December 7, 2020

Interview with Susan Gasser, FMI Director Emeritus

Susan Gasser is a world-leading scientist in the field of genome biology and has been involved in guiding science policy and institutes across Europe. She was the FMI Director for 15 years, from 2004 until 2019. Still a group leader at the FMI, she will close her lab at the end of 2020. Susan has been a very successful director, contributing crucially to the excellent scientific reputation the FMI has today. In an interview, Susan reflects on her time at the FMI.

How was the FMI when you joined as director in 2004?
In 2004, the FMI was in a major phase of transition. Denis Monard had been director ad interim for a year or so, and the previous director had been in his role for less than two years. The plant research activities were being phased out, and a number of group leaders either left, retired or were about to retire. It was exactly the right moment to bring new life to the institute! Moreover, we were given an incredible opportunity for growth and change: Paul Herrling, who was at that time Novartis’ Head of Corporate Research and responsible for the FMI, gave me one mission, “Make it a world-class biomedical research institute,” he said. I was 49 years old, and felt I’d been given the chance of a lifetime!

What were your first priorities and how did the FMI evolve under your directorship?
In those early years, the focus was on hiring new group leaders and strengthening our research in epigenetics and neurobiology. We were fortunate to recruit several young and very talented group leaders at that time – most of whom are still here today. They contributed enormously to the success of the FMI over the last decade. At the same time, we established new technology platforms in microscopy, protein structure, bioinformatics and C. elegans, and expanded genomics, capitalizing on the advent of deep sequencing. Our strong technology platforms are driven by outstanding scientists and continue to give us a competitive edge.
Another evolution was the expansion of third-party funding. First, I made sure that the SNSF (Swiss National Science Foundation) recognized our role as an academic institute. Then I encouraged FMI group leaders to apply for competitive funding, both from Switzerland and the EU. It wasn’t just for the extra money - I felt that it was important that our group leaders integrate fully into the Swiss and European research landscape. Especially the highly competitive ERC grants helped make the great research going on at the FMI more visible. Our external funding also meant that in 2008, when the economic crisis hit, we could absorb a cut in our core budget without major setbacks.
The next changes, shortly after our 40th anniversary in 2010, were triggered by the retirement of our most famous cancer signaling group leaders, Nancy Hynes and Brian Hemmings. We had several retreats to discuss how the FMI could stay at the forefront of biomedical research, and agreed that quantitative technologies and computational tools (i.e. AI and machine learning) would increasingly underlie progress in many fields. We wanted to develop these and apply them to complex biological events, like differentiation and cell fate. I was pretty sure this would keep us ahead of the curve, and help us contribute in novel ways to Novartis’ drug discovery efforts. That’s how our new research area called Quantitative Biology was born.
I think that today the FMI is more successful than ever, being one of the leading institutes worldwide in neurobiology, epigenetics and quantitative biology. It was a privilege to help it get to where it is now, and I am sure the FMI’s trajectory will continue upwards under Dirk Schübeler’s guidance.

What would you say makes the FMI unique?
There is a unique spirit at the FMI: we have a strong sense of community and of collaboration. Our culture is all about sharing science – externally, but also internally, as exemplified by our monthly internal colloquia and the FMI Annual Meetings. The FMI is also characterized by its flexibility. For example, it is fairly easy to bring in new people, reallocate parts of the budget or change research focus. We don’t have some of the rigid structures that one finds at universities. Perhaps we also attract scientists who don’t fit the academic mold – who are keen to take an unusual path, do riskier research, and collaborate across fields. At least these are the people I wanted to hire. Finally, I would say that – as serious and stressful as it can be – the FMI is a fun place to work.
Another unique aspect is of course our partnership with Novartis, which has generously supported the FMI for 50 years. This is a remarkable commitment to basic biomedical research by a pharmaceutical company. In addition to our core budget, Novartis gives us access to resources, technologies, and collaborations that don’t usually exist in an academic environment. In return, the FMI gives insights, new technologies, expertise, and outstanding people to Novartis.

What was your role as director and what were the main challenges?
The main job of the director is to ensure that the institute pursues the best science it possibly can. Much of what a director does is invisible to those in the institute, at least on the short term; perhaps over ten years it starts to be felt. The changes are incremental, for it is a matter of encouraging and perfecting the science of 20 to 25 groups – yet the director has no direct say in what they do. All one can do is set high standards, communicate those expectations, and then, try to live up to them oneself.
I think a good director also sets the tone of the institute. One of my main goals was to ensure that the atmosphere of the FMI is positive and welcoming, so that people truly enjoy working here.
Then, of course, it is important to maintain a strong and productive relationship with Novartis. Since the Novartis Research organization – called NIBR – is very large, it takes quite an effort to identify how the research done at the FMI can best interface with drug discovery. The demands of large-scale drug development are very different from the open-ended discovery research we do, and building bridges requires that one is proactive and engaged. Retreats with NIBR scientists helped a lot, as did hosting NIBR colleagues at our annual meetings. It was also very useful to have close ties to the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF), where I served on the Executive board. It is very satisfying to see that FMI had, and continues to have, a positive impact on the research of Novartis.

How did you cope with that challenge of wearing two hats: institute director and group leader?
I did my best to keep them completely apart. It’s in the nature of the director’s job that one could always do more – it can easily absorb all one’s energy. However, I knew I would not be happy, nor as effective, if I did not pursue my own research. Research brings you down to earth, keeps you humble. So, I made sure to block several hours a day for my lab, during which I was totally dedicated to science and my group. I had two offices, and this was key: when I was on the second floor – where my lab is located – I did not think like a director, but like a group leader. My group meetings and discussion slots were sacrosanct: those hours were reserved for science!
But, of course, I could never totally separate the two jobs – as a director I was still a scientist. I did learn to limit the number of things I dealt with, to delegate administrative tasks. Nonetheless, I have to admit that after 15 years of doing both, I was exhausted. At the beginning of last year, I realized that I still had to do a lot before I could close the lab, so it was a right time to step down from my role as director. This let me focus on my research and on external mandates for my last year and a half at the FMI.

Looking back at your whole career, what is it that are you most proud of?
Of course I am proud of FMI’s success, and of the many highly recognized scientists whose careers have flourished here! But, your heritage in science lies primarily in the people you train, and the success they have after leaving your lab. Over 35 years, I had a total of 83 postdocs and students (51 men, 32 women), including 29 PhD students, not counting technicians or guests. Of these, 31 (37%, including 14 women) became academic group leaders, including 7 institute directors, or heads of departments. In addition, 27 of my lab members had children while working in my lab, including 80% of the women who went on to promising careers. That led to an extensive collection of baby photos on our lab door! I am sure that I was a demanding boss, but I tried to make sure that parents could combine family obligations with their life in research. Balancing these obligations often made them better scientists! Anyway, I am proud of the success my trainees have had, for it seems to me that they took the best from my lab, and made it better.
Finally, I like to think that as a scientist mom, I may have been a good role model, inspiring women and men to combine family and career. Was I also a role model for all those highly successful FMI group leaders? I don’t know, but I hope so.

Any regrets, anything that you should have done differently?
I should have hired more women at the group leader level at the FMI! The priority of the FMI – and also mine – was always to hire people of quality, regardless of gender. At first I thought that it didn’t really matter how many women were team leaders, as long as we had a few. But with time I realized how important it is to be pro-active about gender balance, and diversity overall, especially for leadership roles. It is not a matter of having the “correct” percentage, but one must aim for an open, balanced atmosphere that is accepting of diverse opinions and mindsets. I just regret that I didn’t have gender parity more on my mind in earlier times.

What are your plans for the future?
As usual, I have a lot of plans! First, I am finalizing several manuscripts and the lab will be closing. I have enjoyed every minute of running a lab, yet it is important to leave funding and space so that younger colleagues can flourish. Moreover, I have long promised my husband James that we’d move back to Lausanne for good, once I stepped down. The institute is strong and in capable hands, so it seems the right time to do something new.
What is next? As of January, I will be a guest professor in the Department of Microbiology at the University of Lausanne and at the Institute of Innovative Research at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. I also serve on the ETH Board that governs both the ETHZ and EPFL, the Swiss Science Council, and on scientific advisory boards of the Helmholtz Health Institutes, the EMBL, the Crick, the IST near Vienna, the IQB in Tokyo and the Biozentrum here in Basel. In addition, I will be taking on an exciting new position at the ISREC in Lausanne – more about that will be communicated in February.
Despite all these assignments, I still hope to have time for my research hobby, which I pursue at the rate of one experiment per year! This stems from an interest (shared with my husband, by the way) in the local vineyards in the Lemanic basin. For almost ten years now, I have worked with Raymond Paccot, an excellent vintner in Féchy, to store, sequence and experiment with the yeasts that ferment his wine. His production is “biodynamic” which means there are no added chemicals nor commercial yeast strains during fermentation. Raymond and his team were very keen to learn more about their “natural” yeast, so I sequenced their isolates and kept them frozen for launching fermentation in future years. These vintners are very logical thinkers, and working with them has been great fun, not to mention the bonus of the product!
In any case, I will stay close to research. One never stops being a scientist.

What tips do you have for young women who want to follow in your footsteps?
First, complete your studies and doctorate as quickly as possible. Second, choose your thesis supervisor carefully. This person will support you for the rest of your career, so be sure you find someone you trust and feel comfortable talking to. Then, if you want to get married, be sure that you find the right partner, one who understands that you are serious about having a career. There are enough hurdles for women scientists who want to have children and a career, without having to overcome resistance at home. Indeed, I had incredible support from my husband. Fourth, always choose to do what you like to do, and not what you think you “should do”. This way you will surely succeed. I pursued my career because I love research, and thus as long as I had a lab, I felt happy. That’s a fair definition of success! Finally, make sure you are always learning something new. Growing intellectually is its own reward.

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About Susan Gasser
Susan Gasser studied biology at the University of Chicago with an Honors thesis in biophysics. She then did her PhD at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, in the group of Gottfried Schatz. In 1986 she became group leader at the Swiss Institute for Experimental Cancer Research (ISREC) in Lausanne, and in 2001 she was appointed professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at the University of Geneva. From November 2004 until March 2019 she was Director of the FMI. She is also a group leader at the FMI and will close her lab by the end of 2020. Since 2005, Susan has been a professor at the University of Basel where she will hold her Farewell lecture at the Pharmazentrum on January 7, 2021. She is a member of the ETH Board, the Swiss Science Council, and sits on the scientific advisory board of the Helmholtz institutes of Germany, the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, the Francis Crick Institute in London and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg. At the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) she chaired the Equality Commission from 2014 to the end of 2019.
Susan and her husband have one son, Marc, who is married and lives in Boston.
» Gasser group page on the FMI internet

The Gasser Symposium
The FMI planned a symposium to honor the career of Susan Gasser in June 2020. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was postponed until 2021. Details will follow.

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