MDs who are doing clinical and research work to focus on one thing at a time. It is almost impossible to excel in both fields simultaneously. In my case, I would focus entirely on my clinical work and then, at a different time point, I would focus completely on my research. This strategy worked best for me and ensured that I would give 120% in both fields without compromising.
YAAC: Many researchers do sports to balance their work and private lives. What do you do to relax after a hard day of work?
Stefan Pfister, M.D.: I play the saxophone. Some people do sports or go for a walk. But then your work keeps spinning in your head. When I start playing there is no room for other thoughts but music.
YAAC: With Professor Lichter you had a prominent mentor. How important do you consider mentorship for young researchers?
Stefan Pfister, M.D.: Peter (Lichter) has been a very important mentor for me indeed. I was (and still am) extremely lucky to have him and I think that young researchers should be aware of the importance of mentorship. Some mentors you actively choose but it is often rather by chance that you meet other mentors at different steps of the way who will influence and help you as well.
YAAC: How important do you consider being independent, for instance as a young group leader?
Stefan Pfister, M.D.: Being independent is only one aspect of a career. Young group leaders are often isolated and lack feedback from senior scientists. After years of research someone from the outside might question their path of research and they might regret mistakes that would not have occurred with proper guidance. Rather than being completely independent I would strive to be well embedded in a research environment close to my own field. Young researchers should ask themselves in which environment they can find suitable resources and guidance.
YAAC: Pediatric brain tumors are some sort of a niche topic. Should young researchers strive for such a niche as a strategy for success?
Stefan Pfister, M.D.: This question connects to the last one. Junior scientists should not be isolated on an island but strive to be well embedded in a niche that nourishes them and provides them with intellectual input and resources.
YAAC: Perseverance, manual skills, communication skills, scientific instinct, which one do you value most in a young researcher?
Stefan Pfister, M.D.: I think that different skills can be important at different times in a researcher’s career. For a group leader for instance, communication and management skills are of great importance. Management skills become particularly valuable when leading a larger unit, however, most group leaders have never received business training. I think there is still a big gap there.
YAAC: A few standard questions that interest our researchers. What was your most exciting moment as a researcher?
Stefan Pfister, M.D.: I think that would be the moment when we first discovered BRAF duplication as a tumor driver in low-grade astrocytomas. I was told that BRAF duplication was likely an artifact but I kept asking why this “artifact” would only occur in pilocytic astrocytoma. This ultimately led the discovery and this was certainly a very exciting moment in my career. But then of course there are always exciting new discoveries, for instance the connection of TP53 and chromothripsis.
YAAC: Dear Professor Pfister. Thank you very much for this interview. We wish you all the best for the future!
(This interview was conducted by Benito Campos on behalf of the Young Alliance Against Cancer)
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