Visions: Marta Miączyńska, Director of IIMCB, Poland

By fostering excellence in science and research management, leveraging international partnerships and recruitment, and raising funds (including to fund a new building), the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw has grown into one of the top research institutions in Poland.
Visions: Marta Miączyńska, Director of IIMCB, Poland

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Portrait photo of Prof. Marta Miączyńska, Director of the IIMCB
Marta Miączyńska – molecular cell biologist and professor of biological sciences, director of the IIMCB. She graduated from the Jagiellonian University and received her PhD from the University of Vienna. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg and at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden. Member of the Council of the National Science Center (2016-2018), European Molecular Biology Organization Council (2021-2026), Polish Academy of Sciences, and Academia Europaea. Since 2024, a co-chair of the EU-LIFE alliance of leading life science research institutes in Europe.

The International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw (IIMCB) is an independent research institute, founded in 1997 under an international agreement between the government of the Republic of Poland and UNESCO, which resulted in its unique legal status in the Polish scientific landscape. The idea behind the inception of the Institute, back then shortly after the fall of communism, was to embody best practices in research performance and organization that were established in Western Europe and the USA, and to promote them in Poland. Activities of the Institute were to be overlooked by an International Advisory Board, a revolutionary concept at that time, which even today is regrettably uncommon in Poland. Thus, a leitmotif of the IIMCB development has always been a quest towards excellence in science and in research management. We are consistently ranked among top research institutions in Poland; however our ambitions go higher, to be on a par with best institutions worldwide.

The mission of the IIMCB is to support ambitious scientists of any nationality, driven by passion to pursue frontier research that aims to make a difference for society. This statement emphasizes the central role of researchers as drivers of discoveries and this primary focus on people resonates deeply with my personal values. In my view, the role of a director is to steer the development and culture of an institution towards creating an environment that empowers all staff to succeed in their endeavors while also accepting and learning from setbacks. I am a strong believer in collective wisdom and collaboration of diverse individuals. When I held my first townhall meeting with all staff as a new director in early 2019, I presented my vision of the IIMCB by comparing it to an organism. Like cells and tissues have specific and interconnected roles in an organism, each staff member and all units – both scientific and administrative – are indispensable for proper functioning of the Institute. Misperformance of any part weakens the whole organization, like a failure of one organ causes a disease of the whole organism. I am pleased that people at the IIMCB seem to have embraced this metaphor and assumed a joint responsibility for the Institute. I support collegiality at all levels and consult with key coworkers and staff representatives on strategic issues, while taking full responsibility for my decisions. I believe this approach works well, even in recent times of global challenges and instabilities.

RNA and cell biology – RACE to the future

The Institute started with just 3 research groups and very little seed funds as a small scientific enterprise under the realm of its first director Jacek Kuźnicki. It has grown organically over the years, largely based on competitive international and national grants. Today, it is a mature organization that hosts 14 research groups, 6 core facilities, several administrative and research support units, with roughly 250 staff including PhD students. Efficient administrative support enables scientists to focus on their science. An overall aim of our research is to understand the molecular basis of human diseases, including infectious, neurodegenerative, oncological, and rare diseases. Specific research topics fall into two major pillars that are RNA biology and cell biology. Experimental work spans all levels of biological complexity from atoms and molecules to whole organisms. We use methods of molecular and structural biology, bioinformatics, biochemistry, genomics and epigenomics, cell and developmental biology, physiology, and molecular medicine. In applying such a broad methodological portfolio, our scientists are supported by specialized core facilities.

The strategy for the IIMCB development in the next 5 years has been defined in a large institutional project entitled "RNA and Cell Biology – from Fundamental Research to Therapies”, acronym RACE. In 2023, the IIMCB received for this project nearly 15M euro from the European Commission within the Teaming for Excellence program under Horizon Europe, as the number one on the competition ranking list. Our overarching goal is to make the IIMCB a world-class center of excellence in RNA and cell biology, strengthening several aspects of our activities, with a special focus on translational research and technology transfer. The RACE strategy has 5 pillars. First, we aim to reach an optimal critical mass of 20 research groups. We are thus recruiting new group leaders to expand our research scope, particularly towards RNA-based antiviral and antimicrobial therapeutic strategies, and advanced models of rare diseases, which could ultimately allow the development of personalized therapies. Second, we will offer new training possibilities for scientists, mainly PhD students and postdocs, to prepare them for research-related careers in academia and industry. Third, we will upgrade our 6 existing core facilities and establish 4 new ones, forming a structured system to provide the latest experimental technologies and expert services to IIMCB scientists and external clients from academia and industry. Fourth, we will launch an internal support system for technology transfer, commercialization of research results, and collaboration with industry. Fifth, we will further enhance overall IIMCB management and adjust our administrative structure to new challenges.

Within RACE, we will benefit from the support of two foreign partners who will share their best practices and expertise to inspire our development. The Medical Research Council, Human Genetics Unit of the University of Edinburgh is well known for its translational research and application of basic science expertise to clinical practice. The Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) is a European leader in technology transfer, commercialization of research results, collaboration with business and creation of spin-offs. After only six months into the RACE project, it is clear to me that our mutual exchanges will be stimulating for all project partners.

Another important 'peer support group' for the IIMCB at the international arena is the EU-LIFE alliance of eminent European research institutes. In 2020 our Institute became the first Polish member of EU-LIFE and since 2024 I have a privilege of co-chairing this organization. This bottom-up initiative advocates for excellence in research by influencing European science policies and by developing and promoting best practices in research performance and management. Thus, values of the IIMCB and EU-LIFE are fully aligned. Our staff members are active in EU-LIFE’s thematic working groups and it is satisfying to witness that such partnerships contribute to building a stronger European research environment.

Building excellence

However, the future development of the IIMCB requires adequate space that has become dramatically limiting. Since its foundation, the IIMCB is a 'homeless' institution without its own building. Our labs are hosted in an adapted building lent by the Polish Academy of Sciences, while administrative units are housed in a rented office space at a different location. In 2019, we received funds from the Ministry of Science and Higher Education to construct our own dedicated building. We purchased a plot, concluded an architectural competition for the concept of a building, elaborated a detailed design plan (a visualization of the new building can be seen on the post's top image), and are currently waiting for a building permit. Unfortunately, due to high rate of inflation and global price increases in recent years, the remaining funds are no longer sufficient to complete the building. Thus, securing additional money is currently my greatest challenge. We are counting on the continued support from the Polish state, as we believe that investing in forefront research and development is necessary to address societal challenges and build knowledge-based economy, in Poland and internationally.

Finally, looking back on the five years of my directorship so far, I am proud of our IIMCB community and feel privileged to lead it. Hard work, endurance, and commitment of our staff, manifested by our achievements, allow me to look to the future with optimism. Those years have proven that we can accomplish our goals when we all work together.

Images by IIMCB. Top image is a visualization of the future IIMCB building.

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