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“I do feel a little wistful,” says Rosi Lederer and smiles. She plans to transition into retirement after eight years at Wings for Life. In her capacity as scientific coordinator, she was a critical thinker responsible for the research project selection process. We sat down with our valued Munich-born colleague for a very personal retrospective.
Rosi, you were offered the position as scientific coordinator at Wings for Life in 2010. How did that come about?
The Wings for Life team was still fairly small back then; Jan Schwab, our scientific director, and Vieri Failli, our resident biologist, were coordinating the research funding from Berlin. They have established a transparent and independent peer-review process and project selection. Our CEO Anita Gerhardter wanted to be closer to the selection process, in order to better understand which projects are being funded and why. She perceived this as an important interface within the team and was eager to establish it here in Salzburg. I, on the other hand, was very interested in everything pertaining to spinal cord injuries. So, I decided to move to Salzburg in 2010 to start my new job.
Can you remember your first day at the office?
Yes, I remember it quite well. I arrived at the office around 8.30am. Vieri Failli explained where already funded applications and projects are stored and how to navigate the server. I was also given an overview of the project statuses, which contracts were not yet completed, and which reports still had to be requested. Given I was looking at 25 ongoing projects that were completely new to me, I thought: “Yup, there’s a lot to do here…”
It didn’t take long before you attended your first scientific congress, right?
Yes, exactly. I flew to San Diego to take part in the Neuroscience Conference. That’s where I met many new faces from the field of spinal cord research. For example, I only knew the world-renowned researcher Sam David from our website. At some point, when our paths finally crossed near the posters, I plucked up all my courage and introduced myself. I still remember his open and positive response. He even gave me some advice. He told me to always think outside the box and I have been following his advice ever since.
Which part of your job did you enjoy particularly?
My favourite time was the so-called application year, when all new applications had been submitted. We looked into all the projects and chose suitable appraisers. Together with my colleague Verena May, I compiled a Power Point presentation for each project. Then I read the comments of our expert appraisers and summarised them. I always found that process very exciting.
Are there approaches that have the potential to be highly successful in the near future?
When the paper on epidural stimulation crossed by desk for the first time, I thought it was very interesting and was excited by it immediately. The first “Proof of Concept”* studies are currently ongoing. These will clarify whether the approach is really suitable for every patient. Another aspect I am really impatient about is whether there is a stimulation mode that can return function to the upper extremities. I can’t wait for the first studies. Past basic science projects have pointed us into the right direction. One can see that there is progress. I believe the study by Stephen Strittmatter of Yale, which Wings for Life funded with 7 million US Dollars, is very promising. I’m looking forward to seeing the first results. A cure is never found overnight, but I am convinced that significant progress will be made over the next few years.
You always sound very cautious…
As a reputable research foundation, we should always only make promises that our projects’ results can keep. We need to tell it like it is, not foster false hope. It has always been very important to me not to raise expectations that we may not be able to meet.
Even though we don’t fund private individuals, we regularly receive messages asking for help. Can you remain objective in such cases?
During my time as a doctor, I learned how to create professional distance. You simply cannot allow yourself to despair with every patient you meet. Nevertheless, I still find it very difficult to tell spinal cord injury patients – or their relatives – that there is no cure yet. It’s particularly tough when families reach out and tell us that a baby or child is affected. You don’t just write an e-mail, go home, and forget about it. Those cases affect you deeply, especially when you know that there are no spinal cord treatment centres for children in Europe. You try to help, to look up some contacts, and to make recommendations.
You have decided to pass on all your duties. Is this a difficult step to take?
My colleague Verena May has fulfilled the duties of a scientific coordinator for the last five years. We have always shared the workload and she is in an excellent position to continue our work. In addition, Dr. Markus Böttinger, my direct successor, is highly competent and will learn the ropes quickly. Our scientific advisory panels and the transparent selection procedure form a very solid structure that acts as a guideline for the decision-making process.
What will you do with so much free time?
(laughs) I can now spend time back in Munich during the week. I can spend more time reading the morning newspaper without having to plan my entire day carefully. I will have more time for my family and my garden. I can head into the mountains when the weather is nice. Naturally, you do feel a little wistful when you love your job and work in such a great team. I will, of course, remain interested in spinal cord research and continue to follow the newest findings. In addition, I have gladly accepted the offer to join the Wings for Life advisory board. Thus, I retain an advisory role. And of course, I will keep on taking part in the Wings for Life World Run.
What are your hopes for the foundation?
I hope that interesting applications will continue to be heard and that successful approaches manage the transition to clinical trials over the next five years. That is my hope for the foundation, but even more so for all those who are affected.
Dr. Rosi Lederer was responsible for Wings for Life’s research coordination, administration, and funding for eight years. Prior to that, she spent ten years coordinating the Bavarian Research Associations and underwent supplementary training in public health. As of October 2018, Rosi Lederer joins Wings for Life’s advisory board. She is married and the mother of three grown-up children.