Visions: Giulio Superti-Furga, Scientific Director, Research Center for Molecular Medicine (CeMM), Vienna, Austria

On the importance of creativity, connections and collaborations to encourage good ideas and a dynamic place to work.

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Portrait of Professor Superti-Furga

Giulio Superti-Furga is the Scientific Director of CeMM Research Center for Molecular Medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and Professor for Medical Systems Biology at the Center for Physiology and Pharmacology of the Medical University of Vienna. His aims are to understand the interface between the environment and biological systems and to perform multidisciplinary research to develop new therapeutics. His research focuses on transporters and their role in defining metabolic states in health and disease. Photo by Franzi Kreis.

CeMM is a research institute for molecular medicine of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) and is located in the midst of the campus of the Medical University of Vienna (MedUni Vienna) and the General Hospital (AKH). We are committed to advancing the understanding of human biology and disease through innovative biomedical research. CeMM wishes to be considered a pioneer in the elucidation of the fundamentals of precision medicine. We value and foster interdisciplinarity, internationality (with staff from 49 nations) and diversity as the basis for different approaches to solve problems and innovation. We use kindness to eliminate all kind of fears that stand as impediments to creativity. CeMM is a fun, playful place to be, full of art, curious furniture, and interesting perspectives. We want to be prime movers and be at the forefront of scientific curiosity and innovation. As founding director, since 2005, I am proud of what we have achieved and able to say that the social experiment has worked. A lot of credit goes also to the Administrative Director Anita Ender who believes that good science administration is an invaluable ingredient of quality research. We are supported with base funding from the Austrian Academy of Sciences and we more than double this funding through third-party funds such as national funding programs, the European Research Council (ERC) programs, and collaboration projects with industry partners, as well as facility services that we offer.

Excellent basic science meets translational minds

We are convinced that there is a high need for curiosity-driven, 'free-minded' research that operates within a medical context. We do not see that as a contradiction. Innovation inspired by human pathophysiology – it works. To enable medical applications, we actively seek to be close to medicine and medical needs. Some of us are anchored in the reality of the patients’ needs through clinical duties, but everybody is exposed to medical doctors on a daily basis. Moreover, while we are mindful of potential conflicts, we see the creation of biotech start-ups as a vertically integrated way to turn our basic insights into something that eventually may help people. Last year, even a freshly graduated PhD started a company.

Great ideas can only grow on a solid foundation of knowledge in combination with dedication and persistence. These are but a few 'skills' our researchers bring into the 'mix'. I often like to picture the CeMM building as an incubator: add the right (and the right amount of) ingredients, foster the right kind of interactions and a favourable, positive atmosphere, and great projects will grow. Sometimes at a breath-taking pace. It is these dynamics and perhaps the not-too-large size (in fact we are a small institute  less than 200 people strong) that enables the growth rate of some of our projects. The basis for many projects is the PhD students (currently about 70 enrolled and about 70 graduated so far) and they are selected carefully year after year from close to a thousand applicants. Each year, they form a cohort of 10-20 wonderfully diverse students with lots of energy, complementary skills and all eager to contribute. We have also recently started a postdoc program and have upgraded the “post” doc status to a highly intensive and inspiring phase, preparatory to something that should follow: a successful independent career in science. Our communicated aim is that we are committed to training postdocs of this “pre-ERC program” to be competitive enough to win ERC Starting grants within the required timeframe and move on – ERC as a metaphor of excellence and 'get there in time'. While excellence and efficiency do not occur at the push of a button, it is also true that not being mindful of time and what may represent criteria of excellence is misleading to individuals who then face the hard world of competition. Not to train for leadership is the really cruel thing to do.

CeMM connects and interacts

CeMM is not only an incubator for good ideas – it is also a place that brings people together. Nurtured by the Austrian Academy of Sciences, as mentioned above CeMM is embedded in the campus of the Medical University of Vienna and the General Hospital of Vienna, and it is part of the consortium of Vienna Life Science Instruments (VLSI), having close ties with the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for Rare Diseases (LBI-RUD), the Children’s Cancer Research Institute (CCRI) and the St. Anna Children’s hospital. In addition to to the PIs 'on site' (currently 7), CeMM has an 'extended network' of PIs, which we call Adjunct PIs (currently 13), which participate in the PhD and postdoc programs and who have direct access to our facilities (Biomedical Sequencing Facility, Proteomics and Metabolomics Facility, Screening Facility) and who are at the MedUni Vienna, CCRI, University of Vienna, Technical University of Vienna, Medical University of Innsbruck, and the Netherlands Cancer Institute (Amsterdam, The Netherlands). Most importantly, we participate in the EU-LIFE consortium, which is a life sciences research partnership set up to support and strengthen European excellence in research. It aims to set new standards, new roadmaps, new ways to do things. I love EU-LIFE. It is a self-help group aiming at constantly improving an institute. Who does it better? Learn from the best. We exchange everything.

Now, having boldly listed all these 'nodes' in our network, what does it all allow? Connections! Interactions! Which lie at the heart of every CeMM project. We are like a hive. There is hardly any scientific publication from CeMM that does not involve two or more research groups, and through our extended network our ’effect’ gets amplified. In fact, we call this mode of operation “super-cooperativity”. Every person at CeMM in principle has every other one at her/his service if only their project is interesting enough and their ideas good enough. As a result, our PIs and Adjunct PIs are very, very collaborative. We take away the fear of competition and foster synergies. These moments, when I see a potential fruitful interaction, are my personal highlights, and I am proud every time I witness someone at CeMM has started an initiative together with someone else.

But CeMM extends not only through these connections. A recent example of the collaborative spirit driven by scientific curiosity but with ‘real world impact’, is the sequencing project of the SARS-CoV-2 genomes in Austria. We combined expertise at CeMM and had, together with national and international partners, started already in March 2020, but our first complete sequences and the press release were faced with sobering low interest. Later in the year however, when variants arose and spread, interest from the public, the authorities and politicians increased and we were able to expand the project. Hence, we had the idea, the vision, to do this project before politicians made it their priority. We deliver the facts and thereby hope to generate the basis and the basic knowledge on which the elected representatives base their decisions. Mostly, however, the 'fruits of basic research' take years or even decades to ripen and have an impact that can be appreciated by all.

CeMM steps out of the narrow field

CeMM thrives also through other connections, such as connections to other natural sciences and social sciences. This is done through our SMART lectures, which are meant to broaden our horizon, to step out of the narrow field we scientists navigate in our daily professional lives. I believe that these steps away from the obvious paths open the mind to new, exciting, creative solutions. CeMM also connects with the arts. The building’s façade is designed by Austrian multi-media artist Peter Kogler, and there is a ‘so called’ Time Capsule, which is a Science and Art project by Martin Walde and me, which serves as peaceful retreat and repository of ideas. And on our top floor we house the Brain Lounge, created by Walking Chair (Karl Emilio Pircher and Fidel Peugeot) in close cooperation with Anita Ender and me. Every Brain Lounge journey begins with a ritual meant to abandon the daily routine and professional habitus and encourage the participant to assume a new identity. This is where our PhD students are inaugurated. This is where many creative ideas at CeMM have been born. And I hope many more will follow.

Giulio Superti-Furga

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