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  PORTRAIT  -  Fotis Kafatos: the model mentor

Driven by a scientific and cultural curiosity rooted in Greek heritage, the new president of the European Research Council’s Scientific Committee is a brilliant biologist who considers himself a very lucky man. That is because he is convinced that he would never have acquired the body of knowledge he has today were it not for the help of mentors – a term of which he is very fond and that originates in the mythological figure of the tutor of Ulysses’ son Telemachus. His intention is to enable others to benefit from similar opportunities by placing human relations at the very heart of the training of upcoming generations of scientists.

Fotis Kafatos
Fotis Kafatos
It all began on an island steeped in history. In the late 1940s, the young Fotis, son of a Cretan agronomist who had returned home after 14 years in the United States, enjoyed a rich childhood. “At a very early age, my father passed on to me a passion for the close observation of nature. I soon became fascinated by the insect world. The small village where our family spent the holidays was close to the famous Minoan site of Cnossos of which I came to know every nook and cranny.” As an adolescent, Fotis was fascinated by this ancient civilisation and spent every Sunday morning exploring the treasures of the Heraklion Museum. “Long before I thought of biology, I wanted to become an archaeologist. Encouraged by some remarkable teachers, I also saw myself as a writer or poet.”

The beauty of science
In the latter years of secondary school, however, one particular natural science teacher was to influence the young Fotis greatly. “This teacher was fascinated by the theory of evolution, as well as the structure of DNA and its implications which Watson and Crick had just revealed. With him as my mentor, I embarked upon a fascinating discovery of the life sciences. He taught me how to appreciate the sheer beauty of science that I see as a fundamental element of human culture."

It was the custom for the Kafatos family to speak English at mealtimes and it was virtually a foregone conclusion that Fotis’ studies would, at some point, take him to the United States as they had done his father. His chance came following a meeting with Anne Gruner Schlumberger who was fascinated by the marriage of science and culture (1). “At that time, she was responsible for awarding university grants to young students from Greece’s rural provinces which were still very marked by the destruction of the Second World War. She took the view that it made more sense to help a student from Crete than from Athens to whom more opportunities were available. Anne continued to show a very keen interest in my studies and subsequent career in the United States – but she did ask me to return, one day, to practise science in Greece, and if possible Crete.” Two decades later he was true to his word.

His first stop in the United States was Cornell University, located in New York State, in the town with the Greek name of Ithaca. “Like a sponge, I soaked up all the beauty of an understanding of the life sciences.” Every evening, on returning home from the library, the young student recited the opening verses of Ithaka by the Greek poet Kavafis, very much aware that he was embarking on the “long and adventurous journey of knowledge that the poet advocated” (2).

"When I left Cornell University, I was unsure what my next move would be. I liked the idea of combining research in biology and in medicine. Then, one day, I attended a lecture on the metamorphosis of insects. I was immediately fascinated by this extraordinary phenomenon of natural biological development. I came away wondering about this cellular world that enables such a remarkable mutation from caterpillar to butterfly. At the same time, my childhood passion for insects was reawakened. Remember also that metamorphosis is a favourite subject of Ancient Greek culture…” 

As he immersed himself in the microcosm of bio-entomology, so too was born a new master-pupil relationship, one that was to evolve into cooperation between peers. “I went to see Tom Eisner, the world specialist in this emerging field of research, and asked him to help me train as a scientist. To this day, we have shared this passion for the same subject and enjoyed a genuine scientific friendship. I have never failed to seize any opportunity to increase my knowledge by learning to absorb the knowledge that others can impart to me.”

Back to Europe
Fotis Kafatos continued his studies at Harvard University where he obtained his doctorate in 1965. Four years later, at the age of 29, he became the youngest professor to be appointed to the faculty of this illustrious academic institution, where he taught until 1994. But that was not the end of his ‘journey’. In the 1970s he also started to look back to Europe and more precisely to his native Greece. Things were happening at Athens University where teaching and research in the field of molecular biology were just starting up. Professor Kafatos decided to divide his time between Harvard and Greece – where he was active in reforming teaching and research in the life sciences – while also pursuing his own research. After the fall of the regime of the colonels and EU accession in 1981, he took on the task of setting up a faculty of biology within the newly founded Heraklion University where the Research Minister also charged him with setting up Greece’s first institute of molecular biology and biotechnology. “This was an exhilarating experience shared with the teams who were so committed to realising the challenge they faced: that of preparing young people to be at the forefront of current European and global developments.” 

In 1992, Fotis Kafatos was asked to head the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg (DE). “It was a post that meant, once again, setting out on a new adventure and leaving Harvard and my island behind me. But there is something of the sailor in the Greek soul or perhaps the explorer who likes to see what is happening beyond the horizon. Heidelberg is a very illustrious citadel of science that is very welcoming to a brilliant and international generation of young researchers. It is particularly exciting to be working in this environment and to have the chance to cooperate with them as well as to lend support, thus to receive as well as to give. The other attraction of the EMBL was that, even as its director, I could devote a considerable part of my time to research.”

Studying the anophele mosquito
As a renowned figure in the world of biomolecular research, in the 1990s, Kafatos was involved in one of the pioneering genome sequencing programmes, that of the fruit fly drosophila. But the group of insects that subsequently became the focus of this research is known as the anopheles, carriers of the malaria parasite. Kafatos was a central figure in the complete sequencing of the anophele genome. 

"We are currently facing the passionate scientific challenge of using this knowledge to understand the cellular development and complex molecular relationship between the anophele mosquito and the plasmodium parasite that succeeds in colonising its molecular environment. If, on the basis of a number of genetic factors – but which are also linked to environmental parameters – we can understand why certain anopheles carry malaria and others do not, we will perhaps then possess the long-awaited weapon with which to control and potentially eradicate this disease.”

This specialist also likes to make the point that only a prefix separates ‘science’ and ‘conscience’. “Science is in the service of all human beings and malaria is a mortal enemy for thousands of people, generally very poor, whom I have encountered in Kenya, Mali, Cameroon and millions of others living mainly in the Tropics.”

At the age of 66, Kafatos had to weigh up his taste for research, which he practices at Imperial College London, against his passion for mentoring when, last year, at the request of his European peers, he agreed to take on the job of president of the Scientific Committee of the European Research Council, which will be launched under the Seventh Framework Programme. “It is an enterprise in which I believe firmly. It reintroduces a European dimension to fundamental research. Europe was the birthplace of trans-border science. Today, Europe remains a leading player but, for many years now, it is elsewhere that major advances have been made. Europe has the capacity to revitalise itself and become more creative and innovative again, provided it acquires the means to boost its excellence and gives its best scientists – especially young people who are the leading researchers of tomorrow – the opportunity and the freedom to begin this great journey towards their Ithaka.” 

(1) The granddaughter of an Alsatian textile industrialist and daughter of a physicist who boosted the family fortune by inventing a method of prospecting for oil, Anne Gruner Schlumberger (1904-1993) was both a remarkable business manager and committed matron of education and culture. She founded the Fondation des Treilles, a place for meetings and research in the fields of science, literature and the arts located in the heart of Provence. (www.les-treilles.com [ http://www.les-treilles.com/ ]).
(2) http://cavafis.compupress.gr/