P&F: Hi Antar! 🙂
We are super happy to run an interview with a Filius again, especially because your Pater was already our guest. It’s almost a family affair here!
For our readers: We were introduced to Antar by his father, Dr. Carlos Drews (check interview #4), after seeing truly ‘pateretfilius-esque’ pictures of the two finishing a 10km race in Munich, Germany. The spirit emanating from that happy shot just perfectly emphasizes what PATER et FILIUS stands for: happiness, family bonds, strong moments to share and remember.
Antar is a 25-year-old FILIUS, German-Colombian molecular biotechnology student at TUM University. He is currently in Boston doing research for his master’s thesis in biochemistry. He is a divemaster, gyrocopter pilot, extreme freeclimber, marathoner, world traveller, part-time jazz musician, but more than anything else, an infectiously happy dude.
P&F: Antar, we‘ve already had your dad here and talked thoroughly about our planet’s health and how the COVID-19 pandemic might have awakened us all with regards to what needs to change for a better future. You just finished studying biochemistry. Are you following in your father’s scientific footsteps? What are your plans? And what is the ONE BIG THING you want to achieve in life?
Antar: There is definitely a resemblance in my scientific career with my dad. Although it is a different topic, I think, in a sense, I am following in his footsteps. He was an academic for a long time, and I’m basically doing the same thing. For now, I am just doing my master’s thesis, but I plan on doing a PhD as well. It’s actually pretty funny because I am in Cambridge to do my thesis, and my father did his doctoral thesis in Cambridge as well – but he did his in Cambridge, England, whereas I’m in Cambridge, Boston, in the States.
My plans would be to start a PhD when I finish my degree. I’m not sure where yet – anywhere in the world actually – that depends on the type of research and the specific topic I want to investigate. Then, if that leads to a big publication, that would be amazing! It’s a lot of hard work and a bit of luck as well. But if I want to stay in academia, that is a pre-requisite: you need a good publication to keep on going, to get your own research group, and maybe become a professor one day. When I was younger, becoming a professor was actually my one big thing I wanted to do. During the last year, I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I’m not sure if that’s still the one thing I want most anymore.
Actually, the one big thing I want to achieve in life, in a broad sense, is just to be happy, no matter what I do, because I think that’s just the most important thing. It doesn’t matter how much money you make or if you’re doing the stuff you studied or something completely different. As long as you are happy and proud of what you are doing, that’s enough, there are no other rules I think. So yes, that’s the priority in my opinion. And if what you’re doing can inspire others, that’s also a nice bonus, I mean, sort of helping people without even actively doing anything or knowing it; but if other people look at what you’re doing and it changes their lives or inspires them, then that’s great as well!
P&F: Why did you choose to specialize in biochemistry?
Antar: Well, I’ve always had a passion for science and understanding things. I actually wanted to study physics first, that was my big idea for a long time, basically for the same reasons I decided to study biochemistry: it explains how everything around us works. But then, we started learning about genetics at school, about those little molecular processes that happen in our cells, and how those little reactions explain how every cell works and that explains how every organism works. That was fascinating for me, to understand how life and everything that surrounds us is functioning on a molecular level and that’s why I decided to do biochemistry in the end. I also liked biochemistry because it was less theoretical than pure physics.
P&F: What is your thesis going to be about? And why?
Antar: I’m working with stem cells, which are super interesting and powerful! To understand what they are, the best example to look at is the formation of an embryo. That’s one of the most fascinating things in life for me. You have two cells, the sperm and the egg, and they just combine and start dividing and that little bunch of cells creates a whole, complete organism! All the limbs, all the organs, all the types of tissue, everything has to be perfect and where it should be.
All that happens through stem cells. They have this massive potential to create any type of tissue. Our body is made out of trillions of cells. You have brain cells, muscle cells, bone cells. And they all originate from the same stem cells. Now, about fifteen years ago, some very smart people discovered that you can get stem cells from tissue, meaning it is possible to reverse the process of turning stem cells into tissue. I could take some skin cells and reprogram them to go back to stem cells. This amazing discovery led to a Nobel Prize, because it basically allows you to make stem cells in the lab and then use those to study anything you want.
One big problem with stem cells was the ethical issues surrounding them. Usually, stem cells for research purposes were aquired from the surplus material of in vitro fertilization procedures in hospitals, from fertilized eggs that were not needed. But this is forbidden in many countries, and made very complicated to apply for in many others. So having those lab-made stem cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells, just circumvented all these problems! No ethical issues, no embryo involved, but the same characteristics and potential to become any other type of tissue.
So, in my thesis, what we are doing is studying neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. We are trying to use these stem cells to basically turn them into brain cells and try to understand Alzheimer’s, for instance, in a better way, so that hopefully, that knowledge can be used to cure, treat, or prevent the disease in humans.
P&F: You grew up in Costa Rica, lived in Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and the U.S.A. You are fluent in Spanish, German, and English, and quite comfortable in French. Would you describe yourself as a world citizen or do you feel rooted in a specific culture, and why?
Antar: Well, of course I could pretend I’m a world citizen but deep inside I’m definitely a Latino, definitely Costa Rican! I know I could pass for a Scandinavian, but those are only looks. I always have to explain that to people I meet for the first time! 🙂
P&F: With your father being so involved in nature conservation worldwide and your family having extensively travelled the world, what does travel mean to you personally today? And what is your favorite way to travel?
Antar: I love travelling. I think it’s just completely necessary to grow as a person, to get different perspectives. Depending on the culture of the country you’re visiting, the way of thinking and viewing things might be completely different, so that makes you rethink the way you look at things yourself. I would encourage everyone to travel if they have the chance.
Personally, the best way to travel is to get started without planning too much, to leave enough room for spontaneous decisions, and also to keep it as cheap as possible. I love to save money where I can! To get the experience of being in another place, no luxuries are needed. Actually, travelling was probably much more exciting and adventurous four decades ago. Today, you can land anywhere in the world, grab your smartphone, and have access to any answer for whatever question you might have. You can even translate everything. That makes things a lot easier of course, but at the same time, it destroys a lot of the fulfilling stimulus you had forty years ago. I would have loved to travel at that time. Where you arrived somewhere, didn’t know the language, were stranded there, and had to find a way to get to the place you wanted. You had to take the public transportation that would probably take you the wrong way, ask the locals, get immersed in that new culture. I think travelling is a fulfilling human need, namely, that of discovery, growth, experience, and adventure.
It is not only a means of transportation, of reaching a destination. And I don’t need to take a plane to the other side of the world either to experience travelling. This especially applies to Europe, where everything is so close. For example, I did a bike trip to Italy once with a friend, we did Munich – Bolzano in one day, 350km. We just decided to do it! We crossed the Alps and four countries to get there: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. That’s also travelling. We did it in one weekend, didn’t have to take any days off, it just took a lot of commitment and waking up early. It was adventurous, environmentally friendly, cheap, and definitely an experience for life!
P&F: Since we’ve spoken to your father here before, I would like to take the opportunity to ask you what ‘family’ means to you? What does it stand for today in your opinion? Is there such thing as a powerful father-son bond and if so, how has it shaped you into who you are today?
Antar: Family for me is about having people who, no matter where you are or what you are doing, will be there for you. And that has been the case for me, especially in the last few years during my studies, where I travelled and moved abroad a couple of times. All of that wouldn’t have been possible without the support of my family.
Regarding the father-son bond, there definitely is such a thing! Going back to the first topic we discussed, if you ask me, as a biochemist, there is clearly a genetic component! Following in my father’s footsteps regarding my scientific career, all the different types of sports as well – my passion for running and trying out new sports and just being active – some of that is definitely a reflection of my father. Carlos has been running for decades – he even did an ultramarathon actually, he ran 100km, pretty impressive! We’re both terrible swimmers as well!
So yes, there is definitely such thing as a father-son bond.
P&F: OK, let’s talk about sports. You are undoubtedly an athlete, but what is particularly striking is that you seem to be a true jack of all trades! From marathon and triathlon running to snowboarding, deep diving, auto gyro flying, bouldering or playing handball, you are passionate about all disciplines. And what is really remarkable is that you are performing on a pretty high level despite the heavy academic volume at university! What is your superpower?
Antar: I wish I had a superpower! I think it’s a matter of passion. I think I’m a quick learner in a sense, so when I try something out it usually works somehow, otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to invest that many hours. I just like to try out different things. During my childhood I had the great opportunity to try out so many things. I was super lucky. That’s also something I am very grateful to my parents for. They just let me try out everything. Maybe that sort of primed me to constantly want to do new stuff. Then you just have to put in the hours!
You know, exercice for me is a form of distraction. If there is a lot on my desk, or I am struggling with other stressful things in life, then going for a run is a relaxing moment. It’s like a two-for-one: you’re exercising and releasing stress at the same time.
Also, I am not practising all these sports at the same time! For example, I dropped a lot of my climbing in the last few years. I just stopped training. I lost a lot of that strength, but with some things it’s kind of like riding a bike: you don’t forget about all of it. If you pick it up again after taking a break, it can definitely come back.
P&F: Is there one specific sport you have not tried yet and would definitely want to? And why?
Antar: Oh, there are so many! But there is one specifically: kitesurfing. I’ve always loved kitesurfing! That speed you can achieve! And those crazy jumps! But it’s one of those sports that is not easily accessible. You need a lot of expensive equipment, to be close to the water, the wind, and you need someone to teach you because it’s not something you can just try out and start doing, it can get very dangerous. A good friend of mine I met a year ago in Australia is a kitesurfer, actually, his whole family is totally into kitesurfing. I hope he’ll teach me one day.
P&F: Who is/are your role model(s)?
Antar: I don’t know if I have any role models, per se. I definitely have people that inspire me, depending on what aspect of life we’re considering. There is this Canadian triathlete, Lionel Sanders. He is an inspiration to me. He is this crazy dude that started his career as a triathlete pretty late. He went through massive drug problems and was a heavy partyer before becoming an athlete. One day he just made a switch and started training obsessively, and with tremendous discipline, hard work and consistency, he just became one of the best in the world. All by himself, out of his own strength.
Then, when I was a child, I really looked up to Galileo Galilei, the physicist. He made me want to first study physics, in fact. So yes, he was also an inspiration for me. Fun fact: When I was 17, I used to have 2 rats as pets and they were called Einstein and Galilei 🙂
P&F: Where and how do you visualize yourself in ten years? And what would be your dream life?
Antar: I don’t even know what I’ll be doing in one year! Oh no, wait, I have plans for the next year, and if I do a PhD, that’s going to be for the next five years. Although I don’t know where I am going to be then. But ten years? No clue, I could literally be anywhere in the world. For the near future, I’m freestyling. Who am I going to meet? Where am I going to end up? I just follow the very next thing and as long as I like what I am doing and that takes me to a place I like, I’m following that path. I just wish for great people around me, friends not too far away, and enough time for hobbies and travelling.
P&F: Since you grew up in an environment showing respect and gratitude to Mother Nature, I guess that you are eco-savvy and well aware of today’s ecological struggles. So on a scale from 1 to 10, what grade would you give yourself for eco-conscious behavior in general?
Antar: I hate grading myself… would a 7 or 8 be okay? I think 7 is kind of a magic number to grade yourself with: not too bad, but not too good either. I still have stuff I can improve.
P&F: What typical eco-friendly habits do you incorporate into your daily routine? And how is it with friends and people around you? Are you usually the eco-weirdo or would you say your behavior is the new normal? Is your generation more eco-sensitive in general?
Antar: I reduced my meat intake significantly about three years ago. I stopped buying meat completely, but I might have some if I am invited somewhere. It always depends on your lifestyle, where you are, and what options you have. It’s not always easy to stay consistent.
Before that, I used to eat a LOT of meat. Then I realized it is a big issue. Even if you are not vegetarian or vegan, if everyone in the world reduces their meat intake by half, it’s the same as if half the population went vegetarian. Sometimes it doesn’t take drastic changes – if everyone contributes a little, it’s a great help.
I also ride my bike a lot and use public transport, but here in Boston, I only travel by bike. I try to keep my amount of waste low. I buy stuff that comes without packaging, especially plastic. And I recycle, of course.
I think our generation is the first to really experience the harm of climate change firsthand. Maybe it is going to be even worse for the next generation. So yes, there is a general awakening there.
P&F: You are probably aware that you’ve had a childhood richer in amazing experiences than the vast majority of people. What are some extraordinary moments or encounters that really shaped your personality or even changed your life?
Antar: Mainly growing up in Costa Rica. That was the biggest factor. We had a lovely home, I had a beautiful childhood, my cousins were my neighbours, we had lots of great outdoor space to play in, we had different animals as pets – I think that’s also very important for children. We had dogs, a pig, chicken, iguanas. That was really cool.
The German school in Costa Rica was also a life shaping thing – this intercultural experience where you had so many kids with different cultural backgrounds! Also, all the facilities that were offered, all the school clubs that we had, such as sports and chess. Oh, speaking of chess, I really loved playing chess! But what I didn’t know or realize at the time was that our teacher at school was not only the Costa Rican champion, but also one of the best Latin American chess players! He is a Grandmaster now, which is the highest level you can achieve, and back then we were just children in a classroom not knowing how grateful we should’ve been for having that guy teach us!
All these amazing things really made me grateful. I think it’s a shame that kids today are given an iPad or a phone to distract them. It’s convenient, of course, but these kids stop playing outside, don’t get hurt, don’t try out crazy things, don’t do dumb things they’ll keep as funny memories. They don’t make real experiences and miss so much of life in my opinion.
P&F: If you could swap bodies with someone for one week, who, or what, would you like to be and why?
Antar: If I had to be a person, then probably an astronaut working on the ISS. One week would be a perfect amount of time to spend so far away from everything we know. It must be insane to see things from that perspective and understand what it is all about! I wouldn’t be too thrilled to spend more time in space though.
And if I could be anything, it would be the mantis shrimp, for their insane visual system! They are thought to have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom and have the most complex visual system ever discovered. I think it would be incredibly interesting to see how they see the world. Humans can distinguish between three different colors, while mantis shrimps have over ten photo receptors and can see all sorts of different lights – they detect ultra violet radiation and polarised light, where we see only air! It must be so interesting to have such a completely different perception of what surrounds you.
P&F: Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you would like to share with our readers?
Antar: I would like to share one of my favorite sayings: you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. So take more chances!
P&F: Fabulous! Thank you for your time and for letting us be a part of your very interesting insights, Antar. We wish you all the best!