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Jul 29, 2021

The Interview: Investing in Talent, Sponsored Postgraduate Thorsten Sellerer, TUM

- By Jacqueline Wheeler

At Direct Conversion, we look to the future, to the ideas that drive our innovations forward. This is why we believe in identifying and nurturing new talent. Our commitment to sponsoring postgraduate student attendance at events and conferences helps these gifted young people to expand their knowledge and strengthen their skills.  Through the relationships we build with this next generation of specialists, we replenish and refresh our own thinking and stay at the forefront of medical advances.

Thorsten Sellerer, Postgraduate Working Student, Chair of Biomedical Physics, Technical University of Munich, iWoRiD 2021 Sponsorship

Jacqueline Wheeler: Thorsten, although you live in Munich now, I think your nearby hometown is quite well-known?

Thorsten Sellerer: Yes, I’m from an area close to Ingolstadt, the manufacturing base for Audi.  

JW: Describe your first steps as an academic.

TS: After finishing school, I worked in the civil service because, at the time, it was mandatory either to go into the military or to do some other form of national service. At school, I’d been very interested in chemistry, but gradually I was drawn to physics which took me to TUM in Munich, then biomedical physics for my masters, and finally, to my role as one of Professor Dr Franz Pfeiffer’s group of working students.  

JW: When you chose physics, did you think, one day, I’ll be a scientist?  

TS: I think when you’re young, you do imagine it would be cool to be a scientist but back then, I never thought that someday I would do a PhD, so in a way, it’s even a little bit surprising to me how it’s worked out!  

JW: At what point did you become interested in biomedical physics? 

TS: Well, physics is very broad in terms of opportunities after graduating, so you don’t have to make decisions early or set off in one direction from the start. I didn’t initially consider research and my bachelor thesis looked at defects in semiconductors. This had nothing to do with imaging at all, although in the end, my thesis has fitted into what I do now because the photon counting technology strongly relies on the quality of sensor materials.  

JW: What is your PhD focused on? 

TS: It’s a combination of spectral imaging and phase contrast imaging. There’s currently a lot of interest in spectral imaging and photon counting is adding to that push. Phase contrast imaging has been pioneered by Professor Pfeiffer. It’s a completely new imaging modality and the results of a first clinical trial have just been published. The aim of my PhD project is to combine both modalities, use them simultaneously to exploit the advantages of both while mitigating the individual drawbacks.  

JW: Professor Dr Franz Pfeiffer is a Leibniz Prize winner. What’s it like to work with a leading figure in the field? 

TS: He’s an inspiring person. If you look at his journey, he took an idea right through from inception to a first prototype used with real patients in the clinics. It’s interesting to see how the individual steps came together and were managed by him. 

JW: What is the most rewarding aspect of your daily work? 

TS: I would say working with my colleagues because they’re a very nice group of people, like a second family sometimes. There’s an extremely good atmosphere. 

JW: If you were encouraging a student to follow your line of study, what would be your number one reason for doing so? 

TS: If you study physics, you really do have the opportunity to investigate what you are studying to its fullest extent. It’s a subject which allows you to go to the root of things – if you are motivated and willing to do this. For example, the masters thesis project takes a year, which is quite unusual compared to other disciplines, but it means it’s possible to do experimental work. So, even at masters level, you can go deeply into your subject. However, physics requires a very high frustration tolerance because you have to get used to things not working the first time.  

JW: You were chosen for sponsorship to attend iWoRiD – what’s important about this event?  

TS: It’s a very specialized conference because it’s mainly focused on detector physics and the technology behind detector development, for example the materials used for the sensors.  

JW: Your highlights? 

TS: What was really interesting, although nothing to do with my field, was a talk on PET imaging which explored using hybrid pixel photon counting detector-based technology to reduce background scatter. Also, the sessions that focused on the properties of new detector sensor materials, such as cadmium telluride, which are already used but relatively new in broad applications. 

JW:  Which skills do you think are vital for success in your area of science? 

TS: As I said before, an ability to deal with failure because, if you are working in the field, things frequently go wrong. Also, you need to solve problems analytically, using the tools you have from physics and looking for the logic behind the issue. 

JW: Two people who inspire you? 

TS: Firstly, Christer Ullberg. 

JW: Our Chief Technology Officer!  

TS: Yes. He is always ready to listen and discuss but he knows so much and is very modest. I highly admire his deep knowledge and experience.

And also, Professor Dr Julia Herzen, the second professor in our Chair. She always helps everyone and if you’re struggling, she somehow notices and she’ll come and give you advice. She is very tough and I’ve no idea how she manages to combine this with all her work.  

JW: Finally, as we are about to break for summer, a book you would recommend with a science theme? 

TS: A Space Odyssey!