Markus Pauly

  From left: Professor Antje Spiess, process engineering; Professor Björn Usadel, Botany 1; and Professor Markus Pauly, UC Berkeley, discuss plants and how they are processed into biofuels. Copyright: private  
Research stays at RWTH Aachen 2014, in July for 2 weeks: visiting professor as Kármán Fellow in the ERS International program at RWTH at the Institutes of Biology (Botany) and Process Engineering, and in the Excellence cluster Tailor-Made Biofuels
Information about our alumnus

Professor Markus Pauly is professor of plant biology and microbiology at the University of California, Berkeley, and is involved in numerous research projects on the topics of biomass and biofuels. He is also the program manager of the Energy Biociences Institute at UC Berkeley, USA, which is sponsored by BP.

He studied biology at RWTH Aachen between 1988 and 1992, continuing on to pursue doctoral studies under Hans-Joachim Reisener, professor of plant physiology, until 1994. He completed longer stays in USA during his studies and continues to pursue his work there at the University of California, Berkeley. While serving as a independent research group leader at the Max Planck Instiutte for Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam(Golm) from 2001 to 2006, he supervised doctoral candidate Björn Usadel, who is currently professor and chair of Biology 1 and Botany at RWTH Aachen.

In July 2014 Pauly was granted the RWTH Theodore von Kármán Fellowship and invited to come for a two-week stay in Aachen by Professor Usadel (Botany) and Professor Antje Spiess, (Process Engineering, AVT). The initial spark for the collaboration originated in 2013 at the first international conference fuels made from biomass, which was held by the Excellence Cluster "Tailor-Made Fuels from Biomass." There was a high demand for an opportunity to share and discuss methods about processing biomass into fuel for engines. The aim was to spend more time discussing methods and joint research strategies in Berkeley and Aachen and to strengthen the relationships for exchange between junior researchers via the existing ACalnet, the Aachen-California Network for Academic Exchange.


Interview with Markus Pauly

Professor Markus Pauly Copyright: RWTH Aachen Alumni

What is your field of research?

I am a biologist and carbohydrate analyst. My research field is the cell wall of plants. It is the primary component of plant-based biomass like wood and straw. The cell wall is very sugar-saturated but it does not store sugar like starch, rather it is the material that keeps the plant upright. Take the California redwoods for example. They are a perfect example of the cell wall alone in trees make it possible for them to grow 130 meters tall and transport water from the roots to the crown of the tree. It is also responsible for allowing a tree to become more than 2000 years old on a single spot. The cell wall is also made of material that is not degraded by wind and weather. I am primarily interested in how a plant creates this material and how the sugar molecules are built into the cell wall. This is the basic research. In the applied research we are focusing on the transformation of this biomass into fuel and chemicals, as is the case at RWTH. The degradation of this material that is naturally undegradable and quite stable is the current challenge for scientists and engineers.

What led you to conduct a research stay at RWTH?

Just like the researchers here at RWTH Aachen, we in Berkeley are working on the origination and manufacturing process of biomass. To my great joy, my former doctoral candidate and now professor, Björn Usadel, at RWTH does work not only in bioinformatics but also on the cell wall. His research also deals with processing for future application though. In the Excellence cluster Tailor-Made Fuels from Biomass he and his colleagues are primarily working on transforming biomass to sugar and fuel, particularly for combustion engines. So, it made sense to work with the other process engineers at RWTH, who research the degradation of plant-based biomass into sugar with Professor Antje Spiess. A joint research exchange was a good option as we complement each other with our respective expertise in analysis and method.

What exactly did you do during the research stay?

The main goal was to share experiences among all departments, not only with Ms. Spiess and Mr. Usadel, but also with the TMFB and researchers from plant research. I met students and postdocs, gave a public lecture on biofuels and visited the labs and machines in Aachen. We primarily discussed how to apply certain methods and what their advantages and disadvantages are.

How would you summarize the results of your research stay?

After intensively exchanging our experiences we were able to intensify our exchange possibilities between RWTH and our teaching and research unit in Berkeley. Students and doctoral candidates from RWTH and the Energy Biosciences Institute will be able to complete an exchange by participating in the Aachen-California Network of Academic Exchange Service, ACalnet. In my guest lecture on biofuels during my stay, I was able to offer a look at our work in Berkeley. One of Professor Spiess' postdocs is now in my lab in Berkeley for five months. In the fall two other Bachelor's students from RWTH Aachen will also come.

A further result is that three of us, Professor Usadel, Professor Spiess, and I will submit a proposal to exploit agricultural waste from this region. Agricultural waste can include compressed sugar beet remains as biomass, which we would like to characterize and process. Or for example rapeseed – when we harvest rapeseed we have a ton of leftover plant matter. Considerations are being made on how to use these remains. Professor Usadel supplements these analyses with his knowledge of the plants' ergnomics and their populations. We want to find out what type of plant in a natural population is best suited to be cultivated as a biofuel.

How is it, in particular for you, to come to RWTH considering you studied and did your doctorate here?

Yes, that is true I studied here from 1988 to 1992 and then did my doctorate. My supervisor was Professor Reisener, who already allowed me at that time to go to the USA during my studies, as the experimental research methods were better there at the time. My theoretical background and RWTH were greatly admired. However, I completed both my Diplom and doctoral exam at RWTH. Since then, RWTH has of course vastly improved its methods and lab equipment.

Of course, I am happy to return as a professor after so many years, even if it's just to exchange ideas and for a short stay. But it is also good to see what has changed and developed since the '90s. The old biology building is still there, but the building we are currently sitting in, is new. Taking the TMFB Excellence Cluster and the developments on Campus Melaten into consideration, it's easy to see that a lot is happening here. Streets change too. Just before this I turned on to a deadend street that use to be thoroughfare. You have to chuckle....All of my professors are of course retired now. Many good things are developing with the new professors like Mr. Usadel.

I have to add, however, that the majority of my family lives nearby. I always have a reason to visit Aachen and Germany. Overall I am particularly honored by invitation from my home university and am happy to have received the Kármán Fellowship award and funding.

Does RWTH have international visibility in your field of research "plant biology and technology"?

The science and research conducted in this field here is, of course, very exciting. The scientists here do an excellent job presenting their work and thinking about what comes next. They have another perspective and look at the big picture. They are always looking for possiblities to practice their research approaches and are very enthusiastic and motivated. It was a lot of fun to talk and share with them. I can imagine that groups like the TMBF play a key role in making this perspective and interdisciplinarity possible. RWTH is very good at establishing contacts and networking, particularly for my work the link between basic research and process engineering, that is between natural scientists and engineers. This doesn't exist anywhere else in Germany. For this reason, RWTH is number one in Germany for my special field. I don't just look for a university when considering a research stay, but also a collaborative lab with the expertise I need for my work. I found this expertise in Aachen with Mr. Usadel and Ms. Spiess.

Can you name a highlight, experience, or moment of your stay that you can remember?

A highlight was definitely, no let me rephrase, THE highlight of my career was that I saw even better how successful my "pupils" like Professor Usadel, are. Amazing! And I hope that it multiplies. I must add that it's very obvious how enthusiastic the researchers are here and how they think outside the box. This was very surprising to me and infectious, because this isn't always the case during research stays at other universities and institutes.

The interview was conducted by the Research Alumni Coordinator in July 2014.