News / 3 July 2018

On a wintery Melbourne evening, Professor Iain Mattaj – visiting Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) – 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 at Deakin Edge, Federation Square, Prof 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.

Prof 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.

He said that recruiting the right people has “nothing to do with what they’ve published and where; it’s the questions they’re interested in and what they’re doing to look into them”.

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

Prof 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 Biomedicine Discovery Institute Director Professor John Carroll, Prof Mattaj answered questions from a range of audience members, including students, researchers and even a school principal.

He said Australia – an associate member of EMBL – is a very collaborative country and offers the opportunity for the European nations to expand into other areas, particularly given our unique flora and fauna and exceptional organisation of health data.

“Research is a completely global enterprise… the only scale is the world,” Prof 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.”

Prof Mattaj said, as well as offering the Australian scientific community opportunities for collaboration and access to world-class infrastructure, Australia’s membership will assist in creating a vibrant, young research environment locally and “help change the culture, and focus on the young – because they are the people who are most productive, they are the best”.

During Prof Mattaj’s week-long tour of Australia, he visited the EMBL Australia Partner Laboratory Network host institutes – the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in Adelaide, Monash University and the University of Melbourne (which hosts EMBL-ABR), the University of New South Wales and the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, and the Australian National University in Canberra for the launch of our new ACT Node.

He also met with representatives of the Department of Education and Training, which funds Australia’s associate membership to EMBL, and attended a biannual EMBL Australia Council meeting before returning to Germany.

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