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A basket of fruit can quickly turn into a nest of fruit flies in summer. It is actually a good sign when fruit flies help themselves to our fruit, as this is proof of its quality. As Dr Hany Dweck from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology has found out, these tiny insects can smell when food has gone off. The 33-year-old researcher has discovered that the flies have a number of specialized information channels in their olfactory system, research which has improved our understanding of the sense of smell. He was awarded the Otto Hahn Medal for his groundbreaking research findings. Dr Hany Dweck has made rapid career progress in Germany: born in Egypt, he came to Germany in 2010 on a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship and studied for his doctoral degree at one of its International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS). He has run his own research group at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology since March 2015. He explains in our interview why he has such a soft spot for fruit flies and what he appreciates about the German research system.
Dr Dweck, most people are not particularly fond of fruit flies. You, on the other hand, clearly have a soft spot for these tiny insects. What made you decide to concentrate your research work on fruit flies?
Personally, what interests me above all is the theory that the behaviour of these minute creatures is governed by neural circuits. We made an exciting discovery in this area: we found that fruit flies have a sensor which provides them with extremely precise information about which spoilt foodstuffs they can eat. In addition, fruit flies have many benefits to offer us thanks to their genetic make-up: in a single laboratory sample, every gene is relevant to us and can be used and examined – not something that can normally be taken for granted. Fruit flies are also well-suited to researching the energy balance and consumption of tiny insects. What is more, fruit flies are very easy to breed in the lab.
To what extent have your findings influenced national and international olfactory research? Why is it so important to research the sense of smell?
We proved that fruit flies can perceive smells as “good” or “bad”. Ever since, these two categories – “good” and “bad” – have been used in international journals when describing the fruit fly’s sense of smell. Furthermore, our research results enjoy very frequent citations in international magazines. We even managed to feature on the cover page of the renowned journal “Cell”. As we now know, fruit flies could perform an important task in future: with their help, we could test the quality of foodstuffs. That could save lives and, possibly, a lot of money.
You are from Egypt and came to the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology in 2010 on a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) scholarship and studied for a doctoral degree at one of the International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS). Why did you choose Germany for your degree and PhD?
I knew from friends and from the media that the German higher education and academic system is very well structured and organized. Germany has one of the best education systems in the world. Furthermore, German universities and research institutions attach considerable weight to international cooperation – that was also an important argument.
You have run your own research group at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology since March 2015. How would you generally describe the career opportunities available to young researchers in Germany?
Science plays a key role in Germany – it enjoys high standing in the public sphere, in the media and in politics, and receives considerable funding. This makes for very good framework conditions for research. My advice to young researchers is to take advantage of such excellent conditions – but this does not happen automatically. One should always have a vision in mind, a goal. And even if it may sound banal, young scientists should read as much specialist literature as possible.
What are your longer-term goals for the future?
I would very much like to become a professor and set up my own laboratory.
Dr Dweck, thank you for the interview. We wish you every success with your research project.
Also interested in a research project at an International Max Planck Research School? Visit the website:www.mpg.de > International Max Planck Research Schools
German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) website:www.daad.de