Born in Galway in the west of Ireland, EMBO’s third Executive Secretary Frank Gannon has built a career out of seeing possibilities where others might not see them, for himself and for the organisations he has worked for.
‘I'm pretty international,’ he says. ‘I did my PhD in Leicester. After that I went to Madison Wisconsin, and I changed from being an entomologist to being an oestrogen receptor person. Then back to Strasbourg [as an EMBO Fellow] in Pierre Chambon's laboratory. And I think that was where I started making my networks.’ After six productive years in France, Gannon decided to go back to the University of Galway in Ireland.
‘When I went back there I wrote a letter saying “I'm going to do three things. I'm going to have a laboratory that is respectable at world level. I’m going to introduce genetic engineering into the scientific community there. And I'm going to have an impact on industry through biotechnology.”’ Despite the under-resourcing of Irish universities – Gannon was criticised for using the telephone too much – he achieved all three.
As one of Ireland’s few international scientists (he was elected an EMBO member in 1983), Gannon represented his country on various European Union committees, one of which was chaired by EMBL Director Fotis Kafatos. ‘At the end of one meeting I heard that John Tooze had stepped down [as EMBO Executive Secretary]’, he says. Soon afterwards he was approached to apply for the job.
‘I recall saying to Mary [his wife], I'm 45, it's going to be a very hard life trying to keep the show on the road in Galway. So we looked at different aspects, like where was the Irish economy going at the time? Down the drain. Was it likely that our daughters would stay in Ireland when they grew up and qualified? No. Therefore why feel that we should stay in Ireland?’ Gannon stayed at EMBO from 1994 until 2007, developing programmes such as the Young Investigators and Science and Society, all of which continue in some form today.
After EMBO, he returned to Ireland as director of Science Foundation Ireland. ‘Every year I asked the scientists “What industries are you interacting with, if any? And it became the most powerful tool I had with the government, that I was able to tell them that there were 400 industries working with 600 scientists at any level.’
For his latest move Gannon has returned to his first love, research. Since 2011 he has been director of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia, where he also heads a small group working on control of gene expression. ‘Running a medical research institution is quite different from running EMBO or Science Foundation Ireland,’ he says. ‘I've shifted along the line to be much more demanding of people to make good use of their science. Because the money that's going into research from the countries needs to be justified.’
Frank Gannon talks about the early days of the Young Investigator Programme
Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.
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EMBO Director 1994-2007
EMBO Member since 1983