Interview with Dr Joan J. Guinovart. Director Emeritus with the Biomedical Research Institute (IRB). Professor Emeritus at the University of Barcelona
How can you summarize a lifetime dedicated to biomedical research and excellence
It has been my life’s work, and I’ve done it with great enthusiasm and purpose. I wanted to study chemistry ever since I was young, and my interest broadened to biological aspects and the impact that chemistry has on health when I studied pharmacy. I did a doctorate in Biochemistry and a post-doc in Pharmacology, and when I returned I worked as a university Biochemistry professor. I was a full professor with the Faculty of Pharmacy and I contributed to creating the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the UAB. I returned to the Faculty of Chemistry at the UB later on, where the idea came about to create an institute that would bring together experts from different fields who were separated into departments and faculties in the university world, but shared common interests regarding biomedical issues. This is how the Biomedical Research Institute (IRB) foundation was created.
Bringing all these talented individuals together has been the IRB’s greatest strength, making it an outstanding research centre. In 2011, the IRB gained accreditation from the Severo Ochoa Molecular Biology Centre in our first application, giving us a seal of excellence. The IRB has earned this distinction two more times, each time we have applied. I’m really proud of it!
Are there any moments you recall with special fondness?
Absolutely. The day we earned the first Severo Ochoa recognition was very emotional. The IRB was supposed to have been founded in 2001, but it was delayed until 2005. And in 2011, just six years after our foundation, we earned the Severo Ochoa seal of excellence, earlier than other centres that had been founded much earlier. For us, this was recognition for a job well done and quite rapidly, confirming that we had chosen the right path. It was really tremendously exciting when we earned our initial accreditation!
What has your time leading the IRB meant to you?
I’ve been at the head of the IRB for nearly thirteen years. During all this time, I’ve sought to advance the institute by attracting the best researchers. A director can’t be the best researcher (which would mean that he or she isn’t quite capable of attracting people better than themselves), but not the worst either. Meanwhile, I’ve remained in charge of my laboratory in which we have made contributions to understanding glycogen metabolism, which is directly related to diabetes, and Lafora disease, which causes epilepsy and neurodegeneration.
Now I am an emeritus researcher. We closed the laboratory this past June after completing all the research projects we had underway (an American NIH project, a National Plan, the La Marató project, and so on). An era was ending and it was the ideal time to wrap everything up.
What’s the future for your research lines like now following your retirement? What legacy are you leaving behind?
Many of my research lines have been transferred to Dr Jordi Durán at IQS. IQS was fortunate to bring on the great skills of two researchers trained at the IRB: Dr Jordi Duran and Dr Benjamí Oller, who formed part of Dr Ernest Giralt’s team.
They are truly extraordinary and I expect there will be even more crossover as IQS opens up in biomedical areas in a solid bet for the future. Making this adaptation from a mostly “chemical” structure to a more “biological” one will require input from experts trained in this field. The IRB will likely continue to provide new “researcher strength” to IQS as part of the latter’s exciting adventure in opening up to the world of biomedicine.
This shift from traditional chemistry to biochemistry is evident in the Nobel Prizes in Chemistry over the last twenty years, which have been awarded to “biological chemistry” work. Therefore, this new orientation demonstrates a clear vision of openness and the future by IQS, which is sure to be very successful. I wish IQS the best luck!
Tell us about the “Crazy about biomedicine” programme that you launched at the IRB for high school students. What has this initiative represented? Is it still running?
The initiative was so attractive and pioneering that it was soon replicated in other areas. “Crazy about biomedicine” started nine years ago with the aim of opening the research centre to high school students on Saturdays with the aim of fostering interest and passion for biomedical sciences among young people. The IRB founded the first one of these programmes. Now there are a lot of “crazy about” programmes: for engineering, physics, mathematics, biochemistry, and more, all under the umbrella of the Catalunya La Pedrera Foundation. Today, more than 300 “crazy about” students participate each year.
All these boys and girls have interests that are not shared by most of their peers. When they find themselves in a group of students with similar interests, they stick together and feel understood. During the programme, they can better understand the world of science and discover their professional ambitions by working with the researchers themselves (doctoral students and post-docs who act as mentors, which is a great experience for them too). It is enormously gratifying to see how a relatively simple idea ended up producing solid benefits and achieving such a positive impact on young people. Everyone is a winner in this initiative: the students, the mentors, the institution, the country, everyone!
One of my primary tasks as an emeritus researcher is promoting science education for primary and secondary school students and making it possible for the research system to be involved in teaching science starting in the earliest educational stages, because interest in science must be stimulated at a young age or else it could be lost. This is my aspiration going forward: to contribute to awakening a scientific calling among young people, especially girls, and to be able to contribute to closing the technological and gender gap that is present all over the world.
We have all been forced to endure a unique pandemic. What stands out to you about the experiences we’ve had, and are continuing to have, as a society in general and in the world of science?
There is a very obvious conclusion: the vaccine has saved us from the pandemic. Doctors and healthcare workers have done a great job working to cure and save people, and they’ve earned a very important and well-deserved social recognition. But the real solution that has kept the healthcare system from collapsing has been vaccines. Our technological foundations were already well-prepared and quite advanced, and they were forced to go at full speed to get ready in record time. It was a wonderful and admirable success!
What should we have learned from COVID-19? It is essential for us to have well-developed basic science because it could save our lives at any time. We have seen this with RNA vaccines, a technology that started being developed years ago and has now been accelerated at full speed, opening up an impressive field of applications.
The vaccine is an extraordinary success. But scientists have not been able to make the rest of society understand the challenge of making an effective vaccine in under a year. This is why what I mentioned before is so important: it is essential for young people to learn how science and its foundational methods work correctly. It doesn’t matter if they end up becoming lawyers, economists, or whatever, but they must understand how a system based on experimentation works.
What is your vision of the current state of the scientific world? Where are we headed?
Science is an international activity in which researchers from all over the world compete and collaborate. This means that if we want to be among the best, we have to play in the “Champions League” against all the teams in the world and not stay restricted to our immediate environment.
This involves exchanges of knowledge, people, and having the possibility (and the capacity) to participate in advances globally. We can’t get stuck with the idea that “our scientists are leaving.” Some are leaving, sure, but how many scientists from other countries are coming and replacing them?
In order to have an internationally competitive system, we must have the ability to attract international talent that compensates for local talent that leaves the country. If we give up our talent and we are unable to attract others, we have a big problem. Internationalization is a sine qua non condition for excellence.
During a recent conference on quantum technologies at the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST), the speakers had different nationalities yet they were all employed here in Spain. This is a great example which shows that an excellent scientific community needs this multicultural and multinational aspect, and it means that society must be prepared to accept newcomers and provide them with visas, housing, schools for their children, simple legal procedures, and so on to make us a welcoming country. Ultimately, we have to work towards a favourable ecosystem that can attract talent and offer an open society that welcomes them with enthusiasm.
Is this the future of the scientific world?
It’s the present! But we have to work even harder to earn our place at the table of developed nations. Spain only has one university among the world’s 200 best, the University of Barcelona. In comparison, we easily have more than one football team in the top 200, yet fans still aren’t satisfied and want them in the top five! I’d like to see the same level of demand in the university and research world: having a university among the world’s 25 best.
The same is true with technology transfer. It requires a favourable system and a suitable environment. We have to spread the culture of science, technology, and innovation to all of society. We need for researchers, teachers, and innovators to be valued and for young people to say “I want to be like that.” We need to have the willpower to strengthen Barcelona’s role as an innovative and technological hub, which is already true on paper at least. However, we must continue working every day so we don’t go backwards and we must strive to continue advancing and competing with other parts of the world.
To conclude, what advice would you give to new generations of researchers
Don’t seek out comfort. Always surround yourselves with people who are stronger than you in a stimulating and demanding environment, which will in turn make it possible for you to give your best.