A change of scenery after graduation? That was out of the question for Elisabeth Mertl. At that time, she had already spent four years at the Austrian Research Institute for Chemistry and Technology, OFI for short. Everything was just right: a working environment in which colleagues were friends and their opinions were taken seriously. So Mertl stayed – and is now celebrating her eighth anniversary with the company this year.
Contrary to popular wisdom this hasn’t hurt her career. At only 27, Mertl has a doctorate and engineered a scientific breakthrough: At the OFI, she succeeded in developing methods for the skin compatibility of health products that exclusively use cell cultures and chemistry. These so-called in vitro or in chemical tests do not require animal test subjects such as mice or hares. To implement Mertl’s tests, one final obstacle has to be overcome: their inclusion in the protocol of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).
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From mouse house to cell culture
Instead of studying medicine as originally planned, Mertl decided to study biotechnology at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna (Boku): “It was clear to me early on that I wanted to study a natural science. Not least because of the white coats you’re allowed to wear,” she said.
Childhood in Burgenland provided the conditions: a passion for solving puzzles, a biology teacher with a passion for the subject and a supportive family. The first internship took the freshman to the “Maushaus” of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, where hundreds of mice were bred in order to live as experimental animals.
Is it a coincidence that she is now working on the obsolescence of animal experiments in medical technology? “It definitely feels good to be on the other side now,” says Mertl. This was followed by a master’s degree at Boku and a doctorate at the Vienna University of Technology.
Today, Mertl works in the laboratory with cell cultures on which she tests potentially irritating substances processed in products such as hearing aids or prostheses. The difficulty is to bring extracts of these products into contact with the cells in such a way that their potential for skin irritation or sensitization of the immune system is recognized. Together with colleagues at the OFI and the Vienna University of Applied Sciences, she perfected exactly this procedure.
This methodology could be more reliable than experiments on animals
In a recently published study, the team showed that the methodology was able to detect even small amounts of the substances concerned in 95% of cases. “If we can offer something that works more reliably than a mouse model, then there is actually no reason to call for another animal experiment,” hopes Mertl. With this logic, she is now committed to integrating in vitro tests into ISO’s international catalogue of standards, the regulations of which are currently being revised.
Despite the continuous journey through the academic ranks, there was still time for the discovery of the world, a passion of the young scientist: “When travelling, my main concern is to leave the comfort zone. The three months she spent in Nepal after graduating with a bachelor’s degree still have an effect today: “When things get stressful, I think of the rice fields and the family where I spent a few weeks in Nepal. After that I am satisfied again.”
Work and satisfaction coincide, especially since the invested work is reflected in tangible successes. In October, she received the ACR Women Award from Austrian Cooperative Research, the umbrella organization of applied research institutes to which the OFI belongs. The fact that her own institute offers her the perfect balance between career and leisure time also ensures the right motivation. In two major research projects Mertl has already taken over project management.
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First published in DiePresse, a third-party contributor translated and adapted the article from the original. In case of discrepancy, the original will prevail.
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