June 2015 | Issue 18
EMBO-racing the future - Interview with Professor Maria Leptin, Director of EMBO

​By Adeline Ang
The LKCMedicine Guest Editor

​In a world obsessed with acronyms, EMBO is one organisation which has a very good reason for wanting to be known only by the initial letters of its original name. Established as the European Molecular Biology Organisation in 1964, EMBO has grown far beyond its original scope in 50 years.

So explains Professor Maria Leptin, Director of EMBO. In Singapore to speak on behalf of the organisation at the recent EMBO Gold Medallist Symposium held on 11-13 May 2015, Prof Leptin said in her opening address, "Today EMBO is embracing the life sciences in a much wider sense. We have expanded our membership in the areas of neuroscience, ecology and evolution to reflect some of the important changes that have taken place in recent years. We no longer spell out our name."

Later, speaking on the sidelines of the Symposium, she elaborates, "There are some fields like neurobiology which are experiencing fantastic discoveries - not classically molecular biology but extremely important. We decided it was silly to make that distinction anymore."

Just as importantly, EMBO has expanded beyond Europe to embrace the rest of the world in recognising and supporting talented researchers, and stimulating the exchange of scientific information. Says Prof Leptin, "Cooperation between researchers should not be constrained by national or international borders. Science depends on building and nurturing a diverse international community. EMBO sees the cross-country cooperation that has allowed it to be successful in Europe as a platform for further international cooperation. With this in mind, it is clear that we need an international outlook for all of our activities and we are looking to strengthen these global activities further."

As part of this international expansion, in 2011 EMBO and Singapore entered into a Cooperation Agreement that allows scientists in Singapore the ability to participate in EMBO's programmes. This includes:

  • EMBO long- and short-term fellowships
  • access to funding to support EMBO workshops to be held in Singapore
  • support for plenary lectures given by EMBO Members as well as lectures given by EMBO Young Investigators
  • travel stipends to attend EMBO courses & workshops in Europe and for scientists based in Europe to attend EMBO workshops in Singapore
  • participation in the EMBO Young Investigator Programme​​

Prof Leptin with Mr Lim Chuan Poh, Chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR) and LKCMedicine Governing Board ​at the 2015 ​EMBO Gold Medallist Symposium​

Why enter into such an arrangement with Singapore? Prof Leptin is matter-of-fact in her praise, "Obviously, Singapore is one of the nations that has moved to being a high-level player on the international scene. We are looking for interactions with countries that have highly developed infrastructure and top-level research in the life sciences. Singapore is an obvious partner."

Prof Leptin firmly believes that this relationship has been mutually beneficial, "Our cooperation agreement with Singapore is a great example of what can be achieved to meet the needs of our joint communities.  It is a role model for the type of successful collaboration that we are trying to spread to other parts of the globe.

"This has been a very valuable relationship to EMBO. We have held workshops here. We have two Young Investigators here." In the future, were Singapore to be an Associate Member country of EMBO, Prof Leptin hopes it will encourage us to have our own Young Investigator Network. "We would be happy to trigger such a network here to be founded and to help set it up, and run it along the same lines as the one in Europe."

EMBO membership is extremely exclusive: candidates are proposed by existing members on the basis of their scientific excellence, and the names are then distributed for voting. Two-thirds of members are directly elected, and the EMBO committee then looks at the rest of the field to ensure that no deserving candidates have been overlooked because their fields of research are less visible or physically more remote.

LKCMedicine is proud to have fiveEMBO members among our ranks. What has attracted such a significant number to the School? Prof Leptin says, "Places of high excellence - like Cambridge in the UK, or the Pasteur - will attract EMBO members. For any scientist, it is the possibility of doing good science. Places with good infrastructure, excellent colleagues, opportunities for obtaining grants to do your science, and its excellent students. Those are the things that matter.

"LKCMedicine is one of the fantastic initiatives in Singapore. You have visionary plans, and you get good people to implement them."