On the trail of life

Laura Heinen's office gives a hint: Someone has recently moved in here. We find ourselves in an airy room with a large window front. A large desk, equipped only with a telephone and computer, stands in front of empty wall shelves with plenty of room for the future. On the windowsill: a hardy Madagascar dragon tree that will survive even major dry spells of a move from abroad without a hitch. If the room seems a bit sparse and spartan, the young woman sitting across from you at the table radiates something very different: a curious glow in her eyes and infectious enthusiasm when she talks about her research.

The chemist recently joined the DWI - Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials and founded her independent research group here. After her postdoctoral stay in Groningen (The Netherlands), she is now dedicated to the development of so-called systems materials. Her current focus is on energy-autonomous and metabolically active material systems.

Understanding how life works

Already during her chemical education at RWTH Aachen University, the native Rhinelander aligned her path in this direction: "I was fascinated early on by the complexity of living systems. Life-like functions require a material to be dynamic, to regulate itself and to sustain reactions over a period of time. To me, the most obvious reason why natural systems manage to do this in such an unprecedented way is that they function outside of thermodynamic equilibrium. They process information at different levels," she explains.

For her, this is precisely why biological systems are far superior to all non-equilibrium systems created by humans: they are equipped with a full-fledged metabolism and are controlled by an informational subsystem that is difficult to grasp. Her research aims to bridge this gap: Her goal is to develop soft material systems equipped with minimal metabolism, that is, kinetically controlled reaction networks. These reaction networks control the flow of energy and matter in their systems.

Building bridges through communication

In common parlance, Laura Heinen's research could be said to be contributing to the development of "artificial cells". But - especially here - the use of sensitive language is important to her: "In many people, it triggers unease when we talk about artificial cells. With my research, I want to contribute to understanding life at its very foundations. It's not about gaining some kind of dominion over it," she makes clear.

Understanding life - This can only be achieved when people from different scientific fields join forces. In this context, she became part of the EU research project oLife (The origin and evolution of Life in the universe) in the Netherlands in 2019 after completing her doctorate, which she started in Aachen and finished in Freiburg. This is because, although research in recent decades has helped to decipher certain aspects of the origin of life, the answers have so far been incomplete. Exactly how and where life arose remains a mystery to this day.

The oLife project brings together researchers from a wide range of scientific disciplines: including molecular biology, evolutionary ecology, astrophysics and biochemistry. "During my time in the Netherlands - that is, both as a postdoc in Bert Poolman's research group and in the oLife consortium - I learned what a barrier and at the same time a bridge communication can be. This was an important experience in day-to-day work, especially in collaboration with my lab colleagues. Often, coming from biology or chemistry, we meant the same thing but used a different vocabulary. Noticing this and then finding a common language was an enrichment from which I benefit greatly today," she explains.

In working with completely foreign disciplines, Laura Heinen has learned to adopt a change of perspective: What information is essential for my counterpart? Where do I pick up my listener and where do I want to get along with him or her? These are important soft skills that she has also internalized through oLife and that will certainly benefit her in her interdisciplinary work at the DWI.

But science and finding ways to communicate are only one side of the coin. The other, to replenish energy stores: nature. Laura Heinen enjoys being outside, going for a walk after work or roaming through forests and meadows on the weekend. And not just on foot, but also on her bike or on the water in a canoe. This is where she finds the right balance and thus keeps herself in "equilibrium" for her out of equilibrium research topics.

More about Laura Heinen's research field can be found here.