ISREC’s Susan Gasser: A “Hard-Nosed” Approach to Research Quality & Excellence

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After 15 years as director at the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research (FMI) (2004-2019) and even longer as the group leader at her own research lab, Professor Susan M. Gasser was appointed director of the Foundation of the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer (ISREC), in a way closing the circle on her long and distinguished career journey: following her postdoctoral fellowship, from 1986 to 2001, she spent another 15 years at ISREC as a research group leader working on the impact of nuclear organization on genome function. The ISREC Foundation oversaw ISREC until its integration into the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) in 2008. 

 

Professor Gasser pursued undergraduate studies in Biophysics at the University of Chicago and completed her PhD in Biochemistry at the University of Basel. As a globally renowned biologist and epigeneticist, her research focuses on the spatial organization and structure of the genome in the cell nucleus, and on mechanisms that influence chromosomal stability during replication and cell division. During the course of her career, she has published prolifically, authoring over 250 primary articles and reviews and picking up a number of well-deserved international awards along the way, including the Otto Naegeli Award, the Gregor Mendel Medal, the INSERM International Prize and the Weizmann Institute Women in Science award, to name just a few. She has also been elected to various academic institutions and bodies including the Académie de France, the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences and the German Academy of Science.

 

[W]e are very hard-nosed about quality and excellence. We want substance, not flash. We do not care if it takes a researcher five years to generate a solid data set, with no publication during that time, as long as the end result is important and robust

Professor Susan M. Gasser

 

During her time at the FMI, she was critical to the development of the Institute into the world-class research institution it is today. As she recalled, “´[w]hen I joined as director in 2004, I was asked to ensure that it was “world-class”, which meant having international recognition across all levels of its research landscape.” For her, the mission was simple to grasp: “[i]n short, that would imply that when the name FMI is mentioned, everyone in the room would know someone working at the FMI that they respect.”

 

Today, FMI can lay claim to a number of important achievements. For instance, Professor Gasser shared, “we are the most efficient institution in Europe in terms of successful European Research Council grants, which are the gold standard of innovative research in Europe.” At the same time, despite their success in terms of competitive grant funding, the Institute has also managed to maintain a visionary and longer-term approach towards research. As Professor Gasser put it, “[w]e are very hard-nosed about quality and excellence. We want substance, not flash. We do not care if it takes a researcher five years to generate a solid data set, with no publication during that time, as long as the end result is important and robust.” Ultimately, to Professor Gasser, fostering success within a research institute is a simple process: “it is simply a matter of hiring the right people and then giving them the freedom to do excellent research.”

 

Perhaps this provides an insight into how Professor Gasser plans to lead ISREC. Based in Lausanne, ISREC is dedicated to translational research in cancer, with a particular focus on promoting collaborations between academic and clinical institutions in the Lemanic area, also known as the Lake Geneva region stretching from Geneva to Lausanne and Montreux. In 2018, ISREC also established the AGORA (Pôle de recherche sur le cancer), a cancer research cluster that aims to place Lausanne “on the world map of oncology and immuno-oncology research”.

 

In terms of the role of industry in translational research, she agreed that academics in Europe should be more supported in their collaborations with industry though “there must be rules and standards for such support. Private interests should not control where public money is spent, but collaboration and cooperation should be expanded. There need to be widely accepted rules for collaboration between the public and private sectors.”

 

Having toiled in academia for an impressive six decades, she also had a message to share about the process of women in science: “[s]ignificant progress has been made, but there is a long way to go. However, there is much to be done to ensure that these women assume management positions, especially in the pharmaceutical industry. If the imbalance does not rectify itself by consciously suppressing bias in hiring and promotion boards, then a quota system should be established, at least for a short while, stipulating that a given number of women should be hired. Far easier is to guarantee that women are fairly represented as speakers at conferences, and support should be withdrawn from conferences where too few women present.”

 

For Professor Gasser, diversity is non-negotiable, with her pronouncing emphatically, “there should be space for people from all walks of life in science, regardless of gender, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or personality type.”

 

With such conviction and wealth of experience, it is certain that she will make a transformative impact on the ISREC Foundation.

 

Read the full interview here

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