First Person | Fotis Kafatos

Today, Kafatos, 63, has not lost his drive.

The Scientist Staff
Dec 14, 2003

Fotis Kafatos is a man in love with his work. Twenty-five years ago, he opted to be in his Harvard lab instead of at home celebrating Christmas; he wanted to see if a new dot-hybridization procedure had developed as he hoped. (It did.) Today, Kafatos, 63, has not lost his drive: While working to decipher the genome of a mosquito that transmits malaria, Anopheles gambiae, he is busy running the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, a consortium of 17 countries that is interdisciplinary by nature, and design. He took over in 1993.

Science, he says, is his passion. "Being a scientist, for me, is an existential need. I would not have survived as EMBL director-general if I did not have a very active lab."

Did you accept the EMBL offer quickly?
I did make the decision fairly fast, although I have to say I was perfectly happy at Harvard. I told EMBL, when they first asked, "Don't expect me to move." [But] it captured my imagination.

Tell us a bit about your job.
I lead a complicated life. One aspect is to run a big laboratory, especially one divided into five locations. The lab is bottom-up; we give complete independence and support so researchers [who have no tenure] don't have to worry about grants in the first several years, because everything is centrally funded. Eventually, researchers who only stay for nine years have to supplement EMBL's support with their own funding.

EMBL covers the range of fundamental biology from the atomic level to the organism: molecular, cellular, developmental, structural, and computational biology. We also are involved in technology development.

I am also a science policy leader in Europe. EMBL is a high-profile institution. Every five years, I have to develop a timely and convincing science program, and then persuade our members to give us the necessary funding.

It's also been a good testing ground for my diplomatic skills. EMBL has to be in tune with the individual members' science needs, and with Europe as a whole. I am not saying that everyone loves me, but I am pretty good with communicating. I am not conflict- oriented, I am a unifier.

Where do you live?
In Germany, but sometimes it feels like I am living in the airport. Every week, I am on a different trip.

Why do you study malaria?
I have always had a deep social consciousness. I believe that science is a cultural activity, which should contribute to society, provided we safeguard the freedom of inquiry; I am passionate about academic freedom.

What is happening in your lab?
We are now methodically dissecting the function of Anopheles gambiae genes, by comparing the genomes between Anopheles and other organisms, like the fruit fly, and then silencing each gene to see if the malaria parasite survives in that mosquito. Essentially, we are at the early start of a marathon. That is really exhilarating. We are bringing people together from the lab and from the field.

Did you always want to be a scientist?
I almost became an archaeologist, but growing up on Crete, one can hardly avoid the temptation. I spent every Sunday morning, when I was a kid, at the archeological museum in Iraklion. I also had ambitions of being a poet. I like literature.

What do you read?
I read a mixture of Greek literature, and I like international short stories. I like to keep in touch with Greece through the Greek literature. That has a strong emotional content for me.

What about music?
I used to play guitar. Now I play the tape recorder or the CD player. My tastes in music are conservative: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, and some of the romantics. Also Renaissance and 18th century. I do like folk music.

Your favorite paper?
The mosquito genome,1 that was a real high point in my life. Also, we cloned the first mammalian gene in its entirety2; it was really a landmark paper. Soon after I developed the DOT-BLOT, a precursor of the microarray chip.3

Do you prefer US or European culture?
I am a citizen of the world. That is completely compatible with being a Greek patriot. I do quite a bit of reading in my early-morning hours. I like to be informed of what is happening in the entire world. That gives you a clue as to why I am here. I am very tolerant of differences in culture. I see the good in everything.

I was very happy in the United States. I never felt foreign. I could be accepted for my capabilities, and my nationality did not matter. In Europe, I love the richness and diversity of cultures. I soak it all in.

1. G.K. Christophides et al., "Immunity-related genes and gene families in Anopheles gambiae: A comparative genomic analysis," Science, 298:159-65, 2002.

2. A. Efstratiadis et al., "The primary structure of rabbit ß-globin mRNA as determined from cloned DNA," Cell, 10:571-85, 1977.

3. F.C. Kafatos et al., "Determination of nucleic acid sequence homologies and relative concentrations by a dot hybridization procedure," Nucl Acids Res, 7:1541-52, 1979.


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