Hermann Bujard, who led EMBO as Director from 2007-2010, also shares the credit for EMBO coming to Heidelberg in 1973. His experience of working in American laboratories in the 1960s gave him a lifelong determination to provide a better environment for fast-moving subjects such as molecular biology in Germany’s hierarchical university departments.
Bujard had switched from natural product chemistry to molecular biology after doing his PhD at the University of Göttingen. ‘Some of my friends did a PhD with Manfred Eigen’ he says. ‘So I was exposed to the new thinking of the Eigen lab. And that got me into molecular biology.’ He went to the United States, initially as a postdoc in Charles Heidelberger’s laboratory at University of Wisconsin-Madison.
‘We had a collaboration with Gobind Khorana's lab, and of course they were just deciphering the genetic code,’ he remembers. He was also exposed to the unique atmosphere of the Cold Spring Harbor meetings. ‘There were people like Monod and Crick and Delbrück, probably two dozen Nobel laureates,’ he says. ‘This was unbelievably inspiring, and they were all easy going: no ties, T shirts, hanging around using first names.’
Bujard returned to his homeland in 1969 and took up an assistant professorship in molecular genetics at Heidelberg University. Almost immediately, working with Peter von Sengbusch from Ken Holmes’s lab at the Max Planck Institut for Medical Research, he helped to put together the case for EMBO to come to Heidelberg. ‘I always thought it can only help if there are more molecular biologists here, and that's how Heidelberg grew,’ he says.
In the early 1980s Bujard helped to set up the Centre for Molecular Biology at the University of Heidelberg (ZMBH). At that time the authorities refused to set aside centuries of tradition and adopt an Anglo-Saxon departmental structure. So he left to set up a molecular biology laboratory for the pharmaceutical company Hoffmann-LaRoche. There he began to work on a vaccine against malaria. ‘I decided late in my life that I should try to do something useful, which is much more difficult,’ he says. ‘If I were just to work on mechanisms of malaria parasite transcription I would always have papers, and no child would ever profit from that.’
After four years, he returned to ZMBH as chairman, and this time succeeded in establishing the department structure he wanted. ‘This went up to the governor here in the state, and it was agreed,’ he says. ‘It is one of a few German institutes to my knowledge that has almost an American department structure.’
Since handing over the Directorship of EMBO to Maria Leptin in 2010, he has been a Distinguished Professor at ZMBH and still runs an active lab. He is looking forward to seeing his candidate malaria vaccine enter clinical trials. ‘If this should work out, my goal is to go back to Africa and see if we can demonstrate efficacy,’ he says. An ambitious goal – but so was bringing EMBO to Heidelberg all those years ago.
Georgina Ferry Source: EMBO in perspective: A half century in the life sciences.
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EMBO Director 2007-2010
EMBO Member since 1976