Photo: Niklas Björling
Stockholm is very beautiful and it is both busy and quiet according to Robert Daniels.
Photo: Niklas Björling

“Yes, I still do pretty much the same kind of research as I did at Stockholm University,” says Robert Daniels on the phone from his new laboratory outside Washington DC.

During his sojourn at Stockholm University, Robert Daniels became Associate Professor at the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics. He also built an international reputation as a distinguished influenza researcher. Since June 2019, Robert Daniels has been the principal investigator for a group that studies influenza viruses at the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research within the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) – a US government agency that regulates therapeutics including vaccines.

“The unique work by my research group at Stockholm University was the main reason I was hired to run a group at FDA. The primary focus of our lab is to improve and modernize seasonal influenza vaccines. In essence we are engineering vaccines based on rationale design.”

Came to Stockholm as postdoc

In 2010, after graduating from University of Massachusetts - where he also earned his PhD - Robert Daniels came to work as a postdoc at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. Towards the end of his postdoc period, the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Stockholm University announced a vacant position within the Center for Biomembrane Research; he applied and got the job.

“From day one, I got funding to outfit a laboratory. My first lab was modest, but the environment at the department was friendly. I ran a research group of four PhD students.”

Early on Robert Daniels thought to analyze the flu antigens using a lot of the expertise within the department on membrane proteins – a vital group of medically important proteins in our cell membranes. This cross-disciplinary approach would not have been open to him at the time in the US, he says.

“I did not have any expertise in influenza studies. Some people even discouraged me,” says Robert Daniels.

“I am very grateful that both the department and the Swedish funding agency gave me the academic freedom to pursue my research interest.”

International interest in research findings

As the basic research moved in a more applied direction, the findings of the research group soon gained international interest. However, to test these concepts in an actual vaccine, there was a need for immunization, i.e. testing potential vaccines in animals.

“At the university, we didn’t have the capacity to do animal testing –  which is of course vital – and so I started looking for institutes that possessed this expertise.”

Daniels was interviewed in Sweden, Germany, Australia, and other institutes in the USA, but when he got the opportunity to lead a group studying influenza viruses at FDA, it was an easy choice, he says.

“The idea of having permanent scientific staff is fantastic. In Sweden, as in many other places, this is difficult or even impossible.”

Since his new lab is part of a research center, Robert Daniels is still able to pursue his own research agenda and publish findings in scientific papers. At the same time, the annual funding from the US government is enough to employ him and the other staff scientists full-time.

“With the expertise and resources here it takes three months to do things that would normally take two years at a university. It’s amazing, I come to work with a smile on my face every day!”

Many fond memories of Stockholm

Having spent more than ten years in Sweden and in Stockholm, Robert Daniels has many fond memories. Not only did he meet his German wife in Stockholm, his son was also born here and, he adds, his dog is actually Swedish as well.

“Stockholm is very beautiful, and it is both busy and quiet. Nature is around the corner. And the work life balance in Sweden is pretty ideal.”

Being a foreign researcher at Stockholm University could be a challenge from time to time, he recalls. But his time in academia was also an eye opener.

“My years in Sweden helped to shape my views of many things that I would not have noticed if I had never left the USA.”

Awarded Teacher of the Year at Stockholm University

For instance, he came to realize the value of teaching. In 2018, he was awarded Teacher of the Year at Stockholm University for his creativity in teaching.

“I found out that I could have a stronger influence than I thought through teaching, both in the lab and in the classroom. It is very important to reach the next generation of scientists who will shape the world in the future.”

Based on his own experiences, Robert Daniels strongly advocates for all of us, scientists included, to now and again break away from the old and start something new.

“After working for ten years or so at the same place, you really should step out of your comfort zone. Use your old expertise in a new setting. I am very happy I did!”

Text: Henrik Lundström