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Mattaj Prepares to Take Reins at EMBL as Director General

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Talk about early warning. In June the governing council of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory selected Scottish scientist Iain Mattaj as the laboratory’s new director general. The thing is, he won’t be starting in his new position until May of 2005.

But Mattaj (pronounced “mat-tie”) says the long lead time is just an illusion created by the fact that he’s already EMBL’s scientific director, a position he’s held since 1999. This is the first time EMBL has had a new director general come from within the laboratory’s leadership ranks; normally it would take an external candidate at least a year to wrap up work at the old job and prepare for the strategic and administrative challenges associated with an institution like EMBL, Mattaj says.

So Mattaj may have a leg up already. Having joined the laboratory in 1985, you might say he knows a bit about how the institution works. EMBL caters to 17 member states across Europe and operates five geographically distributed units: the headquarters in Heidelberg, as well as labs in Hinxton, Grenoble, Hamburg, and Monterotondo near Rome.

As director general, Mattaj says his primary strategic responsibility is to carry out the 10-year plan he helped establish for the lab, which focuses on incorporating systems biology into various research programs. What that means, he says, is ensuring that computational modeling capabilities are widely dispersed throughout the lab to provide scientists with the resources to apply engineering and systems approaches to biological problems. “Instead of always taking a reductionist approach, to supplement that by trying to take a holistic approach where it’s appropriate,” Mattaj says.

Mattaj suggests that there are multiple problems at the right level of complexity that researchers can tackle with a holistic approach to biology: at the level of individual pairs of cells communicating, perhaps, or behavior within a single cell, he says. “There are problems where we have a huge amount of information, including quantitative biochemical data, where a modeling approach really can help make predictions about how the system works and help to design experiments to test our understanding of the system.”

While EMBL tends not to engage in large-scale contract research with industry, Mattaj also sees an ongoing role for public-private collaborations, primarily through technology transfer and instrumentation supply relationships to make sure EMBL has access to the latest tools. After all, he says, the days of biology as a hobby-scale activity are over. “The life sciences are in a phase now where technology has sort of retaken over as the driving force for some areas of advance,” he says. “You need to have access to the best instrumentation.”

— John S. MacNeil