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A target-seeking professor

The Deans at KTH

Published Oct 11, 2013

He grew up under rather meagre conditions on a farm outside of Strömsund. In upper secondary school, he realised that good grades would be his ticket to another life. Today, Stefan Ståhl is Dean of the School of Biotechnology and Professor in Molecular Biotechnology, where he has been specialising in target proteins for the past 10 years.

The Dean of KTH's School of Biotechnology, Stefan Ståhl (Photo: Håkan Lindgren)

When he was 20 years old, Stefan Ståhl moved to Stockholm from the family farm in the small village of Görvik outside of Strömsund. The idea was that he would study to become a chemical engineer at KTH and then return home to get a job. But 30 years on, he is still there, both in Stockholm and at KTH.

“My friends back home still say, 'Are you still in school? Can you not get a job?'”

Even though he loves his little village, Ståhl felt that he did not want to stay and work on the farm. He wanted something else and dreamed of travelling. Achieving the highest grades in natural sciences in upper secondary school meant that he could pick and choose where he wanted to study. He travelled around with an army buddy and visited different universities and colleges. The reason why he ended up choosing Chemical Engineering at KTH was the great reception.

“We were welcomed by girls at the Chemistry Department! As simple as that, a really nice atmosphere.”

Uhlén wanted him to continue and do research

The thing that caused Ståhl to change his plans of returning home to Jämtland was meeting Mathias Uhlén, now a Professor in Biotechnology. Uhlén had just returned from his post-doc in Heidelberg and Ståhl was in the final stages of his degree project. The idea of a research career had never occurred to Ståhl, but Uhlén got him to reconsider: “You should stay and do research. I think you would do well.”

“I thought Mathias would probably be at the centre of things.”

Actually, Uhlén had only planned on hiring one doctoral student at that stage. But Ståhl and two friends told him, “You'll have to take all three of us or no one.” So, the three of them started on their doctorates in the so-called DNA Corner, where Uhlén and four others conducted their experiments down at the old Jäsningslära at KTH. This was the starting point of today's prominent advances in Biotechnology at KTH.

Half of the time, Ståhl works on research.

“Of the six departments of Biotechnology, three are complete spin-offs from Uhlén, led by Uhlén himself, Per-Åke Nygren and Joakim Lundeborg.”

Half-time Dean 

Ståhl has been Dean of the School of Biotechnology for almost nine years, a time during which the school recovered ground on a significant financial deficit and is now showing positive results. At the same time, Biotechnology is the school at KTH that has grown the most during Ståhl time at the helm.

“We have gone from 140 to 340 employees while I have been Dean, but I think it's gone surprisingly well. Things are in better order now. The organisation works. We have a good HR person and we make sure we meet with all new employees. Everyone knows that they are free to call me or the HR Manager and that conversations between us are kept confidential. I actually feel really good about the staff-related aspects. It's a part of the activities I feel I want to pay close attention to.”

“Besides having the ultimate responsibility for staff matters for the entire school, much of the Dean position involves having an economic overview, being responsible for the different departments' economy,” says Ståhl.

And he enjoys the position of Dean. But not to the point of doing it more than half-time. Giving up his research is not an option.

“I know that my career path won't change as a result of being the Dean for a number of years. I have to keep up my research. Part of me wants to because I think it's terribly enjoyable, but I also know that when I apply for money from research councils, nobody will care that I have been Dean. It doesn't make it easier to get funding.”

Target proteins

Research is Ståhl’s greatest passion. It is what makes him tick. It measures up well with another great passion in his life – music.

“A good research result is just as enjoyable as a good record,” he says.

His focus for the last 10 years has been on developing small target proteins – known as affibodies – as tools for more effective diagnostics and hopefully for the future treatment of breast cancer.  Most recently, he has also initiated research collaborations within the Alzheimer field.

“This was a chance project. We were trying to produce something that could diagnose the amyloid-beta peptides that form plaques in the brains of patients with Alzheimer's disease. And we produced one of these strange affibodies. We had never before produced a dimer, that is two affibodies linked together, capturing the amyloid-beta peptide in a tunnel-like cavity. And it turned out that it prevents this plaque formation entirely, both in test tube experiments and in an Alzheimer model in drosophila. During the autumn, we move on to study the effect in Alzheimer models in transgenic mice.”

A good research result is just as enjoyable as a good record

The affibody molecules can be designed to seek out the areas where a person is affected by the disease. They can be used both for diagnosis and treatment. In the case of cancerous tumours, these small smart affibody molecules are currently only used for diagnosis, known as imaging diagnostics. They localise exactly where the tumour is, enabling a more precise targeting of radiation treatment instead of subjecting larger areas of the body to radiation.

“We are currently working with 'arming' the target proteins with suitable radioisotopes, so that they can also radiate the tumours on-site and incapacitate them, but at the moment we are at the animal experimentation stage of this process.”

Outside of school, music is an important part of Ståhl's life.

Get out into the industry for a couple of years

However, target proteins are not Ståhl's only speciality. As with several of his colleagues at Biotechnology, he is also good at seeking out research funding. To some extent, this probably has to do with him having been out in the industry for a few years in the beginning of the 2000s, soon after he became a professor at KTH. Ståhl worked as Head of Research at a company that got its name from those small smart target proteins; Affibody AB.

I felt like a rock star.

“I was in charge of a lot of the recruitment of people and took part in the fundraising. It was a whole new world for me. It was SEK 300 million, just like that, that we managed to scrape together from the patents and ideas we had.”

Before he was about to start going out and giving presentations to secure funding, Ståhl received a lot of good tips from the brokers who handled the company's financing phase. Among other things, they stressed the importance of the first minute when trying to capture people's attention. And it was this that appealed to Ståhl, who enjoys standing on stage and giving talks. Now he was ready to go out on the fundraising tour – 45 presentations in one month.

“I felt like a rock star. It was really like that. I didn't know where I was. I just travelled around like a puppet together with Eugene Steiner, and Mathias would sometimes come along for the ride too.”

But however much fun he thinks it is with research and starting a research company, his main passion in life is his family – his wife and daughters. They like to spend their free time on the farm in Gotland or on Ståhl's family farm in Görvik. Ståhl's wife Ylva also has an active career – she is the CEO of Stockholm Science City Foundation – and they have a special trick when it comes to finding time to see and talk to each other.

“We take a walk around Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen at 5:15 almost every morning.”

Håkan Soold

About Stefan Ståhl

Age: 52

Profession: Professor in Molecular Biotechnology and Dean of the School of Biotechnology

Board appointment: KTH Holding and Invervacc AB.

Lives: Norrmalm in Stockholm. Family: Wife and two daughters, 12 and 17.

Leisure activities: Music, cooking and the pub. Spending time with the family, often on one of the farms on Gotland or in Jämtland.

Arrives at work: 8:00.

Goes home from work: 17:30.

Prefers to eat for lunch: LCHF-inspired meals that he has cooked himself. He always brings a lunchbox to work (with the exception of work lunches).

Hidden talents: Played in a punk rock band at home in Strömsund. For a while he was the manager of girl band Tugga Terrier. “Manager as in booking gigs, driving the bus and being a roadie.”

 Listen to the interview with Stefan Ståhl