Dr. Michael Schmid

(1968-2016)

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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.

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