#085: Ben Hartwig Story

In this podcast, Dr. Ben Hartwig shares his story and lessons he learned during his PhD. 

Ben is a German scientist, entrepreneur and actor. He studied genetics at the Max-Planck Institute in Cologne, specialised in Epigenetics and aside he toured with Germany’s biggest improv theater, Springmaus, for the past six years. He has performed, directed and created close to a thousand shows on five continents. Three years ago, he founded his own company Neuroblitz to combine science and applied improvisation in workshops, speeches and seminars.

Two hearts are beating in my chest, the first one is the heart of an actor, someone who goes on stage to tell stories, the second heart is the heart of a scientist, someone who tries to make discoveries to understand the world better and tell stories.

Dr. Ben Hartwig

If you are curios how Ben successfully combined his analytical and creative side together, please listen to this episode. If you also have a story to be told or if you know someone, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

Enjoy Listening!


Transcript

Intro:

Hello and welcome to PhD career stories, my name is Alice Corani, and in today’s podcast you will listen to Ben Hartwig, a German Scientist passionate with Science and Acting. He will explain how he successfully combined his analytical and creative side together.

Two hearts are beating in my chest, the first one is the heart of an actor, someone who goes on stage to tell stories, the second heart is the heart of a scientist, someone who tries to make discoveries to understand the world better and tell stories.

This is my story. My name is Ben Hardwick, I’m a German scientist born and raised close to Hamburg who has done his PhD at the Max Planck institute for plant breeding research in Cologne. This is also a story of those two hearts because I’m fascinated by the creative world and by the analytical world and how to combine the two.

At first glance, there’s not much that combines acting and science, not much that the two have in common. But there are a few things, as an actor you need to stay curious, as a scientist you need to do so too. And ultimately, we all want to understand ourselves and the world better, so curiosity and understanding are the glue between creativity and the analytical world to me.

Curiosity is also what got me into science. I’ve always been fascinated by it, by the world and by people. I chose plant biotechnology as my studies during the bachelor and masters. I signed up at the Leibniz university in Hannover. For part of the master’s I studied at the Purdue University in the US in West Lafayette, Indiana. During the masters I had a professor called professor Daimler, and he was the first reason why I got into my PhD. He thought it would be the next right career step for me and suggested the Max plank in Cologne, because he had gone there earlier.

I decided to follow his advice in the plight and actually found my supervisor because we had a beer together during the selection days. My supervisor during the PhD was Francisco Torque who is an expert in epigenetics. I had no idea about epigenetics when I signed up, but today I can roughly explain it as how the environment influences our genes. Epigenetics makes that influence visible, that was great. I got to study plants and I got to understand epigenetics better. I got to immerse myself into a subject for a long time and I wanted to know if I could do it, so I love the challenge of being a PhD student. But I didn’t know what I would do afterwards. So when the time to defend this thesis came, I had already booked a ticket to fly around the world and interview actors and scientists because I still had two hearts beating in my chest throughout my PhD. 

And also early I had done acting and actually learned something called improvised theater or improvisation, it’s a type of theater where you walk on stage without a script or fixed role so you walk out there every night and you don’t know what the play is going to be. Both science and acting were passions of mine and on that journey around the world I wanted to discover which way to follow, what should I do with my life.

I had learned a few things during my PhD that helped me on that journey. The first thing was organization, Francisco Torque decided that I could do an enhancer suppresses screen, well I was in-charge of thousands and thousands of plants. I had to be very organized to not lose track of all of the individual plants and their individual mutations. 

The second thing I learned was resilience, one day I came into the lab and most of my plants that I was studying had died because of a technical error in the green house. I was devastated and thought oh my god so much work and it all went down the drain because of one thing. But I had a friend in the laboratory from China and he used to say a Chinese saying which roughly translates to “When winter comes is spring faraway?”. When I heard him say that I thought of course he’s right. The plants were dead, but I still had the seeds and I still had the knowledge, so I could continue the project and I didn’t have to be that devastated about it. That was the second thing, resilience. 

The third thing I learned, that was big for me during the PhD was network. During lunch breaks and sometimes in the afternoon, I had a coffee with my friend Jared Rolands, who also did his PhD at the same time at the Max plank. We became friends and we used to go for long walks and talks science. He was in a protein lab and I was in the molecular biology lab. And sure enough during our PhD journey I sometimes needed advice about proteins and he needed advice about molecular biology. We helped each other and I believe that made our PhDs much stronger and better than they would have been.

So I was on that journey in 2012 and I had scheduled interviews with scientists and with actors to find out, what to do afterwards. The journey didn’t really give me an answer but it opened up new opportunities. So I was allowed to travel with a company, selling sequencers in Southeast Asia as well. And all that combined knowledge, let me to understand that I don’t have to choose one or the other but I could try to combine the analytics with the creativity. And after my post doc, I decided to found my own company in science communication, where I combined my knowledge from improvisational theater and from science to help creative people think in the more analytical way and analytical people to think in a more creative way. 

This work fulfils me and it really feels like the two hearts in my chest are starting to combine in a becoming one. What drives me and what has driven me is that moment of discovery, there’s always more to discover but that moment of discovery is unique, that moment of really understanding something. I love to really understand something for the first time to have that realization myself but I also love seeing it in others. Nowadays when I teach and give workshops and see that realization on a person’s face that is something unique and beautiful.

Thank you for listening and have a great day this was Ben Hardwick.

Outro:

Thank you for listening to another episode of PhD Career Stories.

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That’s it for today, thank you and see you in two weeks