PhD: Karl Normak


Each month we are going to be highlighting one of the PhD’s of the project so their work can be showcased. We continue with Karl Normak, PhD in ETH Zurich. We are asking the PhD’s five questions and here is how Karl answered.

Good morning Karl, tell us a little bit about yourself.

I was born in 1995 in Tartu, Estonia. In 2014 I began my bachelor’s studies at the University of Tartu. During my bachelor’s, I was on exchange at the University of Helsinki, where I studied small molecule GDNF mimetics under the supervision of Prof. Dr. Mart Saarma. I also worked part-time during my bachelor studies, developing monoclonal antibodies and researching potential HPV anti-virals at Icosagen AS and Icosagen Cell Factory OÜ. In 2017 I graduated with a B.Sc. degree in Chemistry from the University of Tartu with full honours. After a year as a conscript, I came to Switzerland to continue my education at ETH Zurich. During my Masters studies, I helped set up a student organisation focused on expanding the life-span of our clothes and an early stage start-up, DigitSoil, creating a portable sensor to measure microbial health in soil. For my Master’s thesis, I investigated how enzymatic reactions are affected by phase separation in biomolecular condensates in Prof. Dr. Arosio’s group. After finishing my Master’s, I joined Prof. Dr. Arosio’s group as a PhD student to study the encapsulation of various payloads into extracellular vesicles as an innovative way of camouflaging the payloads from the immune system and providing targeting capabilities.

In my free time I enjoy going hiking, bouldering or otherwise spending time outdoors. I also used to play a lot of football, handball and other team sports when I was growing up and enjoy playing them to this day.

Could you explain your last discovery?

In a nutshell: We are creating a device that would take vesicles and nanoparticles and create hybrid vesicle covered nanoparticles. Essentially, we have a balloon and a ball and we a creating a device that would put the ball in the balloon. Just the balloon and the ball are very-very tiny (about 500 times smaller than a human hair!).

Which is the advancement for science and technology that you are currently studying?

There is a lot of interest in such biological-synthetic hybrid materials and this device would potentially offer a universal way of producing such materials. This would allow for researchers (such as the other members of the consortium) to investigate the biological effects of such materials more easily as well as offer a first step towards scalable production of such materials.

Which would you say are the possible impacts on society?

While the clear impact on society is the potential treatment of dangerous deceases, a much broader impact can be envisioned, as nanoparticles are the functional component in many everyday items such as sunscreen. But the full impact on society is difficult to envision, as the material produced by the device would be a completely new class of material (the biological-synthetic nanoparticle hybrid) and the potential use-cases of such material are yet to be fully discovered.

A famous parallel here would be the discovery of colourful liquid crystals by botanical physiologist Friedrich Reinitze in 1888. Back then he likely never envisioned that the material he and his collaborators discovered would find widespread use in liquid-crystal displays, a ubiquitous technology nowadays.

Is there someone you want to acknowledge?

I would like to acknowledge Prof. Dr. Paolo Arosio, the members of our lab and all the members of the consortium without whom my work would not be possible.