Where Chemistry Meets Biology

10 Years of UniCat: Professor Dr. Matthias Drieß, spokesperson for the Cluster of Excellence “UniCat – Unifying Concepts in Catalysis,” talks about the successes achieved over the past decade and the plans for the future.

Jul 05, 2017

The chemist Matthias Drieß, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Technische Universität Berlin, is one of the most important scientists in the management of the UniCat Cluster of Excellence.

The chemist Matthias Drieß, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Technische Universität Berlin, is one of the most important scientists in the management of the UniCat Cluster of Excellence.
Image Credit: Jacek Ruta

Within the cluster of excellence UniCat, chemists, physicists, biologists, and engineers from six institutions collaborate across the boundaries of their disciplines and institutions: Technische Universität Berlin is the host university. The main focus of the cluster is on the research of catalysts with the goal of developing new catalytic materials and strategies.

Professor Drieß, we are looking back at a decade in the life of the Cluster of Excellence UniCat. How do you view this period, in retrospect?

I view it absolutely as a success story because over the past ten years, in collaboration with four universities and two Max Planck Institutes, we have been able to push forward with an extremely difficult research topic, namely, the combination of chemical and biological catalysis. In the academic world, publications are the currency of success. We have produced an abundance of good publications here that never would have been possible without UniCat.

Our cooperation with the company BASF, with whom we operate a joint laboratory called Bas-Cat, is definitely another UniCat success. In this JointLab our primary task is to explore new methods in the field of oxidation catalysis.

I regard it as significant progress that the boundaries between the different subject areas of chemistry, biology, and physics have almost been dissolved. At UniCat close cooperation between all disciplines is just a matter of course, even a necessity. This begins with the doctoral candidates and master’s degree students, who regularly spend time in the different laboratories. In order to really understand catalysis in all its forms, scientists need to master a wide range of analytical tools – and this is something they can only learn by occasionally looking into fields other than their own.

Can you give us an idea of how this works? Do your doctoral candidates spend time in different laboratories as part of an officially organized procedure?

Communication between colleagues is not something that can be prescribed. People need to know each other – and this does not apply only to the professors but also, especially, to the young people, that is, to the doctoral students. In the case of UniCat, from the very beginning we looked very far ahead and founded a Graduate School as an integral part of the cluster. Students from almost any subject area are accepted there if they wish to earn their doctorate in one of the UniCat research groups. In the Graduate School, scholarship holders spend their first three months entirely together. That leaves its mark. From the very beginning, we seek to form a tight-knit network between the different disciplines based on the bottom-up principle.

How do you manage to coordinate such multifaceted and diverse institutions and cultures efficiently?

Various factors play a decisive role in this regard. You need to trust each other, and have a common language to be able to work together, and this takes time to develop. The scientists involved must be able and willing to learn in order to respect or even to understand different approaches. The cluster’s visibility in the outside world plays a role – are we perceived as a team? Sustainability can only develop if these “soft” factors are right.

Obviously, the “hard” factors must fit, too, namely, a critical mass of outstanding scientists, good equipment, and appropriate resources. Funding is important for this purpose – good research costs a lot of money. However, in my opinion, an intellectual atmosphere of trust is even more crucial.

The difference between a good research location and a mediocre one does not lie in the way the former attracts more funding, but rather in the way it gathers pace and develops its own dynamic. The founding of BasCat is only one example of how we have succeeded in this regard. Industry will only open itself up to this type of cooperation if the resulting scientific output provides something that the company itself cannot provide on its own. However, the establishment of the “Inkulab,” the huge number of publications, or the high level of interest in UniCat shown by international colleagues speak for themselves, too.

The Chair of UniCat, Matthias Drieß, is a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

The Chair of UniCat, Matthias Drieß, is a member of the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.
Image Credit: David Ausserhofer

In this context, how important is it to identify with UniCat?

Extremely important. I am explicitly a UniCat scientist and only secondly a TU Berlin scientist. Occasionally, the institutions involved find this hard to cope with. Sometimes, I miss a clear avowal on the part of the university to support and value UniCat in such a way that it really rises above the university as a whole. For example, I find it very important to give newly appointed scientists the feeling that they are valued as intellectual top performers and not mainly as fund raisers. Let me say it again – the intellectual atmosphere is important. This is how UniCat can become a magnet for outstanding international scientists.

What additional value does UniCat create for the different parties involved, for example, for the scientists, the universities, the city of Berlin, or for you personally?

For us scientists it is clear: we are part of a research endeavor that cannot be found anywhere else. We reconnoiter border areas. Various institutions conduct top-level catalysis research, either from a chemical or biological point of view. But: why is it so often the case that catalytic processes in biology are so much more efficient and less complex than what we can ever achieve in chemical catalysis? This kind of research on the interface between biology and chemistry only takes place in Berlin. For the universities, scientific excellence is, of course, a criterion. Scientific expertise often goes together with good teaching. In addition, we educate outstanding young scientists, thereby increasing the visibility of TU Berlin. For Berlin, such a Cluster of Excellence naturally brings with it a considerable growth in the city’s renown as a research location.

The Excellence Initiative is now becoming the Excellence Strategy. What does this mean for UniCat?

Ninety percent of all the products we hold in our hands every day – be they skin creams, detergents, or yogurt – require a catalyst in the course of their production, during which far too many resources are still being wasted. Anyone who speaks about sustainable production is actually speaking about catalysis. Improving the efficiency of a catalyst by one decimal place has an enormous leverage effect with regard to saving energy or conserving resources. And let us not forget the processes that are as yet unknown. We must try to make the world more organic, more sustainable.

We are at a point where we have come to understand many individual components of catalysis rather well. In order to guarantee a sustainable and resource-conserving production in the future, we must now focus more on learning from biological systems how these components can be efficiently and dynamically coupled. In this regard, we need a genuine paradigm shift – and this is also the track we are following with our new application for the Excellence Strategy as UniSysCat. I am very confident that we will master these future challenges.

The interview was conducted by Katharina Jung for TU intern (published June 13, 2017).

Further Information

Within the cluster of excellence UniCat, chemists, physicists, biologists and engineers from four universities and two Max Planck Institutes collaborate across the boundaries of their disciplines and institutions: Technische Universität Berlin (host university), Freie Universität Berlin, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, the University of Potsdam, the Fritz Haber Institute of the Max Planck Society (Berlin), and the Max Planck Institute of Colloids and Interfaces (Potsdam). In 2012, one research group of Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin – joined the cluster, too. A total of 250 scientists from more than 28 nations cooperate in 42 working groups. In the ten years of existence, they have filed 50 patents.