Seeding Success in Science


Symposium on the occasion of the retirement of Graham Warren, Scientific Director of the Max F. Perutz Laboratories and Dean of the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna

On February 20th 2017, the Viennese research community held a symposium at the “Kleine Festsaal” of the University of Vienna to honor the achievements of Graham Warren, Scientific Director of the Max F. Perutz Laboratories (MFPL), who will retire in March after having spent ten successful years in Vienna.

Graham Warren, a native Londoner and member of the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO), the Academia Europaea and the Austrian Academy of Sciences as well as Fellow of the Royal Society of London, was educated in Cambridge and London. Thereafter, he started his own group at the newly instigated European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany in 1977. In 2007, after leading successful research groups in Dundee, London and Yale Medical School, he arrived in Vienna, where he was appointed Scientific Director of the MFPL and Dean of Departments of both the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna. He dedicated much of his career to studying the biogenesis of the Golgi apparatus.

After introductory words by Tim Skern, group leader at the MFPL, both the Rector of the University of Vienna, Heinz Engl and the Rector Emeritus of the Medical University of Vienna, Wolfgang Schütz gave welcoming addresses, speaking about Graham Warren’s efforts to seed success in science as Scientific Director. Graham Warren, who also introduced a tenure track system based on the American model, expanded the founding principles of the MFPL: Merit-based selection at all levels from PhD to faculty, leading to appointment and retention of the best in both teaching and research, independence at an early age, especially for junior faculty, provision of core facilities and start-up funds and generation of an environment in which success can flourish.

Four examples of Graham Warren’s achievements in seeding success in science (in the shape of his former PhD students and PostDocs) were invited to the symposium as selected speakers. The first talk of the day was given by his PhD student at the EMBL, Stella Hurtley, now senior editor at Science magazine. She spoke about the impact of publishing on academia. Catherine Rabouille, PostDoc in Graham Warren’s lab at the Imperial Cancer Research Institute, London and now group leader at the Hubrecht Institute in Utrecht, Netherlands, stressed the importance of Graham’s leadership style for her career: “Graham taught me to be rigorous and thorough. He criticized me just enough to go ahead with my future plans of starting my own group anyway. “, Catherine stated during her talk.

Tom Misteli, now head of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Bethesda, Maryland, started his PhD in Graham Warren’s lab at the Imperial Cancer Research Institute with a rather unusual idea, the disassembly of the Golgi apparatus. While Graham thought the idea was ‘cool’, the rest of the group was doubtful: „In the beginning, nobody wanted to go out with me for lunch. “, he remembered during his presentation.

The final talk of the symposium was given by Brooke Morriswood, who worked as a PostDoc in Graham Warren’s groups at Yale and the MFPL. Just like Catherine Rabouille before him, Brooke Morriswood emphasized that Graham Warren’s idea of how science should be done was central to his own career. “Graham was amazing at encouraging independence in an indirect way. There was stimulation and encouragement, but you were always given time to reach the destination yourself.”, says Brooke. Graham Warren himself agreed:” I would say it’s as important to support your students, as it is to leave them alone. I’m incredibly proud of my former students who spoke tonight. It’s always nice to see people you helped, although you sometimes didn’t even know you helped them. “

Graham Warren’s way of giving his employees the independence they needed and not simply following scientific trends simply due to their popularity ran like a golden thread also through his time at the MFPL. This is especially true for the MFPL’s younger group leaders: „It was Graham’s clear vision of science, that led to the many successes. We, the junior group leaders, are an example for that. “, says Bojan Zagrovic. „What Graham did differently is that he didn’t impose any restrictions regarding applications of scientists for a position at MFPL, which is not necessarily true everywhere. “, added Florian Raible.

Naturally, other factors besides vision and a certain leadership style become important when establishing a successful research institute. To illustrate the importance of the funding of basic research (not only at the MFPL) Donia Lasinger of the funding organization ‘Wiener Wissenschafts- und Technologiefonds (WWTF)’ was invited to speak at the symposium. During her talk, Ms. Lasinger gave an overview of the history of the MFPL and the WWTF’s role as their longstanding and trustworthy companion. 

The symposium not only touched Graham Warren’s role as a mentor, but also on his role as a mentee, of none other than Kai Simons, former group leader at the EMBL and Director Emeritus of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden. As Kai Simons was unfortunately unable to attend the symposium, he sent a video elaborating his view of seeding success in an academic environment. He stressed three main factors as being crucial: teamwork, working on interesting new subjects and a broad view of biology. He then went on to describe the relationship he had with Graham Warren. “I met Graham at a workshop in Israel. We talked a lot and it was really amazing how we were on the same wavelength right away.” In a touching moment of the video, Kai Simons showed the gift he had received from Graham Warren many years earlier, an oil can, with the engraved message: “To Kai, from Graham, for pouring oil on troubled waters.”

Graham Warren’s fondness of what he calls the ‘Viennese way of celebrating’ was properly addressed in the form of musical interludes by Gustav Ammerer, group leader at the MFPL and passionate cellist. Among the pieces performed was Sebastian Gürtler’s ‘Brexit’, a fitting choice given Graham Warren’s return to London. As the final artistic act of the symposium, the Vienna Biocenter Amateur Drama Club performed the well-received ‘Hamlet – the Prince of St. Marx’, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Graham Warren’s career as Scientific Director of the MFPL. Brooke Morriswood wrote the piece himself and also starred in the leading role.

For Tim Skern, the symposium was a complete success: “It reflected the way Graham decided to seed success in an academic environment. It was very interesting to hear about the opposite poles of the academic world, embodied by Tom Misteli and Catherine Rabouille. Also, Brooke’s talk that was centered on himself as the ‘seed’ was highly enjoyable. “

A very special guest of the evening was Hans Tuppy, former Austrian Federal Minister of Science and Research, former President of the FWF and Rector Emeritus of the University of Vienna. He agreed with Tim Skern: “The symposium was very pleasant. It was not only a thank you, but it also had a common theme: What young scientists can expect. The warnings against following the common trends in science were impressive. Young researchers should rather follow their personal talents and passions.”

The MFPL’s position as a nationally and internationally recognized leading research and teaching institute is due to a tremendous extent to Graham Warren’s efforts and decisions as Scientific Director. For this, the MFPL, as well as the University of Vienna and the Medical University of Vienna, want to thank him and wish him all the best for his future endeavors. We are certain that he will not stay idle during his retirement. To put it with Kai Simons’ words: “You have to carry the torch further. Good luck, Graham!”