Adriano Aguzzi is based at the Institute of Neuropathology, University Hospital of Zurich. His lab focuses on understanding the pathogenetic mechanisms involved in neurodegenerative diseases using scrapie as a disease model. Another main area of research covered in his lab involves studying the pathogenesis of tumor progression in astrocytomas to discover molecules and pathogenetic principles controlling disease progression in human brain tumors.
Adriano Aguzzi gave a seminar at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown on the 8th of October and was kind enough to grant us an interview.
How did you get into science?
I think that everybody should get into science because it is the most exciting thing you can do! For me this was pretty clear when I went to school: I found research exciting and interesting. At school I was very attracted to Physics but at the last minute I decided to go into medicine. After I finished medical school I then tried everything to get back into science.
Which question about your work annoys you the most and why?
Nothing really annoys me. As a natural scientist I think we are really privileged and I cannot cease to marvel that I can spend every day of my life going about something that is in the end a hobby. And I can’t believe I can get a salary from that – it is actually totally incredible.
As for questions regarding my work, no question from the general public annoys me: I’m really glad when people think about what it is to be a scientist. What does sometimes bother me is when communication professionals are unprepared in an interview and expect me to start from first principles concerning my research. I also expect medical or master thesis students interviewing in my lab to be at least vaguely familiar with what I am doing. When it turns out during the course of the interview that they don’t have the faintest idea of what my lab is about, that definitely decreases their chance to get the job. Fortunately, although these things do happen, they are more the exception than the rule.
As a scientist what do you think is the most important message you have to convey to someone?
I think that the curiosity for how nature works is probably what really differentiates humans from any other being, so I think it is a very natural drive. It is not however a given that we, as scientist, are allowed to pursue this endeavor. Of course science is the base of our welfare and progress, and much of what our society can be proud of comes from science, but it is very indirect and it takes a long time. I therefore think that it is sometimes very difficult to make the point that what we do is useful because you don’t see the fruits immediately, even if you are in medical sciences and you do things that are very applied. For example, in drug discovery or drug design, it may still take 10, 15, 20 years until the drugs you are trying to make hit the pharmacy. This is something about science that is difficult for outsiders to understand fully and to appreciate: when we request funding from the taxpayers (all hard earned money), we scientists have to do our job of explaining well and in understandable terms what we are doing because we can’t take it for granted that people will give us money.
If you could get an immediate answer to a question that has been on your mind, what would be the question?
If I’d be totally honest this would probably be a very technical answer. I am trying to resolve, since a couple of years, how certain substances damage the brain and if I would have a wish for something that I would be able to discover then this is clearly what I would want to do. Obviously there is no magic wand in science so you have to do the hard work and that is what I’m doing! I am trying to do this in a very disciplined, very efficient way because time is not infinite, it is the most precious resource, and I actually want to get to the bottom of it. I am very serious and very committed about this and so I’m really planning my steps ahead quite carefully in order to get there. So, no magic wand, but I am reasonably (of course you can not be certain) confident that I can get there before the end of my life.
If you weren’t a scientist, what would you be?
I studied to be a medical doctor, I trained as a pathologist, I worked for many years as a pathologist and I still occasional participate in the pathology service. There are certain things about the medical activity that are extremely rewarding, you know, the fact that you do one thing and then you finish. If you are a pathologist you make a diagnosis of somebody who may have some disease that nobody understands: you look at the tissue, you make the diagnosis and can therefore establish a therapy. This is extremely rewarding, it gives you an immediacy which you never have in basic research. At the end of the day you have done 20 diagnosis, you know that you have helped 20 people and they will be grateful to you from that moment on. This is great and sometimes I miss it because I am doing less and less of that, given that I have realized that if you really want to do something fundamental you have to focus, you can’t do too many things at the same time. But I have to say that over decades, for me, it was a very good thing to have this balance: if science would not go so well and experiments would not work out or papers couldn’t get published, to have the medical activity as a kind of psychotherapy for myself was a good thing.
Clara Howcroft Ferreira is a postdoctoral researcher in the Behavioral Neuroscience lab at the Champalimaud Neuroscience Programme, passionate about science education and communication.
Edited by: Ana Nunes (page editor)