Professor Nadia Rosenthal, Scientific Head, European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Australia


The Australian counterpart to EMBL continues the organisation’s mission to provide the building blocks young researchers need in order to become future leaders and make the most of international partnerships in scientific research


What led to the establishment of EMBL and when was its overseas expansion decided?

EMBL is a remarkable success story; it was established in 1974 to capture the new excitement in molecular biology and to reverse the European brain drain of potential leaders. As a science-driven worldclass institution, EMBL has always benefited from its fundamental ‘open door’ policy, under which it recruits staff on the basis of individual merit, regardless of nationality. In 2003, EMBL Council developed a framework policy for Associate Membership whereby countries far from Europe could benefit from a closer relationship with EMBL. In March 2008 Australia was the first to become an EMBL Associate Member for an initial period of seven years.

Could you shed light on your background with EMBL and how you became scientific head for Australia?

I was fortunate to spend the last decade as a researcher at EMBL in a leadership role, which gave me a unique insight into the way in which the EMBL model works and why it is so successful. The typical EMBL Group Leader is recruited immediately after postdoctoral training with an initial contract of five years, extended up to a maximum of nine years, during which time s/he is provided with careful mentoring, generous guaranteed support, and access to state-of-the-art support facilities and services in a stimulating interdisciplinary environment where the young are favoured. The international competition for these positions is fierce, but they are a proven recipe for innovation at the highest level. EMBL alumni go back to their Member States enriched with experience, skills, and armed with an invaluable international network that connects them to the global research community.

I was so impressed with the results that I was inspired to introduce the model to Australia, where the young talent pool is huge but relatively poorly supported. The climate of openness, transparency, communication and excitement I have experienced at EMBL is liberating, and one that we seek to perpetuate here in this new venture.

What is the overall mission of EMBL Australia? How do you set out to achieve this goal?

EMBL’s original fivefold mission was to conduct basic research in the biomedical sciences; to provide essential services to scientists in the countries that support it; to provide high-level training to its staff, students and visitors; to develop new instrumentation for life sciences research; and to transfer technology from basic research to industry. In Australia we emulate this mission, providing the best young international scientists and their teams a flying start to their research careers. EMBL Australia has introduced an international PhD programme, travel grants and our flagship training school for PhD students here in Australia is due to be launched in 2013.

In addition, we aim to connect and internationalise Australian life science research. To this end, we have established the first node of the EMBL Australia Partner Laboratory which will grow to 18 or more EMBL Australia Groups networked across five national campuses. We have opened a second node at the University of Queensland, which currently comprises the EMBL Australia Bioinformatics Resource, mirroring key aspects of the EMBL European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI), and providing an Australian entry point to the EBI data services. We are in the process of finalising plans for recruitment of three additional EMBL Australia Group Leaders to the newly established South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute in Adelaide, as the third node in the EMBL Australia Partner Laboratory Network.

How would you sum up the impact of molecular biology in science and society?

As George Orwell said: “Science is a way of looking at the world, not just a body of knowledge”. If we want to engage society in the critical decisions facing our 21st Century culture, it is our mandate to provide the requisite scientific literacy. It’s critical to get our co-citizens involved by making molecular biology accessible and interesting. Through its educational and outreach programmes, EMBL Australia aims to help get the message across: life science research is not only a cornerstone of our future on this planet, it is also compelling, exciting and inspiring.

EMBL Australia has recently opened a mirror facility to the EMBLEBI at the University of Queensland. What is the future potential of bioinformatics? What role will EBI play?

At EMBL, the most rapidly growing research activities involve the information sciences, including bioinformatics, proteomics, comparative and functional genomics and systems biology. EMBL-EBI hosts ELIXIR, one of the biomedical research infrastructures identified by the 2012 European roadmap (ESFRI), which aims to construct and operate a sustainable infrastructure for biological information to support European life science research and its translation to medicine and the environment, the bio-industries and society. It is critical that Australian bioinformatics research participates in the current information explosion, and develop the necessary bioinformatic infrastructures to support its life scientists.

The EMBL Australia Bioinformatics Resource has been established in Queensland to take advantage of our new relationship with EMBL-EBI, to exploit the collective experience at EMBL in setting up data services, to mirror essential aspects of EBI infrastructure and to develop unique resources in Australia from which the rest of the world can benefit. EBI has already been enormously helpful and we are particularly excited to have recruited Graham Cameron, who has recently left his post as the Associate Director of EMBL-EBI, to head this initiative. Our efforts in this area will also support the newly formed Australian Bioinformatics Network, established by EMBL Australia in partnership with BioPlatforms Australia and CSIRO, which is intended to enhance the coordination of bioinformatics research and resources across the country.

EMBL Australia has made a submission to the McKeon strategic review of health and medical research in Australia. What recommendations did you make in order to strengthen your position?

My submission to the McKeon review stressed a model for achieving maximum return on medical research funding in Australia by investing in the young. The most creative and agile minds are often the youngest, yet an ever-lowering percentage of the Australian youth sector is choosing a career in the life sciences. One way to change perception is to nurture young independent researchers to establish their scientific programmes as we do at EMBL Australia, so that they can move on to enrich the scientific community as the county’s future biomedical research leaders. It is a relatively limited R&D investment that can be employed effectively and with broad impact. Challenging the prevailing culture by promoting the young as the driving force of progress is a difficult shift in perception for some, but if the experiment is successful it could change young Australian minds about a career in research, and convince the nation to support them.

How is systems thinking propelling biological science to a new level of understanding?

Just as computational tools have been applied to other industries requiring sophisticated data handling, new software platforms are being developed for applying systems biology approaches to areas such as medicine and biotechnology, integrating information in genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. Ultimately, knowledge integration in the life sciences will help us grasp the molecular mechanisms underlying the behaviours, or phenotypes, of biological systems, and predict the impact of perturbations such as drug treatments or environmental challenges.

How will molecular biology benefit from the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) recently announced between EMBL Australia and Japan’s Systems Biology Institute (SBI)?

SBI approached EMBL Australia with a view towards integrating basic life science research with their systems-level analytical approaches. This alliance is strategic: without experimentally accessible biological systems to test how genome-wide changes lead to new biological behaviours (genotype-phenotype correlation), how epigenetic changes control stem cell pluripotency or determine susceptibility to disease or to rare drug side effects, we will not be in a position to exploit these data to human benefit. EMBL Australia offers SBI access new sophisticated genetic and biochemical methods to engineer increasingly more accurate animal models of human disease, in turn exploiting SBI’s important advances in computational biology and bioinformatics to devise better ways to integrate and compare data from model cells and organisms with human biology. The next steps in translational research are difficult, and need a streamlined, cooperative approach if we are to develop, test, modify and improve our predictions to the point where they can be safely applied to patients. We are confident our new international alliance with SBI will deliver on these goals.

What progress has EMBL made in the understanding of the life sciences?

Although our two first EMBL Australia Groups are only a year old, they have both made considerable progress in their research. Dr Edwina McGlinn has uncovered fascinating and unexpected roles for microRNAs in controlling the proper formation of the mammalian body plan and in regulating specific motor coordination behaviours, paving the way for new molecular targets for intervention in congenital and neurological disease. Dr Nicolas Plachta has exploited novel non-invasive real time microscopy techniques to follow the movement of key control molecules during early embryo formation, using systems approaches to model how epigenetic changes occurring during the reprogramming affects the diffusion of transcription factors supporting stem cell pluripotency. Both projects are inherently risky, costly and labour intensive, and would have been extremely difficult for a young researcher to tackle without the support that the EMBL Australia model provides.

Do you foresee any barriers to the future of scientific endeavour? How would you advise we overcome this?

Although adequate funding for scientific research is a perennial problem in our current economic climate, the distribution of funding is often just as problematic. The current calls by both the public and private funding agencies in Australia for an increased emphasis on so-called translational research arise from a general misconception that basic life scientists have reached a sufficient level of understanding of living systems and their inherent complexity to move this knowledge directly into clinical application. As an active researcher in regenerative medicine I feel that disconnect acutely. To correct this misconception, we as scientists need to be more active in informing our leaders, giving them the background and progress updates they need to make informed decisions about funding priorities. The Australian Federal Government is in the process of a nationwide consultation, including but not restricted to the McKeon review, to develop a national roadmap for research funding in the next five years across all scientific fields. It is an ambitious goal and needs our full engagement if we are to get it right.