Biophysicist in Profile

Bert de Groot

Bert de Groot, Principle Investigator of the Computational Biomolecular Dynamics Group at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany, is a scientist in the truest sense of the word. “I have always been driven by curiosity, the drive to find out how things work, and to fix or improve things,” he says. In his current work exploring the functional dynamics of proteins, he also funnels much of his fierce scientific energy into his collaborations.
De Groot wasn’t raised in a particularly science-oriented family. “I come from a merchant’s nest,” he says. “My older brother studied physics, though, so he may have paved some of the way.” Herman de Groot, now developing database-driven web applications for the University of Groningen, is fond of his brother, who is five years his junior. “When we were young that was quite a difference,” he says. “But as we grew older, the difference became much smaller.” The two boys went fishing and played computer games together. They also attended the same small public high school, which “gave me a solid background in the basics and left lots of time for exploring individual interests,” the older de Groot says. Herman remembers his younger brother’s fastidious approach to his schoolwork. “After an exam Bert always complained that it was so difficult, and he was very unsure whether he passed the exam or not,” he says. “But when the grades were handed out, he always had an 8 or higher”—out of 10. “He is very hard-working, and very serious about his work,” Herman adds.

De Groot’s top grades and the realization that he preferred biochemistry to anything else he’d studied landed him at Groningen University, where “I was first introduced to the wonders of science and the contaminating enthusiasm of scientists,” he says. Herman Berendsen, then Professor of Biophysical Chemistry and de Groot’s PhD mentor, had a patient way of guiding his mentee that stuck. Berendsen’s “enormous width and depth of knowledge, his never-interfering, yet at the same time always-supporting attitude, his high scientific standard, his very warm personality, and his never answering questions with ‘no,’” says de Groot, “left a lifelong impression.”
After graduation, de Groot joined Helmut Grubmüller’s lab in the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Department at the Max-Planck-Institute for Biophysical Chemistry. “Amongst other applicants, Bert stood out in our email exchange following up our interview, asking very precise and thoughtful questions,” says Grubmüller. In Grubmüller’s lab, de Groot joined the collaboration with Andreas Engel focusing on molecular dynamics simulations of water permeation through aquaporins. He refined early electron microscopy structures, forming the basis for the simulations, which revealed why aquaporins can be highly permeable for water, while at the same time being highly selective against protons and ions. “Bert is bright, straightforward, and very open-minded, with an inexhaustible reservoir of enthusiasm and scientific curiosity,” notes Grubmüller.

This enthusiasm might have been misinterpreted. Ulrich Zachariae, now a colleague in the Theoretical and Computational Biophysics Department at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, met de Groot on his very first day in the Grubmüller lab. “I remember him using the word ‘ambitious,’” Zachariae recalls, “and me getting a bit wary. I have since then frequently asked for his advice, and have always greatly benefited from it.” Their collaborations include the structure and dynamics of cardiac ion channels and protein-lipid interactions in membranes. “Bert’s guidance relies on fairness and openness, and he fosters excellent scientific work by his high scientific standards, continuous interest, and thought,” says Zachariae. “He has a great sense of humor and thus it has always been huge fun to work
with him.”

De Groot’s research currently focuses on the mechanism of selectivity, gating, and inhibition of membrane channels; protein-protein recognition and aggregation; and collective dynamics underlying function. “Ideally, I see our research not only contributing to understanding nature’s nanomachines on a fundamental level,” he says, “but also to interact and interfere at the molecular level in pathological cases, for example by designing small molecule protein inhibitors.” His eagerness to collaborate and tendency toward hard work will make his vision a reality. “We will attempt to contribute both to making the methods of computational molecular biophysics more accurate and efficient, as well as to tackle challenging dynamical processes, such as conformational transitions underlying signal processing.”
Like any good scientist, de Groot embraces collaboration in his research. “To express an idea to a PhD student or postdoc, and to realize weeks or months later that it sparked an interest, a corresponding experiment has been devised, and the original hypothesis has been confirmed,” he says, “or, even better, that it needed to be revised and corrected,” is what makes the scientific process so exhilarating for him—especially in biophysics as an ever-expanding field. “Over the years it will become more quantitative on the single molecule level, and interact more with other biological disciplines on the level of subcellular complexes,” he predicts. “I hope to be able to continue my research in a high-quality research environment that offers lots of opportunities for collaborations with experimental groups, in an environment with enthusiastic and capable coworkers and colleagues.”

De Groot sightseeing in
Faro, Portugal

De Groot has frequently found such collaborators at the Biophysical Society Annual Meeting. “The meetings provide a unique way to keep up-to-date, are a rich source of novel ideas, and an excellent way of meeting extraordinary scientists,” he says. “The BPS meetings are the de facto standard in our field, almost of the category: go there, and there’s no need to go anywhere else.” A frequent author in Biophysical Journal, he admits a partiality to it. “It is one of the few that publishes predictions. Predictions are an essential part of science,” he says.
Of biophysics itself, de Groot is enamored. “The marvelously efficient, elegant and nifty machinery that proteins display to fulfill their function at the nanoscale never fails to impress and inspire me,” he says. If he weren’t a scientist, there’s a good chance he would have started his own company. “Unfortunately there’s little spare time as a scientist to seriously be involved in a project like that,” he says. Instead, he uses what little spare time he has to experience life through traveling, cycling, books, and movies.
For a successful and fulfilling scientific career, de Groot recommends following your bliss. “Try to identify what aspects of science or your daily work are most enjoyable and satisfying and choose your projects, research direction, and research group accordingly,” he advises. “Science can be tough at times and then it’s important to be driven by inner motivation.” As de Groot did, go where the enthusiasm and the determined intellectual drive to discover why and how takes you—and you’re golden.

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