Where did you get your interest in biology?
Biology interested me from early on, even before my studies. Even in primary school I took part in extra classes with the biology circle, I kept various animals – fish, hamsters, guinea pigs etc. In secondary school I was in the biology-chemistry profile, so the interest continued. I took part in biology competitions. Starting university studies was the natural continuation of this interest. Why the University of Gdańsk?
There is a simple reason. Remember these were times when there was less mobility than there is now, and because I lived in Gdańsk it was a natural choice, given that I had somewhere to live, and in those days this was an important thing. As well as that, I identified with this region.
You chose to specialise in molecular biology, which is developing rapidly today, but in those days it was at a completely different stage.
The interest in molecular biology came about gradually, but I think the key personality in convincing me was Professor Karol Taylor, the future promotor of my MA thesis and doctoral dissertation. I realised after his lectures that this was actually very interesting. In addition, after the exam he himself proposed the specialisation in molecular biology, a chance I jumped at. The decisive factors were 1) the professor’s charisma and 2) molecular biology really did look like it had a great future in biology, which is how it is now. Without molecular biology there would be no development in any other biological specialisation.
Where does the idea come from, how does a scientist ‘stumble’ on an ingenious solution?
There is no simple answer, especially nowadays when a specific specialisation is required to be able to carry out research at the appropriate level because, in most cases, we already have the basic information. In contrast, our detailed knowledge is still very incomplete. It is often the case that even when we’ve been doing research into a subject for many years, we suddenly get a surprising result which suggests we need to further explore the processes we haven’t looked at yet, so we read what is known about these processes and it often happens that in trying to explain our surprising result, we come to the conclusion: “So, we don’t know this, this, or this and we need more research”. Every result opens a range of research possibilities. Of course we often find ourselves working on things which are completely new to us, for example, by working together when it turns out that our subject may be useful in subjects seemingly far removed from it. This is how it was with my group, when we started research into human genetics ten years ago, mainly into the mysteries of the genetics of bacteria and viruses. Exploring a new subject means that we often have to acquaint ourselves with what is already known and here you often find that there are enormous gaps in our knowledge and so we can use our abilities, our knowledge from other biological specialisations, which in turn can bring an awful lot to a specialisation which is new to us.
You are involved in many academic projects, so can you find time for a hobby?
If I’m honest, I don’t really have the time. If I want to work in an academic environment, to be vice-director or member of other organisations, I have to work from dawn to dusk. So there is no time, of course I’m not thinking of little things from time to time, for personal interests. Mornings are usually taken up with organising classes, afternoons and evenings with academic research.
Scientific activity is not just time spent in a laboratory, it’s also the chance to observe other countries and cultures.
I have the chance to attend a great deal of conferences and all over the world too. Apart from the purely scientific impressions, it is a chance to see the world. Usually at conferences you see the airport, hotel and conference room, but sometimes there’s the chance to devote a day or two to seeing the country itself. Conferences can be held in any country, starting with Europe through Australia, the USA, and ending with South America. I’ve been able to see Argentina, Brazil, Australia and China and the impressions are often different. Each country is unique.
I think I was most shocked by China, more precisely Shanghai. I remember I arrived in the evening, so I got into a taxi from the airport and there wasn’t much to see. I woke up in the morning 30-something floors up, I looked out of the window and what I saw was a five-lane motorway and buildings that would be the envy of New York. With all the technology and cutting-edge modernity, the shock was, that when I looked down, literally 50 metres from those luxury hotels, incredible modern motorways and trains travelling at 400km/h on magnetic cushions, there was privation on a scale I had never seen anywhere in the world. It would be an understatement to call it a slum. The whole flat consisted of one tiny shoe-box of a room, open to the street and maybe 5 or 6 square metres in size. Cramped toilets where everything flowed into the street. Abject poverty literally 50 metres from the luxury, opulence and modernity of the city – such a contrast I have only seen in China.
Interview: Krzysztof Klinkosz
Photograph: Piotr Pędziszewski