Alumni Spotlight: Dr. Bettina Fries combats dynamic challenges

Author:  | Tuesday, September 25th, 2018 | 

Dr. Bettina Fries tackles problems large and small in her field by staying aware of the big picture and fostering cross-disciplinary conversations

The path to studying at the University of Freiburg was a clear one for Dr. Bettina Fries. When asked why she had chosen Uni-Freiburg, she responded easily, “My parents studied in Freiburg, my sister studied in Freiburg… I knew the Black Forest, and I like the Alps. Freiburg is the closest city to the Alps other than Munich.” Once a student, Dr. Fries found the opportunities and people she met within the university as rewarding as the beautiful landscape. She describes the university as an “academically nurturing” environment that afforded her many opportunities and lectures to attend, as well as opportunities for work as a medical student. The students themselves played a valuable role in her experience at the university. “I had really good friends in Freiburg. The curriculum offered  many different lectures so that there was broad variety in what was taught. There were also many international students, even in medicine, and the class was large but not too big, like in Munich or Berlin. The people that showed up to class were the people you studied with and the people you hung out with.”

After completing her medical degree at the University of Freiburg, Dr. Fries completed her post-doc work through the Max Planck Institute. She came to the United States in 1991 on a stipend from the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), and worked at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute in Seattle until 1993. She then moved to New York to do her residency training at the Montefiore Medical Center, the main teaching hospital of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. At Albert Einstein, she also completed her infectious disease sub-speciality training, became a member of the faculty, and eventually rose to a full professorship. In 2014 she left Albert Einstein to become the Infectious Disease Division Chief at Stony Brook University. Dr. Fries notes that while she never made the decision to stay in the United States, she also never made the decision to go back to Germany either. She has remained in America because of the many opportunities that are available in her area of research focus. “I ended up sub-specializing in an important field in medicine, but it doesn’t really exist in Germany, which has made it hard to think about going back, because there wouldn’t really be a defined position there.”

Dr. Fries’ current work at Stony Brook University is split between research, teaching, and patient care. She finds satisfaction in each part of being “a true physician scientist,” from training young new physicians, to visiting with patients, to continuing her research. Her research is currently focused on pathogenesis of chronic infection by the pathogen, Cryptococcus neoformans, as well as investigations on efficacy of anti-infective antibodies. This includes tackling the increasingly-pressing issue of how to deal with bacteria that have become antibiotic resistant. Fries particularly enjoys the dynamism of her field. “What is a major infection today is going to be cured tomorrow,” she says, explaining how there are always new challenges to tackle.

When she is not tackling the challenges posed by infectious diseases, Fries is also carefully and critically considering the challenges facing the scientific community today. When asked to identify the biggest problems, she cited “the existence of an unhealthy power structure. There are old boys clubs, there will probably soon be old girls clubs, editorial boards, and grant foundations, which constitute a small percentage of scientists. They make people the make most major decisions regarding what grants are put out and what institutions receive them, what research field is funded — and whose papers are published or reviewed by high impact journals. These ingrained power structures can be dangerous and limiting.”

Dr. Fries maintains her connection with Uni-Freiburg in both a personal and professional capacity. She recently attended the Innovator’s Breakfast on Precision Medicine hosted by the liaison office in New York City this past June. At the breakfast, Dr. Fries highlighted how the failure to have cross-disciplinary conversations could create big problems. She spoke about how the inability of scientists to explain the gravity of their work to policymakers has contributed to governments in both the United States and Germany to decreasing important funding support for researchers. This, in turn, has made it difficult for post-docs and research assistants to stay with the same lab for as long as they were able to in the past. The faster rate of turn-over means that more time must be devoted to training new post-docs or research assistants in order to keep them up to speed while trained individuals are forced to move on rather than remain with the lab and delve into higher-level research. This is a result of the lack of funding to support staff scientists that can be retained in the lab.

“That’s one of the biggest problems — it makes it difficult to generate a sustainable base of mid-level career scientists and researchers, and threatens the existence of research by interfering with the process of creative innovation.” Without a solid base of mid-level career scientists, the knowledge is not passed on and the gap between older professionals and newly-trained scientists continues to grow wider. Lack of funding makes it more difficult for researchers to financially survive and sustainably bridge the gap. Yet Dr. Fries seems confident that the application of an evidence-based approach to finding the facts and building understanding between individuals will eventually lead to success in conquering these problems.

Dr. Fries recently returned from teaching a three-week class on infectious diseases in Freiburg, not for medical students, but for the students at the University College Freiburg. University College Freiburg is an elite liberal arts college within the university, which may seem like a strange fit for an infectious disease class, but Fries is quick to stress the importance of such opportunities. “I’m a big believer in cross-disciplinary thinking. It’s part of the reason why I taught that course in Freiburg. Most global problems that need a multi-disciplinary, systematic evidence-based approach. No one can be an expert in everything –we need experts to have conversations that foster understanding and break down barriers. Economists and math-modelers need to join with scientists and have conversations. We need to look at things together and explain certain aspects to each other if we are going to find a solution to these global problems. Modernity needs to be embraced and social media and novel communication tools can facilitate communication across continents.”

A Quick Q&A:

Q: Where do you hope to see yourself in five years?

A: “Advancing in my career to maybe become a department head… Or perhaps I will do something else like work in a medical school or in a big foundation concentrating on infectious diseases, either here or in Europe.”

Q: What is the most meaningful lesson that you have taken away from your life and your work?

A: “Resilience is more important than persistence. It is not only important to stay with something but to constantly reinvent yourself.”

Q:What advice do you have for current students at the University of Freiburg who are interested in studying medicine and pursuing a career in your field?

A: “My advice is pick something in medicine that you want to grow old with, that changes all the time. I wouldn’t want to do something that stays the same for the rest of my life, I would get bored.”

Responses are currently closed, but you can
Trackback the post from your own site.