Tobias Abele

PhD candidate in Molecular Engineering Heidelberg, Germany

What started with "10 days out of the lab to watch movies? You are not even an artist!" turned into "I can't believe I went there and I do want to come back."

Looking back 2 weeks after spending 10 days with artists and cinephiles, I miss a powerful leopard announcing the start of exciting movies. I miss sitting at Piazza Grande at 1 am in the rain of Locarno, soaked with the atmosphere of watching cinema with 8,000 other individuals. Did you ever see 8,000 people crying at once because of a movie? And I miss my three fellow friends: Maja, Míša, and Erik. Three scientists who had to step out of their comfort zone as well. Three more people who were excited about connecting with artists. And every day when we asked ourselves how life was, we had one answer: "Life is good."

I was scared that no one at the Basecamp, a primary school turned into an accommodation for creative minds, would want to talk to us. I was afraid that no one would show up for our science exhibition. I just didn't feel comfortable with being out of my comfort zone. Soon I learned the solution was communication and openness. Everyone wanted to talk to us, and it was almost impossible to engage with all of the basecampers. They were excited about us being there ("That is so cool!"), they loved scientific images ("They are so colorful!"), they were amazed by eating DNA extracted from fruits ("Tastes like absinthe..."). And I was overwhelmed by the openness and sweetness of everyone.

Communication was the main topic of our stay at the film festival. Here, artists try to communicate their thoughts via films. The project "Art of Molecule" by the NCCR MSE, which made our stay at the film festival possible, focuses on providing a communication module between science and artists. Finding a common language was not difficult. We exchanged ideas with artists and ways of thinking. For example, I was approached by game developers who wanted to know how to visualize a genome. Finding common topics was not difficult either. During the Basecamp Academy, a masterclass format of expert discussions and sharing of experiences, I found out that artists face similar problems as scientists: realizing their own projects, getting funding or pleasing financiers and at the same time sticking to own ideas are just a few of them.

Very soon I started to feel at home in Locarno. I knew which bus to take from our accommodation to the city center, or the Basecamp PopUp, where the masterclasses and exhibitions took place. I quickly adapted to a lot of sun and the high humidity in Locarno, and easily adapted to participating in ethical discussions with "our ethics guy" Ralf Stutzki over an espresso. And slowly, I found myself thinking in a different way. I was used to always thinking about the next steps, about making progress and drawing conclusions. But I started to "appreciate the moments." I started to take breaks and admire the work of others. I started to think about what the artist wanted to show and say. Which by no means always worked, and I am still sure the Estonian black metal orthodox monk kung fu movie was all about entertainment. But even that film made me fully enjoy every single scene, and I did not think about how much money this movie could make, whether it was worth my time, or if next time I should watch such a movie again.

On paper, I can enhance my CV with "Ambassador of Engineering Life" and a radio interview on the red carpet, as a new bullet point in the science communication section. But more importantly, I gained a new perspective of thinking, and I will try my best to keep it for a long time. I learned how to make science accessible to non-scientists. I learned how far open-mindedness can take one. And I learned that bringing together diverse people who have nothing in common at first sight generates output, although no output was ever demanded.

Tobias Abele

I am a curious scientist originating from Southern Germany, with a background that blends both Swabian and Bavarian influences. Currently, I hold the position of a doctoral candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany.

My scientific curiosity developed during my physics studies, where I learned to question even fundamental principles and further explored them in the field of synthetic biology. I focused on establishing architectural design inside synthetic cells. Nowadays, I am chemically designing molecular building blocks with various functions and colors to create new structures within living biological cells.

In addition to my scientific pursuits, I enjoy engaging in physical activities outside the lab. You can often find me playing football or exploring hiking trails in the vineyards around Heidelberg. While I have a passion for sports and exercises, playing the bassoon has become the perfect combination of physical activity and creativity for me for over a decade. Being part of an orchestra and exchanging ideas with other musicians and artists, as well as performing on stage, are some of the most fulfilling experiences for me. They allow me to communicate emotions through a common language.

I seek to bridge the gap between my research and non-scientists by visualizing my projects through 2D and 3D animations. This approach simplifies complex principles and makes them more accessible and appealing to a broader community. Recently, I participated in a start-up pitch talk contest, where I learned to design presentations tailored to different audiences, focusing on rhetoric. By combining visual and spoken science communication, I have also taken part in a video interview series where I explain my research in a way that a five-year-old can understand, called “Explain Like I’m 5”. These interviews are publicly available on YouTube.

I eagerly look forward to the opportunity to engage in a creative exchange with artists in Locarno, curious to explore the differences between creativity in science and the arts. I expect learning new ways of storytelling and effectively communicating my research. I am excited to connect with artists and gain insight into their ways of thinking and expressing thoughts. Certainly, this experience will enhance my own creativity in solving scientific problems, which are a daily necessity in the life of a scientist.