In a new feature series for our website, Ruchee Patel, who has recently joined our social media committee, meets and interviews our members, providing a unique insight into the lives and careers of some of the key players in the WMS. This month, she interviews our President, Professor Volker Straub
Over to Ruchee.
I had the privilege of speaking to Professor Volker Straub, currently based in Newcastle, United Kingdom. Walking into the conversation, I was quite nervous to interview such a prominent member of the WMS community and the director of The John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Center, an international referral center for rare and undiagnosed muscle disease. However, Professor Straub was one of the most kind and generous storytellers I have had the privilege of meeting, sharing experiences from his early career, personal interests and providing thought-provoking career advice for an aspiring neuromuscular physician such as myself.
Prof. Straub (current WMS President) with founding member and first president of the World Muscle Society Prof. Victor Dubowitz at the WMS Congress 2022 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
Professor Straub started his early career in research, pursing a PhD with Professor Thomas Voit in Germany when there was only one genetic muscle disease with an identified gene, Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). At the time, Professor Voit was the only one in Germany to have access to the antibodies to dystrophin which were developed in Boston, Massachusetts. Professor Straub’s PhD work was aimed at identifying the sub-cellular organisation of dystrophin using these antibodies and involved much work with complicated electron microscopy techniques (DOI: 10.1083/jcb.119.5.1183), which provided early insight into the basic physiology of the sarcolemmal membrane and cytoskeletal structure.
With the aim of further developing his academic career, he travelled to the United States to work with Dr. Kevin Campbell, where he initially intended to work on characterising an unidentified 43 kD band on Western blot (ultimately identified as beta-sarcoglycan), only to find that one of his now colleagues and good friends, Dr. Carsten Bönnemann, was working on this project under the mentorship of Dr. Louis Kunkel in Boston and a PhD student in Dr. Campbell's lab, Leland Lim, was working on it in Iowa.
It was during his time as a post-doctoral fellow, eight years after the discovery of dystrophin as the etiology of DMD, that alpha sarcoglycan was discovered in Dr. Campbell's lab as the second gene for a muscle disease. It is increadible to think that we have now identified more than 700 genes as etiologies for nerve and muscle disease.
This period of Professor Straub's career, given his deep involvement in this early research, where diseases localising to the dystrophin-glycoprotein complex, especially limb-girdle muscular dystrophies, began to hold a special place in his heart as his favorite group of neuromuscular diseases.
Professor Straub returned to Germany following his post-doctoral training. He continued to work with Professor Voit before an amazing opportunity to join Professor Kate Bushby and her team at the John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Center arose. Professor Bushby was leading the national referral centre for patients with LGMD in the UK. Since then he has not looked back and has never felt the itch to leave!”
Leading a team of about 90 members, Professor Straub engages with a wide variety of projects ranging from translational research to natural history studies and ongoing clinical trials. He continues to see patients about once a week despite his many competing responsibilities, and says it would be one of the last things he would be willing to give up of his many roles.
Prof. Volker Straub (left) with some members of his team from The John Walton Muscular Dystrophy Research Center participating in the Harbour Hopper tours at the WMS Congress 2022 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
And like the true leader he is, Professor Straub spends time mentoring a wide range of individuals. This includes those who are working for the institute as well as PhD students in the fine arts at Newcastle University!
His wife, his high school sweetheart, is a freelance artist, and Professor Straub himself enjoys thinking about and engaging in these projects, which provide perspectives on the artist’s opinion of the work we do as scientists. I enjoyed learning about his observation that as each of us becomes more specialised, we become more hesitant to engage in topics which may feel outside our realm. It was a nice reminder for me as an early trainee to continue to engage in dialogue which will allow me to communicate with those who see the world through a different lens, who speak with different jargon from my own.
Prof. Straub maintains an interest in the fine arts, having been involved in several art projects, including as a mentor for two students from the fine arts department at Newcastle University on their PhD project!
Despite his busy schedule, he continues to play football (or, if you're American like me, soccer) regularly. In fact, what started as a hobby of a community of local friends playing soccer on Fridays followed by a trip to the pub quickly evolved into an international soccer league, with annual tournaments in rotating locations including Berlin and Madrid. In case anyone is planning on being in Madrid this June, might be worth catching Professor Straub on the field during a tourney match!
Prof. Straub initiated an annual international football tournament. Represented here are teams from six nations (UK, Germany, Czech Republic, Netherlands, France and Spain). His UK team is named “Have we got enough?”
He has also rescued two cats from the shelter, who he has named Max and Moritz after the main characters (and troublemaking naughty boy duo) in a German language illustrated story written in rhyming couplets by Wilhelm Busch. Professor Straub even recited the first couple lines in German from memory during our interview, explaining to me these stories were well known by all children in Germany during his childhood.
Double trouble with Max and Moritz! Story can be found here.
It was inspiring to me as a new member to the WMS community, and the neuromuscular field, to meet such an accomplished contributor to the field who maintains a wide variety of interests and hobbies. It was also encouraging to hear that one of the things Professor Straub loves about his field and profession is the relatively small global community of individuals in the world of ultra-rare disease, and how that community becomes quick friends despite meeting only once a year!
When asked what he enjoys most about the annual WMS Congress, he states that “the science is always exciting, but the networking and meeting old friends and colleagues is the most important part…it is what I look forward to more”. It is encouraging to me as a new member that I will also be able to meet and learn from this small but incredibly talented and collaborative group of individuals in the coming years.
We spoke about many topics, but as an impressionable young member, one thing I will take away from this experience speaking with Professor Straub is the advice he would give someone who is interested in developing a career in neuromuscular. He told me the first thing to decide is whether you want to be a generalist or a specialist. And once you decide, make sure to have no regrets about your decision. He encouraged me that “if there are opportunities, take them. You can always decide later if this is not something you want to do, but you will only know that by trying”. And lastly, to learn to take ownership, especially in projects which I am involved in. Despite his many responsibilities, I appreciate his generosity with his time and advice. I look forward to meeting him again in person at the next WMS Congress!
-Ruchee Patel, MD (The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Pediatric Neurology Resident PGY-5)