TUM Graduate School via linked.in | December 6th, 2021
Samuel Sutiono is a biotechnological researcher who obtained his master’s degree from Lund University, Sweden and then pursued his doctoral research at the Technical University of Munich at the Chair of Chemistry for Biogenic Resources, TUM Campus Straubing. For his thesis on the development of biocatalysts for the production of chemicals, he was awarded the international Dimitris N. Chorafas prize. This October, he joined CASCAT GmbH, a start-up company in the field of industrial biotechnology.
What was your dissertation topic?
My dissertation was about the development of valuable biocatalysts for the production of fine chemicals. These enzymes find application in industry, specifically to produce alcohols or other chemicals from biomass, for example carboxylic acids. In my research project, I tried to find and engineer suitable enzymes, and in the end use these enzymes in order to produce certain fine chemicals. Nowadays producing these chemicals from biomass is cost intensive, so I addressed this topic with my dissertation and offered new approaches.
You did your doctorate at the TUM Campus Straubing for Biotechnology and Sustainability. Could you elaborate on the contribution of your research for the topic of sustainability?
Many of the chemicals that I am interested in are traditionally produced from a petroleum base or fossil fuels. In general, the aim of my research is to reduce the dependence from raw fossil materials. Therefore, biomass can be a great sustainable alternative. With the biocatalysts I am working on, one can upgrade this biomass into fine chemicals instead of using fossil fuels. The vision for the future is to make this process of replacing fossil fuels with biomass profitable. In the end, this will make a crucial contribution to the sustainable economy.
What excites you most about your research?
Well, I guess the first part of my answer is very simple and every researcher will relate to that: Good results always excite me. However, I think the most exciting part of my research is discovering something new that I did not predict before and no one would traditionally think of. This is for example the case when I find new enzymes. Finding new enzymes feels as if we were being taught by nature that there is so much more to explore. Therefore, finding this preexisting enzymes and study how to use them is a great challenge. To conclude, the surprising factor of science is what excites me most.
What was your biggest challenge during your doctorate and how did you overcome it?
I would say that in my field of research there is a predominance of traditional thinking. By traditional thinking, I mean a kind of mindset that includes a set of approaches to tackle things that you will unconsciously follow. Even though these approaches might have worked out well in the past, you should always reflect your approaches and try to think outside of the box. If you have not made progress in your research for a while, you have to try something new. This will be a very challenging period because you might have to wait for the outcomes for months. During that time, I often wondered, “Did I do it correctly? Or do I have to step back in my research?” However, this is part of a common experience as a researcher and you will learn a lot from it.
Based on your personal experience, what advice would you give young researchers?
As I already said, you should think outside of the box and try new things. At the same time, it is important to set a timeframe for working on your new idea, since the time within the doctoral program is limited. There is the danger of being stuck with an idea when you only focus on proving it. I would not stick to something completely new more than one year if you do not see the progress. Unfortunately, sometimes your idea does not work out and you have to accept that. On the contrary – if it does work out, it will give you the greatest feeling in the world.
Which are the most important skills a doctoral candidate needs to succeed in your opinion?
I already talked about the importance of being open to new approaches and ideas while still estimating your chances realistically. In addition, when I think of the doctoral candidates in my group, I have to say that hard work is essential for a successful doctorate. It is not sufficient to be smart; you still have to put a lot of energy into your doctorate. This will especially help you in the beginning and give you to a better chance of succeeding in the end. Something that goes hand in hand with hard work is being persistent and not easily giving up on something. You will definitely need these traits if you want to pursue a career in science.
After your bachelor’s program in Biotechnology in Indonesia, and a master’s degree in Sweden, you started your doctorate at TUM Campus Straubing. Why did you choose TUM for your doctorate?
During my master’s program in Sweden, I had the opportunity to do a research stay abroad as part of the Erasmus program. Since I always wanted to go to Germany, I considered either TUM or RWTH Aachen to write my master’s thesis back then. I was really interested in the projects at the Chair of Chemistry of Biogenic Resources at TUM and had the chance to write my thesis there. Prof. Volker Sieber was an amazing supervisor and I was immediately feeling welcomed in the research group and generally at Campus Straubing. After graduation, I was lucky to be accepted for an open position within the project, so I could continue pursuing my doctorate at TUM. Although I have to say, that I chose TUM and not particularly Campus Straubing for my doctorate. Straubing is not Munich, but I still enjoyed working in this interdisciplinary environment. The expertise at Campus Straubing is continuously growing and you will learn a lot from collaborating with different departments and working groups, which will make you a better researcher in general.
After a brief postdoc you started working as a project leader this October at CASCAT, a start-up company in the field of industrial biotechnology. Could you tell us about your current work and projects?
My current work is an extension of my research at TUM and addresses the commercialization of the bio-technological processes. I am now working on several different projects with different enzymes, which I really like since I can explore new possibilities. Compared to the university, where I used to work in lower scales like milligram, we now try to scale up the processes to a gram or perhaps even kilogram-scale at CASCAT. Within this process, I try to find the best conditions and the best combination of enzymes or engineer new enzymes.
You have already mentioned some differences between your work at TUM and at CASCAT. What was the motivation to change your workspace?
I always liked working at the university regarding to research, but I think shifting to a company will train me in different ways and will offer new perspectives. At a university, you do research mainly out of curiosity. You do not have many economic or social responsibilities. Since my ultimate goal is to contribute to the bio-economy itself, shifting to industry was an important step for me. You always have to keep in mind the financial outcomes; your work has to be profitable. I think this kind of mindset can only be learned within a company.