Dr. Michael Schmid

(1968-2016)

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Grieve, thankfulness …and joy: In memory of “Big Mike” Dr. Michael Schmid

On Tuesday, June 14th 2016, every one of the Research Unit Microbe-Plant Interactions (AMP) was completely shocked because of the news that Dr. Michael Schmid was found dead in his home. Apparently, he had a sudden heart failure the day before and could not call for first aid.

When this very sad news spread, many colleagues at the Helmholtz Zentrum München, from institutes he worked before and around the world grieved for “Big Mike”, as everyone called him. Although we knew that he had considerable health problems, we were almost paralyzed and lost in the new situation that he is not amongst us anymore. However, he would have been badly needed, because after my retirement in October 2014, Dr. Michael Schmid became acting director of the Research Unit “Microbe-Plant Interactions” (AMP – Abteilung Mikroben-Pflanzen Interaktionen) at Helmholtz Zentrum München, Neuherberg. In June 2016, it was just before a new director was decided to be installed. Dr. Michael Schmid had diligently and engaged as ever guided the remaining groups of the Research Unit through this difficult intermediary period and everybody including the central administration was very content with his most reliable and professional performance.

Dr. Michael Schmid was the central and most important person in the Research Unit Microbe-Plant Interactions because of his very profound knowledge and experience in microbiology and in particular in molecular phylogeny and molecular ecology of bacteria including the in situ identification of bacteria using the FISH-method (amongst many other techniques). He had supervised many diploma and doctoral students in their thesis work and also instructed guest reseachers from all over the world in molecular phylogeny. He was head of the research group “Molecular Microbial Ecology” of AMP including responsibilities for the biosafety and biotechnology issues as well as the important link to the computing department. Under his guidance, there were strict rules for laboratory organization, which all had to respect and fulfill.

Dr. Michael Schmid had studied Chemistry at the Technical University München (TUM) for a few semesters, and then he changed to Biology, finishing with a Diploma in the TUM-Institute of Microbiology at Freising, Weihenstephan, headed by Prof. Dr. Karl-Heinz Schleifer. Professor Schleifer and his institute (including Dr. Wolfgang Ludwig, Dr. Michael Wagner and Dr. Rudi Amann) were developing since the 1980s the basics of molecular phylogeny of bacteria (16S and 23SrRNA) on the worldwide forefront. He finished his diploma thesis about in situ detection of a virulence factor mRNA in Listeria monocytogenes in 1997, supervised by Dr. Michael Wagner, now director of the Department of Microbial Ecology, Ecology Center of the University of Vienna, Austria.

He submitted his doctoral thesis supervised by Prof. Schleifer in September 2000 entitled “Development of in situ detection systems for the foodborne pathogens Listeria, Salmonella and Campylobacter, as well as phylogenetic analyses of the genus Listeria and fine differentiation of L. monocytogenes”. After he finished his PhD at Prof. Schleifer´s Institute, he joined AMP in the year 2000. Dr. Michael Schmid admired Prof. Schleifer not only for his overwhelming knowledge and expertise in microbiology but also because of his way of guidance of his coworkers and students in a very personal but also highly demanding way. This gave him the example for his further approach to conduct science and lead a group of scientists and students. But at the same time, he was not over-ambitious to rapidly climb the “carrier ladder”, but concentrated to perform excellent science of highest standard.

During his research work at the Research Unit Microbe-Plant Interactions, he contributed substantially to the characterization of more than ten new bacterial species from the rhizosphere of different plants in collaboration with researchers from Europe, India and Brazil. He coauthored 65 original scientific publications and 18 book chapters mostly dealing with rhizosphere microbial ecology. In addition to conduct research, he also liked to instruct students at university courses and during their diploma and doctoral theses. Furthermore, he took part in many conferences in Germany and all over the world. Dr. Michael Schmid was involved as most valuable organizer in national and international conferences, when the Helmholtz Zentrum München and AMP were involved - in particular the 1st Rhizosphere conference in 2004 and the European Conference of Nitrogen Fixation in 2012 as well as the BNF-Non-Legume Symposia in Munich 2012 and Budapest 2016. Although he preferred to stay in the background, his most reliable engagement in science and the organization of conferences (and parties) brought him full appreciation of many fellow scientists and of course by myself.

Michael Schmid was born on 5th May 1968 in the southern suburb “Giesing” of München, the capital of Bavaria. There he went to school and there he had his social and emotional roots. Everyone called him “Big Mike”, because “Michael” is a quite common surname (we had at least three Michaels at AMP), but also because of his stature and, I guess, also of a kind of appreciation. He was really an original bavarian character. In his home quarter “Giesing” he was a central person in the regular table “Luja”, where he met with his bosom buddies, having a good time commenting all kind of affairs and drinking quite some mugs of beer. Of course, he was in the fan club of the traditional Munich soccer club “TSV 1860 München”. He really showed his appreciation to human and social affairs in his relation to his neighbors and also to his colleagues at Helmholtz Zentrum Munich. He often had an ear and took his time, if someone approached him with problems – not only scientifically but also personally. However, he also had a considerable sense of justice, and therefore “Pascha”-like behavior of members of the Research Unit, students and guests was a complete “no go” for him. Thus, at the day of his funeral at the “Waldfriedhof München”, the big crowd of attending people (family, neighbors, former students and many colleagues and friends) were extremely emotionally moved and tried to show their appreciation for “Big Mike”. They were most thankful for all the gifts they received from him.

Whoever happened to know and meet Dr. Michael Schmid was very thankful for his help and assistance in human and scientific affairs and his unique way of caring.

“Big Mike” we all loved you!

You were a precious gift - and I still miss you!

Prof. Dr. Anton Hartmann, “Toni”.

Friends remmembering Michael Schmid


Good bye from the Luja-Stammtisch - his intimate friends.

TUM colleagues from Vienna - good memories on old times.

AMP - last thank you from your friends.

Last greetings from the Fan-club of Munich soccer club TSV 1860.

Mike's Grave decorations.


Remembrances of “Big Mike” –Dr. Michael Schmid

My memories of Mike started before I even knew him personally, two years earlier to be exact, in Tucson, Arizona far from his home country of Germany. In 2008, we had in Mexico an urgent need to upgrade our molecular detection technique of bacteria residing on roots. Our molecular technology at that time gave us only headaches with beautiful images for the publications and it was impractical for implementation of our data in real life.

Happens in science. Luz, my wife and working partner, came with the idea to adopt the most advanced technology of its time, called “Fluoresce in situ hybridization” or FISH, a fancy method to observed bacteria in artificial colors developed and perfected in Europe. Obviously, a team in Austria offered an intensive course in a price no research budget in Mexico can afford and immediately forgotten. Luckily, we got a grant in the USA to study bioremediation of mine tailing that came with a minor catch. The money was located in Tucson, Arizona and is non-transferable to Mexico.

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Big Mike at the summer feast in the department
of plant-microbe interaction at Helmholz Zentrum, Munich in 2009.

As the American partner of that grant in Arizona was interested in FISH but knew nothing about it, an opportunity arouse. With Luz needing to learning FISH from scratch and extra useless money in the grant that could not be used otherwise. I badly need a relief vacation from a very hostile administration at our home institute. We packed our SUV and headed north.

“What is such a big deal to make a FISH?”, we thought. “All the protocols are available in the publications and it is just basically complicated cooking”. This proved far easier to say than done. After 18 months of work, the best photos we got and published, one needed a large quantity of imagination to see bacteria, practically smears of fluorescent colors. At the same time, the group of our friend Prof. Toni Hartmann at Helmholz Zentrum in Munich, Germany regularly produced FISH images that made one blush with envy--each bacterium is as clear as perfect as can be, textbook images.

I know Toni since we were postdocs and I asked him by email who took these amazing images. “The two Mikes”, he answered. “They are super experts, you can come here to sharpen your skills with us”. This was the first time I have learnt that I will need to go to Munich, fulfilling the common saying that if the mountain is not coming to Muhamad, Muhamad is coming to the mountain.

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Big Mike at the summer feast in the department
of plant-microbe interaction at Helmholz Zentrum, Munich in 2009.

The German government was very generous with us wanting to show how good their science is and provided a generous fellowship for the training. Therefore, an elaborate expedition was mounted. Luz who needed to sharpen her skills, myself who needed some free time to write unrelated papers, Adan, our graduate student who wished, in general, to see Europe and if he needs to learn FISH for it, so be it, and Noga my daughter who needed a topic for a thesis in the Israel Institute of Technology (Technion).

FISH technology is as good as any other technology for an engineering degree. And all of us fell, one rainy day on the head of Toni who runs the department at the German Institute of Environmental Health, (a.k.a. Helmholtz Zentrum-Munich) and in a blink of an eye of ultra-busy Toni we were transferred to Mike Schmid as our “new boss”, trainer, and problem solver.

Mike took “The Friends of Toni” assignment very seriously. First, we needed a place to be and this was in very short supply at Helmholz Zentrum. When we first arrived from our roof top apartment in the institutional guesthouse in a charming little town with an impossible name to pronounce, Unterschleißheim, we were quite surprised by the prosaic appearance of the campus of Helmholz Zentrum, a world leader in environmental science. For us, it appears as a sort of third world utilitarian and functional only university with no budget for gardening, yet very clean, a shipping container serving as the department seminar room and even less funding in the past for hire architects to design its buildings.

The most colorful and exciting building on campus was the local kindergarten for the workers. All of these images just vanished until you enter to the laboratories and see the abundance of lastest generation equipment, especially the confocal laser microscopy units with several generations of equipment. Our home institute in Mexico acquired only one a decade later in 2018! Helmholz Zentrum “speaks” functionality.

We were four “Friends of Toni” and Mike had only one desk at his disposal and office space in even shorter supply. We had to share it with three graduate students of Toni. There was a need for priorities. Luz took one side of the desk, Adan, her student, in front of her on the other side of the same desk, I took a place on a wooden bench outdoors when it did not rain and Luz’ place when she was working with laser microscopy, and it was decided that Noga needed no desk and can write whatever she needs upon returning to Israel. It worked.

Mike explained that as we had no clue of German administration, and no time to master it, he and Toni’s secretary Sylvia will take care of all our needs, no need for us to bother with the details or the language that none of us spoke and he did just that in super speed fashion. Coming from a typical Latin American Mexico, we were no accustomed to ask for something and get it, literally, 5 minutes after. For us, it epitomized German efficiency. Mike did it numerous times for us from his large office that functioned also as the cafeteria of the department. This office had the fanciest coffee machine I had seen to that date, with multiple options of coffee, sort of a Starbucks outfit in a single machine, and endless assortment of chocolates, cookies, and candies one can dream of in Germany. Mike, sitting at a hand’s distance from this bounty, was a major customer of his own service and was literally a very big individual, what is called by American retailers “Big and Tall”.

Our priority for the extended research stay was to improve the skills of Luz in FISH--. period. Big Mike organized the second most advanced confocal laser microscopy of Helmholz Zentrum to be always available for her. Some administrative black magic, I believe. Surely, in such a large institute somebody is using such an expensive equipment almost all the time. Yet, it was always available for her. We did not inquire any further; it is impossible to understand. Noga, who needed less sophisticated equipment, got the old laser microscope of the department, fully functional, all for herself because nobody was interested in using it. I was pleased with the outdoor bench that, after a while, became a focal point of the local students/postdocs, as apparently nobody ever saw a professor passing long periods of his time on the wooden benches used for the short coffee breaks. I progressed with plenty of manuscripts on that bench when they had to go to the lab to work, and they work precisely 39 hours a week.

Then Mike mobilized himself to get to the confocal laser microscopy lab anytime Luz needed to sharpen her FISH skills. When he could not, rarely, he mobilized the other Mike in the group to help. With time, Luz got all the training she needed and the three months passed productively, with us visiting every part of Bavaria’s little towns on the weekends.

Big Mike was not only the professional we sought. He was very friendly on a daily basis, never gave us any trouble and “Everything is Possible Under his Watch” was his motto. He also had the famous capacity of drinking beer that only a true Bavarian can mastered. In a summer party of Toni Hartmann’s department, he drunk the largest amount of beer I have ever seen a human being consume, dozens of cans and bottles. Surprisingly he talked to me quite sober after this ordeal. He was the perfect candidate for the famous German “October Fest”.

Once back in Mexico, as a symbol of German efficiency, we recruited him as a committee member of one of our doctorate student, Oskar. Big Mike performed flawless with the heavy Mexican administration of our graduate school, in Spanish that he did not understand, always read the reports of Oskar on time and was a perfect committee member. Even his papers with us were corrected fast and meticulously. We truly admired his willingness and efficiency as a great scientist.

When Oskar graduated, Toni retired, and Big Mike took his place, we lost the weekly contact with him, but surely, we were looking for more engagements with his unique personality. His passing away, not even 50 years old, shocked us to the core.

I truly believe that Big Mike is residing in the eternal October Fest in Heaven, a gigantic mug of beer in his hand and managing the angel’s staff of heaven very efficiently, as he did when he was with us.

Rest in peace, Big Mike.

Yoav Bashan
The Bashan Institute of Science, USA
Environmental Microbiology Group, CIBNOR, Mexico.