A bastion of collaboration
In January of next year, Professor Edith Heard will take on one of the most important jobs in European science – Director General of EMBL. Here she talks interdisciplinary science at a time of increasing specialisation, epigenetics and, of course, Brexit…
In January of 2019, Professor Edith Heard will take on one of the most important jobs in European science – Director General of EMBL. Here she talks interdisciplinary science at a time of increasing specialisation, epigenetics and, of course, Brexit…
EMBL is very much a bastion of international collaboration – do you think political shifts have an influence on that?
Promoting international cooperation is absolutely central to EMBL, and EMBL is a real showcase of the benefits of countries working together. At times when political shifts make the climate harder for collaboration across borders, that mission to nurture and foster international cooperation becomes even more important. EMBL’s member states have always been very supportive of this mission, and I fully expect that to continue, because they see the value that EMBL adds to the scientific activities in each country. All of that said, EMBL doesn’t operate in a bubble. The EMBL model is predicated on the assumption that people, ideas and knowledge be freely exchanged across borders. One of the things I’m excited about joining EMBL is being part of this truly international family. And as Director General, I look forward to being a champion of diversity and internationality.
I guess it was inevitable we would ask – do you think UK science will suffer as we leave the EU?
I think it is difficult to tell right now, but it is of utmost importance that UK scientists and UK scientific institutions should be able to maintain and nurture their international links and in particular the collaborations with Europe. What is for sure is that the UK is a very important member of EMBL and this will not be affected by Brexit. The membership of the UK in EMBL is independent of its membership in the EU; and in fact it predates the EU.
Director General of EMBL is an incredible achievement with a very wide remit, what are most immediate challenges you’d like to tackle?
Thanks to the excellent leadership of current the Director General, Iain Mattaj, over the past 12 years, EMBL has developed into an outstanding scientific enterprise and is a model for molecular life sciences worldwide. My immediate challenge, coming in as an outsider, will be to preserve and further promote this: to maintain the best science at the international level, to produce the leaders of the future and to nurture a spirit of research, training and technology transfer that is conducive to discovery and innovation. These are really exciting times for biological sciences and I can see that EMBL has the potential to be a leader on many new fronts, thanks to its young talent and the multiple disciplines it spans. I want to make sure that this potential is realised. I also intend to promote fundamental research actively in Europe, because I believe that the greatest discoveries come from fundamental research.
Will you miss front-line lab work?
As EMBL Director General I’ll still have my own research lab. I intend to maintain a small but highly active research programme. I am extremely lucky to have an excellent team and some of them will, in fact, be following me to Heidelberg. So although I will have additional calls on my time, and many interesting projects in hand that won’t be strictly scientific, I’ll also continue my research projects. In fact, I’m thrilled to become part of the EMBL community, which is known for its openness and collaborative spirit. My scientific expertise and projects fit really well here – including developmental biology, epigenetics, genomics. So I’m really looking forward to making new connections with all these bright minds, to having thoughtful discussions and to sparking new joint projects.
Institute-science, like the work carried out at EMBL, is all about removing cross-disciplinary barriers – will we ever reach a point where those barriers dissolve completely?
We’re in an interesting time right now, because we’re seeing more and more interdisciplinary projects, but as individual scientists we’ve become more and more specialised. I think that institutes like EMBL are very good at bringing together specialists in a wide range of fields; almost half the PIs at EMBL come from fields outside of biology. And then places like EMBL excel at creating an environment that enables – even compels – those people to come together and tackle really interesting questions. For example, at EMBL there’s an interdisciplinary postdoc programme where a postdoc is affiliated with two labs and works on a project that’s designed to bring together two distinct areas of expertise. When you combine these formal efforts with an institutional culture of cooperation, you can really reap the benefits of specialisation and interdisciplinarity.
Professor Edith Heard is European Molecular Biology Laboratory Director General elect. Her research interests include epigenetics and developmental biology