pharmaceutical research centre at Varresbeck, in a green area of
Wuppertal just outside Düsseldorf, is bathed in the light of
an endless Indian summer. During this school holiday period which
she devotes to her son Jens, 13, Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann kindly
agreed to call into her office for this interview. Reconciling family
and working life is a constant challenge for this hyperactive woman
of science, but one that she is committed to meeting.
'At the age of 18 I first thought of medicine,
but the idea of possibly making a mistake as a doctor caused me
to look at chemistry. Finally, I returned to medicine by way of
research,' she immediately explains. Her elder sister had preferred
physics, making two 'women of science' in a family of engineers,
architects and bankers. After her doctorate at Münster University,
Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann already knew that, of all scientific
fields, biology most fascinated her. She therefore decided to study
virology at Giessen University. From Giessen she moved to Cornell
University at Ithaca (New York) where she became familiar with the
fundamentals of biochemistry.
After completing her doctorate, she decided to enter cancer research.
'More than anything else, I wanted to explore and understand what
can happen in a living cell when its functioning deteriorates.'
The subject of her first project was the Rous sarcoma virus, a retrovirus
involved in the pathogenesis of a specific cancer affecting poultry.
She analysed the SRC oncogenous gene as well as its product, the
pp60 v-SRC protein, one of the factors responsible for malignant
mutations. At the end of the 1970s, it was not at all clear that
retroviruses were pathogenic and when esteemed colleagues advised
her not to waste her time pursuing this avenue, she preferred -
rightly as it proved - to follow her intuition. 'For me, retroviruses
were a model in the sense that they permit an excellent comparison
between healthy and diseased cells.'
A first makeshift laboratory
In the 1980s, she turned to virological research
on AIDS. At the invitation of her colleague Eilke Helm she met patients
being treated at the Frankfurt university clinic. 'In the light
of such different manifestations of a same pathology, I thought
that more than one virus was involved.' Her intuition proved right.
Her work began on the basis of six samples of contaminated blood.
After having first got rid of the mouse cages, she set up a makeshift
laboratory in the cellar of the Georg Speyer Haus in Frankfurt,
previously used for animal experimentation. At first the laboratory
employed just three people with an annual budget of no more than
10 500 euro. Five years later she has turned it into a centre of
excellence for AIDS research with 90 highly qualified staff. 'This
was also made possible by the development and sale of patents for
HIV tests,' she explains.
After these years spent on fundamental research,
in 1994 Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann was appointed head of the Bayer
group's department of research into anti-infectives,
where she manages a budget of 17.5 million euro. 'The transformation
of a chemical substance into a medicine is a process which has always
fascinated me,' she explains.
What does a pot of yoghurt contain?
At the age of 52, Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann
is full of dynamism and is concerned about young people's lack of
interest in science. She does not believe it is enough to try to
work out how to reorganise European universities: an in-depth study
of the content of school programmes is her priority. 'Chemistry
experiments and computers should replace Goethe and Schiller in
Our children are being confronted with the
world of technology at an increasingly early age, which is why it
would be a good thing for them to learn how to use that technology
as soon as possible. Teachers should introduce them to the joys
of scientific discovery.' An example? As part of a German pilot
project, children are told to compare diet yoghurt with ordinary
yoghurt, and to determine what differentiates them. They discover
that a sweetener is present in diet yoghurt, which they then isolate
and study. 'Young pupils suddenly see chemistry from a new angle
and the sciences become fascinating.'
Thinking about Europe
A visiting professor to Harvard, Helga remains
loyal to Europe and is one of the team of 45 researchers who sit
on the European Research Advisory Board (EURAB) set up by European
Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin. Among the questions studied
by the EURAB
is the 'brain-drain'. 'Four of my best students went to the United
States and have not come back. We need more funds for return grants
to motivate the best brains to return to Europe.'
EURAB members are also looking at the balance between aid for industry
and fundamental research. 'It is important for university professors
to be more open to the needs of the economy. I have long been criticised
for working with industry,' admits Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann.
'Too many scientists are essentially concerned with their publications
and too little with registering patents. In Europe, it is only recently
that specialised bodies have got together with researchers to look
at how to patent their discoveries. The income generated by patents
makes it possible to offer good working conditions, as is the case
in the United States.'
She is also convinced of the need for mobility
for young people in Europe. 'It is crucial to encourage young graduates
to work in other countries.' She sees the doubling of European funds
devoted to the mobility of scientists, as announced under the new
framework programme (2002-2006), as 'a step in the right direction'.
Old boys network
In the corridor outside her office, a poster entitled
Women in Science: Careers Past, Present and Future announces
an upcoming congress in Cologne, at which Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann
will be speaking of her experiences. 'The place of women in the
world of science is far from comfortable and they are not given
an easy ride.' But a glance at her CV nevertheless shows an illustrious
career. 'I have been able to successfully complete everything I
started,' she acknowledges. 'But it is absurd that more than half
of our country's women graduates stay at home,' she continues. 'In
Germany, the most able do not always get the best positions and
the old boys network is particularly strong in the world of medicine.'
At Bayer she is a member of the 'Equal Opportunities' Circle and
is actively involved in the campaign to reinforce the place of women
in research, in particular as vice president of the Union
of German Chemists (Vereinigung Deutscher Chemiker).
Helga Rübsamen-Waigmann has invited
all her male colleagues who sit on the board of directors of this
giant of the pharmaceutical industry (Bayer ranks 15th in the world)
to attend the Cologne congress. 'We will see if any of these gentlemen
cares to visit us