Life science research to tackle societal challenges: EMBL’s perspective

Professor Iain Mattaj.

On a rainy Melbourne evening, visiting Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), Professor Iain Mattaj, shared how his institution’s unique model of giving the most talented, ambitious and curious young scientists the freedom to research what they are passionate about has led to ground-breaking scientific discoveries that have benefited society.

Speaking at a public lecture hosted by EMBL Australia and supported by the Monash Biomedicine Discovery Institute (BDI), Professor Mattaj explained how EMBL hires the best people and lets them do “whatever they want” for up to nine years, after which time they move on, ensuring a young and dynamic environment.

Professor Mattaj, who has led Europe’s flagship life sciences laboratory since 2005, said EMBL looks for young researchers who are independent, committed to doing something new and original, and – importantly – open to collaborating.

“People who are ambitious, good and original are going to do something exciting,” he said.

Professor Mattaj said this unique model – which has largely been adopted and put into practice locally in EMBL Australia’s partner laboratories – has seen the individual efforts of ambitious minds lead to significant advances in meeting some of the greatest societal challenges globally, including cancer, viral epidemics and cell-type specific diseases.

This scientific freedom saw Jacques Dubochet and his colleagues develop vitrification (a method to freeze thin layers of enzymes or viruses without forming ice crystals) and other important methods that led to cryo-electron microscopy, a fundamental tool in structural biology, and earned them a Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

In a candid Q&A led by Monash BDI Director Professor John Carroll, Professor Mattaj answered questions from a range of audience members – students, researchers and even a school principal.

“Research is a completely global enterprise... the only scale is the world,” Professor Mattaj said.

“The only way to do ambitious things is to collaborate. I see Australia as being a very good partner because that mindset exists here," he said.

“I’d like to thank Professor Mattaj for his insights into EMBL’s great science. Success is built on recruiting researchers on the basis of ideas and potential, and then providing secure funding and great infrastructure,” Professor Carroll said.