How my experience as Rector has influenced my research activity

On this post, Giuseppe Novelli describes how becoming the Rector of the University of Rome Tor Vergata helped him broaden his view of science and opened up new possibilities through collaboration and the exchange of ideas.

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Very often academics see administrative positions as an end-of-academic-career goal, to then devote themselves to politics or change their lives and work away from laboratories and research.

This view is usually justified by the fact that spending a few years away from scientific circles leads you inexorably to stay out of cutting-edge research, because you no longer follow scientific literature with regularity or because you often find yourself chasing technologies that are too advanced if not followed closely.

After six years as Rector of the University of Rome Tor Vergata (Nature 2021 Jul; 595 (7868): 494. Doi: 10.1038 / d41586-021-01960-6), I can say I am really proud of what has been done there. In those years, daily effort and commitment were aimed at responding to the challenges that today's society poses, with new design skills and an innovative vision to create spaces for action and operational possibilities never experienced before.

As Rector, I immediately invested in the internationalization of the University by favouring the stipulation of over 500 agreements with European and Extra-European Universities, but above all by having contributed to create – together with my colleagues Martin Paul (University of Maastricht) and Juan Romo (University Carlos III Madrid) – the network of young European Universities, YERUN, a network capable of tackling innovative and frontier issues such as globalization, climate change, demographic trends, global epidemics, worrying unemployment rates, growing social inequality, the intensification of non-voluntary migration (both internal and international), and the new skills required by the world of work.

The YERUN network is made up of 18 universities from 12 EU countries, that are less than 50 years of age and have distinguished themselves in some prestigious international rankings. The network has more than 300,000 students, 25,000 teaching staff, an annual budget of over € 1.2 billion for Research and Innovation. The relationships activated within the network proved to be important for my research activity, by promoting joint research projects with other universities, with the support of thematic workshops aimed at EU calls: Big Data & Digital economy, Health & Aging, Digital Humanities, Migrations, Sustainable technologies, and COVID-19.

I believe that internationalization has favoured my return to the laboratory without ‘trauma’ and without feeling ‘obsolete’. Exchanges, movement, and a borderless knowledge attitude rhyme with the ‘contamination’ of culture and ideas: bruised soil for research growth.

Today, the three most cited words in science are intersectorality, interdisciplinarity and internationalization. The sectoral university training is over; we no longer need to divide knowledge but instead to follow new ideas and transmit them through the interaction between disciplines as a scientific and intellectual approach to research and university training.

My Rector's experience has taught me to look at science in a broader way, expanding my research lines in human genetics, which have been ‘contaminated’ in the last year by immunology, molecular virology, biochemistry, and science policy (such as the contribution to the position paper on European research created with the YERUN network, at https://www.yerun.eu/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/YERUN_FP9_Position_Paper.pdf).

The wide and open-minded network of people that my activity as Rector has allowed me to build was important for my rapid reintegration into experimental research, for participation in competitive grants, in international consortia, and in international editorial and scientific committees. Last but not least, another positive aspect involves the careers of my young collaborators who, through the three approaches mentioned above – intersectorality, interdisciplinarity and internationalization – create science and social innovation for the future.


Photo by Pierre Antona on Unsplash

Giuseppe Novelli

Full Professor of Medical Genetics, Tor Vergata University of Rome

17/11/2020

Professor Giuseppe Novelli (PhD) is Head of the Human Genetics Research Unit at The Tor Vergata University of Rome (Italy). He is Adjunct Professor at the University of Reno, Nevada (USA). He served for 5 years as member of the Pharmacogenetics Working Party, EMA (European Medicines Agency). He is actually member of the Italian National Committee for Biotechnology and Biosecurity of the Italian President of Council.

The primary focus in genetics of Prof. Novelli is the mapping, identification and characterization of human‑disease genes (e.g., Laron dwarfism, cystic fibrosis, DiGeorge syndrome, Mandibuloacral dysplasia, Friedrich ataxia vitamin-E-deficiency, myotonic dystrophy, psoriasis, galactosemia, hereditary nonspherocytic haemolytic anemia, atherosclerosis and myocardial infarction). One of the major interests of Prof. Novelli research is in the field of complex diseases. He identified the major loci involved in psoriasis identifying the genes implicated in the disease (published on Nature Genetics, Oct 2010) and in the atherosclerosis identifying an isoform (named loxin) of the LOX-1 receptor. He characterized this protein and established in part its biological role. Prof. Novelli demonstrated for the first time that a single nucleotide mutation in the LMNA gene is responsible of a progeroid syndrome, the mandibuloacral dysplasia (MAD) and suggest that this protein is actively involved in premature aging. The observation that mutations in the LMNA gene are responsible for premature aging has opened a new line of research called "laminopathies" which today includes more than 30 different diseases.

In the last 10 years Novelli’s lab developed original research on human stem cells, characterizing Human Cytotrophoblastic‑derived Multipotent Cells (hCTMCs) from Human Chorionic villi (CVS). These cells may be a safe and convenient source of cells for cell-based therapy, as well as an ideal target for in utero fetal gene therapy. They also developed a cancer stem cell model starting from normal human stem cells derived from amniotic and chorionic placenta membranes. These cells are able to differentiate into neural cell lineages and to undergo spontaneous transformations and acquire an NB-like phenotype. The acquisition of these technologies has allowed Prof. Novelli's laboratory to develop an advanced protocol to derive human induced pluripotent stem cells (hiPSCs) from patients affected by genetic diseases.

His contribution to cancer is documented by the identification and characterization of the human gene, DVL‑1, a Disheveled family member involved in Wnt signaling which governs several cellular processes including cell proliferation, survival, migration, differentiation, polarity and stem cell renewal; from the definition of the role of the OLR1 gene as oncogene by activation of NF-kB target genes responsible for proliferation, migration and inhibition of apoptosis and de novo lipogenesis genes, to  the identification of mutations of the POLD1gene gene (DNA polymerase δ) in multisystem disorders. In addition, Prof. Novelli has been involved in pharmacogenetics and pharmacogenomics identifying new markers and developing innovative diagnostic technologies such as liquid biopsy for the characterization of mutations in different types of cancer.

Prof. Novelli is currently involved in Covid-19 host-genetics identifying for the first time life-threating mutations in genes coding for interferons (Zhang et al, Science, 2020).