New professor Alexander Frey is passionate about research
Alexander Frey received his doctorate degree from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in 2002. Frey’s research concentrated on metabolic engineering. Since then, he has worked for most of the time as a researcher at ETH performing both basic research and applied research for companies. At Aalto University, Frey first applied for a position as a Professor of Bioprocess Engineering, but was instead given a position created for him in a new field, molecular biotechnology. The new field expands the spectrum of research carried out in the department and is in line with Frey’s previous work.
Research into microbes has a long standing tradition for Finnish industry
Alexander Frey is excited about his future work because the professorship in molecular biotechnology builds largely on his previous research projects. Frey analyses how various proteins move in cells starting from their synthesis until they are secreted from the cells, focusing especially on using microbes in the production of therapeutic proteins.
“Once we know in which parts of the cell different compounds flow unimpaired and where they pile up at bottlenecks, we can determine where and how a cell can be made to produce certain compounds more effectively,” Frey says.
The aim of Frey’s research is to enable the production of therapeutic proteins in microbial cells. All substances produced by a cell require specific conditions, and Frey studies the conditions that are required for the production of different therapeutic proteins in microbial cells. “This is somewhat different from what has been done before as we will follow a holistic approach to monitor the whole cells’ status, and not only focus on a subset of a cellular metabolism. Moreover, we want to understand why a certain manipulation of a cell is beneficial. ,” Frey says.
The aim of molecular biotechnology is to produce increasingly complex and valuable compounds. According to Frey, high-value compounds enable the creation of an industry of its own in countries like Finland. “Offshoring of production must be compensated somehow. One way to do that is to develop increasingly valuable products. Mass chemicals are manufactured cheaply in large quantities, and their production moves to countries with cheap labour. In countries like Finland, with high salaries and top expertise, technology must also be of high quality.”
Free research inspires
As Alexander Frey talks about research, his eyes light up. Frey believes that research work requires strong inner motivation, but is also a privilege. For him, research means discovering new things and challenging what is held to be true with new information. Frey is happy about getting to carry out research in an academic environment that allows researchers to take into account new side tracks and surprising results better than in research projects that aim purely at producing a certain industrial product.
Frey considers research to be central also in terms of the future. According to him, all current research should be done with a view of what can be utilised in teaching and in the industry 10 to 20 years from now. “We have to be able to prepare students for what is or might be coming”, Frey says.
Frey says he feels at home in Finland and at Aalto University. During our interview, the professor’s co‑workers stop by his office to make sure he knows that cake and coffee are being served. In Finland, Frey says he enjoys the nature and the way people wait for others to finish their sentences. The language is certainly difficult, but Frey is optimistic about making progress in learning the language on his own in his free time. “Now, after a couple of months, I might understand what a text is about. Before, all I could see was a mass of text, but now I might recognise a word and even know what it means,” the professor says smiling.