Meet some of the people featured in the June 2021 issue of The Scientist.

The Scientist Staff
Jun 1, 2021

Out of high school in the south of Germany, Thomas Münzel entered the medical field as a nurse. But a couple years later, after his father died of a heart attack at the age of 55, Münzel decided he wanted to become a doctor. He was 30 years old when he completed med school at Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in 1985—too old, colleagues told him, to embark on a research career. But he got a stipend to spend two years at the University of Freiburg studying the regulation of coronary artery tone, and then another stipend to travel to David Harrison’s lab in the division of cardiology at Emory University in Atlanta. There, he studied nitrate tolerance and endothelial function, which became the focus of his research when he returned home to Germany a few years later. He became as assistant professor at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in 1995. Nearly a decade later, when he accepted a position as chief of cardiology at the University Medical Center at Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, he moved very close to Frankfurt Airport and had his “first experience with this incredible aircraft noise.” This got him thinking about the associations that had been made between noise and cardiovascular disease, among other health ailments. A few years later, when the airport opened a new runway that resulted in planes flying directly over his house, Münzel decided to refocus his research on the topic. “I said [to myself]: ‘I have to start studying noise and explain to people why noise is endangering us.’” 


Münzel’s postdoc, Omar Hahad, used to study psychology, earning a master’s in the subject in 2016. But his exposure to basic science as part of his psychology studies drew him in, and in 2017, he joined Münzel’s lab for his PhD studying noise annoyance and its effect on vascular function. “Today, we know that mental stress plays a fundamental role in literally every disease,” Hahad says. “Thus the leap from psychology to biology was not that big for me.” He finished his doctorate degree last year but stayed on in Münzel’s lab, and also started to work at the Leibniz Institute for Resilience Research, a multidisciplinary center focused on examining mechanisms of resilience that allow people to be resistant to stress. In this issue, Münzel and Hahad write about the link between noise and coronary heart disease, and specifically, the mechanisms by which exposure to noise can cause changes in the vasculature that lead to cardiovascular dysfunction. 

Nicola Petrosillo is no stranger to the front lines of an infectious disease outbreak. Serving in his post as director of the clinical and research department at Italy’s Lazzaro Spallanzani National Institute for Infectious Diseases, he was responsible for the care of SARS patients in 2004, and in 2014 ran an Ebola hospital in Lagos, Nigeria. Most recently, he has attended to patients suffering from COVID-19 in Italy. At the same time, he is studying SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. He says that his experiences with patients over the past year and a half have left an indelible mark on him as a healthcare provider. “The most difficult thing was to accept that aged patients would die alone without comfort, without their son, without their daughter, without anyone during their last minutes,” he tells The Scientist. “So [doctors and nurses] were everything. We were father, mother, son, daughter, priest, psychologist.” Petrosillo writes in this issue that in addition to learning from the intense research focus on SARS-CoV-2, scientists can draw lessons from studying other coronaviruses, namely SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, to help combat our current and future pandemics. Considering structural similarities and differences between viral agents as well as the epidemiology of past viral disease outbreaks, he says, will help researchers hone treatment, vaccination, and public health measures and ultimately save lives. 


It was her freshman year of college when Lauren Aguirre realized she wanted to be a science communicator. In talking to a science reporter and editor for The New York Times, “I thought, ‘What a great job. You just get to talk to scientists and sort of get the highlights reel of their life,’” she recalls. Aguirre transferred from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to MIT, which had a science writing program. After graduating in 1986, she went on to tell science stories as a producer at the PBS program NOVA. In 2017, Aguirre began to dig deeper into the strange story of a cluster of cases of memory loss in people who had survived opioid overdoses. Intrigued, she quit her job to write a book about the phenomenon and what it reveals about memory more generally and about another memory-robbing condition, Alzheimer’s disease. In this issue, she writes about the role of inhibitory neurons in coordinating brain activity. Her favorite part of reporting the book, The Memory Thief, was interviewing scientists and “going deeper than the highlights reel. And they’re giving you the outtakes and the bloopers, the blind alleys that they went down, and the obstacles and the things that they had to do again and again and again,” she says. “And that is just much more interesting.”