A few questions to Prof Dr Kenneth W. Witwer, Johns Hopkins University

You have been very well known in the EV field for your engagement in scientific rigor and standardisation. Why do you believe that this is important?

Witwer: We can work as feverishly as we like, 24/7, but if our experiments aren’t designed well, if our results aren’t recorded correctly, and if it’s impossible for others to replicate or reproduce the studies, we may as well not have done them. I think this is particularly important for perceived “hot” fields like EV research. Established scientists must share their expertise to help others and lift the whole endeavor.


You work as a Professor at Johns Hopkins University – an institution that has produced many well-known scientists, but has also become known for controversial, past experiments such as uninformed harvesting of cell lines (e.g. HeLa cells). What can today’s researcher learn from the past?

Witwer: HeLa cells are a cell line that has enabled numerous important discoveries in biology. They were derived in 1951 from a biopsy from Henrietta Lacks (hence “HeLa”), an African-American woman who was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins. It is important to note that Johns Hopkins has never profited from these cells and has distributed them freely for scientific benefit. We can learn a few things from the HeLa cell legacy. First, scientists and physicians should always uphold equity and inclusion. Mr. Johns Hopkins (the man) wrote into his will in the late 1800s that the hospital he founded should serve all patients, including African-Americans, and that is why Ms. Lacks could obtain treatment at a leading hospital even in a country with serious racial inequality. Second, although there were no regulations in 1951 to govern use of patient samples for research, and such samples were routinely taken from patients of various races and socioeconomic statuses, we now have strict consent procedures in place for all uses of patient materials. Finally, embrace anomalies: the unexplained can often lead to breakthroughs in practice, so don’t ignore the outliers. HeLa cells became widely useful because Ms. Lacks’s physician noticed how differently these cells behaved.


What do you recommend young researchers that enter the scientific world in general and in the EV field?

Witwer: Don’t let yourself lose the sense of curiosity that brought you into the field. Even in the midst of routine and even draining work, keep looking around at what else is happening in science and how science and society interact. Seek out opportunities for cross-fertilization. Love those EVs, but also attend a meeting that has nothing to do with EVs. Keep looking for the next spark, the next project.


What do you recommend young researchers that enter the scientific world in general and in the EV field?

Witwer: Science is beautiful, and I’d encourage anyone entering the field to really throw themselves into it, enjoy the highs, push through the lows, seek good mentors, and keep looking for the niche that suits them best, whether it’s a particular field of science, or a particular setting (academia, biotech, big pharma, medical writing, intellectual property, etc.; there are so many exciting roles that need to be filled!). For those getting into EVs: don’t be afraid to reach out to others in the field for advice; I’ve worked in several fields (including chromatin and non-coding RNAs) before I moved into EVs, and this community is by far the most inclusive, welcoming, and helpful than I’ve ever known before.


You have a special connection to Germany and even speak German very well! Where does this come from and could you imagine working in Germany?

Witwer: Life takes us in unexpected directions. As a teenager growing up in the US, I participated in an exchange visit to Bavaria for just a few weeks one summer, and this led to a lifelong interest. Before I became a scientist, I even took some courses at the Philipps-Universität Marburg and completed an internship in Berlin. Although my German may have become a bit rusty over the years, I would love to spend more time “im deutschsprachigen Raum” and would certainly be open to working there.


What do you enjoy outside of your scientific work and how much time do you have for these activities?

Witwer: I enjoy gardening, indoors and outdoors; hiking; skiing (badly); reading (mostly in German these days); and anything related to the beach. As an academic scientist, I have plenty of time for all of these pursuits ;-)


What makes you laugh?

Witwer: This guy on Insta who has a life-sized stuffed dog and startles people by making it jump and bark at them. Then he says “Relax, Shadow,” and the “dog” goes nuts. I want to be that guy someday. I’m in tears just writing this.


Do you watch sports, and what is your favourite sports team?

Witwer: I grew up without a television, and I purchased my first television only last year…weird, I know. I like to watch sports, but I do so only very occasionally. For anyone reading in Baltimore: of course I am a passionate O’s and Ravens fan.


Do you have a personal motto?

Witwer: My personal motto is, “Be true to your work, your word, and your friend” (Henry David Thoreau). Or was that today’s entry on my motivational calendar?