Tom Cech is Director of the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute in the United States. In 1989, he and Sidney Altman were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the catalytic properties of RNA molecules. Cech was President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute from 2000–2009. Here he discusses science in Europe and activities closer to home in the United States.
You became an EMBO Associate Member in 1992. What does an Associate Member do?
Our role is to provide advice on the activities of the organization, encourage cooperation, and promote the value of the life sciences across borders. Because EMBO Associate Members reside outside of Europe, our interactions with European scientists encounter some barriers of distance, culture and language; but these barriers are now much lower with electronic communication.
What have been your most recent contacts with science in Europe?
I like to visit in person as much as I can. In May I gave talks about RNA chemistry and biology at the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry in Prague, the Central European Institute of Technology in Brno, and the RNA Meeting in Pozna, Poland. I also recently gave a keynote lecture on “The Future of RiboScience” at the annual RNA Society Meeting in Davos, Switzerland. The main focus was about the importance of interdisciplinary approaches in RNA research and in training students.
Productive collisions are important. I recently had a visit from Doug Hanahan, Head of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research at the EPFL in Lausanne. Doug reminded me of how the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics embeds bioinformaticians in multiple labs throughout Switzerland. Similar things are happening here at BioFrontiers and around the United States, but they are not as organized as at the SIB. It’s so powerful when computational scientists understand the biology rather than just the coding.
Also, my BioFrontiers colleague Amy Palmer, who is a chemist and biologist, is on sabbatical with EMBO Member Pascale Cossart at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. They are examining how the Listeria pathogen establishes infection by manipulating host-cell biology.
EMBO will celebrate its 50-year anniversary in 2014. If there were one thing that could be done to improve the life sciences in Europe what would be your recommendation?
I think it is important to provide more opportunities for younger scientists to be independent group leaders. Obviously this works well at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, but the opportunities throughout Europe are more mixed.
What strategy are you adopting at the University of Colorado BioFrontiers Institute?
Our approach in Boulder is to hire faculty who are already trained in two fields, for example computer science and biology, or physics and biology; they become the nodes in a collaborative network. Next, we train students in the same interdisciplinary way. Finally, we have strong interactions with industry – biotech and pharma – at multiple levels, including exposing our students to speakers who can explain what it’s like to work in industry.
Recent years have seen considerable focus on and funding of transdisciplinary research. Do you see any big successes from this approach to the life sciences?
There have been two huge successes. Bridging computer science with biology has allowed scientists to do experiments genome-wide or even proteome-wide instead of looking at one gene or RNA or protein at a time. It’s also enabled metagenomics and new revelations about the microbiome. Bridging physics with biology has been equally transformative for biologic imaging, for example super-resolution microscopy and single-molecule biochemistry.
Your Institute is now two years old. What are the challenges you are facing?
There are no barriers to research collaborations between, say, an engineer and a biologist, but as soon as you try to do something programmatic you find that the disciplines are quite entrenched. For example, American universities are all organized around departments – Department of Physics, Department of Chemistry, Department of Biology, Department of Bioengineering – and they have their own rules and their own culture that inhibit trans-departmental programs. So we’re negotiating with the individual departments all the time. I’m interested in knowing whether European universities have solved this problem.
For 10 years you were President of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute? What has it been like personally to make the transition back to almost full-time research?
I very much enjoyed my time in the Washington, D.C. area, working with a great staff at HHMI and organizing scientific programs nationally and internationally. But I missed teaching and the daily interactions with my research group, so I’m equally excited to be back “in the trenches.”
What is the current focus of research in your lab?
About half the group works on telomerase, looking in detail at how telomerase operates at the molecular level and the impact of the enzyme on cancer. The other half works on proteins that bind long non-coding RNAs and regulate transcription.
How “European” is your lab?
In addition to international graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, we have two under- graduate exchange students from Regensburg University in Germany working on telomerase and long non-coding RNA research. We also have a visiting scholar from the Central European Institute of Technology in Brno, Czech Republic, who arrived only recently and already has some interesting results after his first month in the lab. Non-scientists are often surprised by the international nature of our science, but of course it’s quite common and incredibly healthy.