Brief Enquiries

What can stop you, Mr Guck?

Recently, it was the 30th anniversary of my accident. I have now been in a wheelchair for almost twice as long as I was able to walk. I was in Year 11 when the accident happened. After six months in hospital, I was able to go back to school and take my Abitur. During my physics degree, I went to the United States, to Austin, Texas, originally for a year, but then I wound up staying on. I started focusing more on biophysics and investigating how biological cells can be captured using laser beams. How and why do cells deform, especially cancer cells? That has remained my research topic to this day.

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  • Text: Teresa Havlicek
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PROFESSOR DR JOCHEN GUCK is the Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light and Professor of Biological Optomechanics at FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany. He previously held a Humboldt Professorship at Technische Universität Dresden.

The illustration shows Professor Dr Jochen Guck
Jochen Guck

After five years in the United States, I started feeling rather less comfortable. George W. Bush was president, and after 9/11, the climate in general turned much less friendly and more aggressive. So, I took up a postdoc position in Leipzig where I stayed for five years until the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge offered me my own research group. I returned to Germany in 2012, assuming a Humboldt Professorship at TU Dresden. Dresden was just in the process of reinventing itself. A new, interdisciplinary Life Science campus was being established – this is where I’ll put down roots, I thought. And then I came into contact with the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Light in Erlangen where I have now been director since 2018.

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During this entire time, I have never experienced reservations about my being in a wheelchair, only a tendency for people to be unaware or overcautious. There was only one occasion when my wheelchair became the focus of attention: concerns were raised about my undergraduate practical chemistry course – I could tip something over my legs and not be able to react quickly enough. Instead, I was supposed to do one theoretical exam per lab day, 20 in total. I appealed to the university’s disability representative and was allowed to do the practical course. In my experience, academia is the ideal environment for diversity. Research continuously scrutinises established patterns of thought, which encourages openness and makes it easier to integrate everyone – oddballs and eccentrics included.

One thing is clear to me: my life in a wheelchair has taught me to recognise what is really important and what is just a distraction. What others think and consider normal? That is not a question I ask myself. My normal is different anyway. Nor am I the least interested in what happen to be the hot topics. I have always done the things that interest me. And, in the end, that was what was in demand – but that no-one else was working on.

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