Wolfgang Watermeyer presides over whole colonies of living organisms – as well as a plethora of spotless, gleaming stainless steel equipment that is as sophisticated as it is expensive. "Lots of students coming in here for the first time are scared of breaking something at first", grins Watermeyer, dressed in his lab coat and with such a cheerful disposition, "but they soon learn how to use the equipment properly." Wolfgang Watermeyer is Head of the Biotech Centre at HSWT and has been for 23 years. The father of two has worked for the university since 1992. Before the Biotech Centre was built, he spent a few years working in cell culture technology in the Bioengineering department.
The Biotech Centre is where bioprocess engineering takes place. "We cultivate biocultures – as in, bacteria, yeast and fungi – that produce substances that can be used in pharmaceuticals or food technology, for example", explains Wolfgang, who was born and bred in Westphalia. To make sure the biocultures can do their job properly, we have to create the best possible conditions for them. Then they spread like wildfire. "It’s fascinating to see them multiply", says Watermeyer: "We start off with a colony so small it could fit on the tip of a needle, and it keeps growing and growing, filling bigger and bigger containers – all the way up to the bioreactor with a volume of ten litres. The population grows exponentially, which is just like what happens in our bodies when we ingest harmful, pathogenic bacteria like E.coli, for example." Observing the development of these colonies in the lab always has a huge impact on the students. However, the Biotech Centre does not work with pathogenic biocultures that could make people unwell.
Watermeyer teaches students, particularly those studying biomechanical sciences, how to perform different procedures, so that they have a good mastery of these applications when they enter their careers. "Our facilities have pilot status", beams the 55-year-old, proudly: "That’s a precursor to industrial facilities: Ours are a little smaller, but all the measurement and control engineering is identical." The centre even has what is known as an industrial-scale 'separator' – a continuous centrifuge – which very few universities have at their disposal. Watermeyer managed to wangle it thanks to some good contacts in the industry.
It is important to him to send his students off into their professional lives with a solid education, which includes establishing good interpersonal relationships. "I want to give my students the confidence they need to thrive – especially those who start off a little unsure of themselves", says Watermeyer. "I myself enjoyed a really excellent education during my studies, and that’s something I want to pass on to my students, too. Sharing knowledge is important to me, which is why I encourage my students to bombard my email inbox with questions at any time. I want them to really learn here at the Biotech Centre, to have fun and hopefully to enjoy their time here."
And it seems to be working pretty well: Watermeyer and many of his former students have established a strong social network over the years. One group of former students has been inviting him to join them for a weekend cabin getaway every winter for the past 14 years; he regularly receives calls from alumni who are now many years into their professional careers, and one graduate who has since founded a company in the USA often welcomes HSWT students from Watermeyer’s courses to do internships and thesis work there. These ‘old hands’ are all ready and willing to show the ropes to the next generation. And then of course there are the technical elements of his job – the equipment – all of which is state-of-the-art and immaculately polished. “I love getting hands-on with a screwdriver or even the massive spanner. When you get a device up and running again, having analysed and identified the problem yourself – it’s just such a great feeling.” For him, it is the combination of all the different aspects that makes working in the Biotech Centre so fascinating: "I love the synergy between biotechnology, technology and interpersonal collaboration – that’s what I thrive on."
When he isn’t sporting a lab coat and safety goggles and teaching in the Biotech Centre, or leading advanced training courses for industry professionals, Wolfgang Watermeyer spends a lot of time with his two children. And if he has any time left in his day, you will find him reading or practising his photography, or even organising a roast dinner for the entire village and old friends from the university. Meanwhile, his motorbike has been collecting dust in the garage for some time now, awaiting its next adventure. "But, you know, I’ll get round to it", he laughs – a pragmatist and an optimist in equal measure.