Research is never over and done with.
"Molecular logic of synapse formation" – the topic that Thomas Südhof spoke about to kick off the second day of the European Biophysical Societies Association (EBSA) congress. A professor at Stanford University in the USA, the German-born researcher was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2013 alongside two others "for their discoveries of machinery regulating vesicle traffic, a major transport system in our cells." We met him for an interview after his lecture.
There are a great many research topics in biophysics, but what was it that ultimately led you to focus on synapses?
I think that right now, understanding the brain is one of the most important questions – if not the most important – that needs exploring for biomedical reasons. The brain's task is to process information, it's what makes us human. And here, processing information, and indeed everything that the brain does, is ultimately dependent on synaptic function. And that makes this one of the central questions in biomedical research. At the same time, it is a question that really has had too little research devoted to it. There is still a great deal to discover, we understand very little about it at present.
You have written more than 500 articles, you lecture, sit on various scientific advisory committees, are still actively engaged in research activities focusing on neurosciences and synapses, and at the same time you say that the research is still incomplete; is it ever truly possible for a researcher to stop researching?
Well, of course you can. It's a personal decision. We are not artists, we don't produce works of art that are finished at some point. Instead we press ahead with our research before handing over to the next generation. It is a continuous process: research is never over and done with. It is never something "definitive".
What does receiving the Nobel Prize mean for a researcher?
That depends greatly on the individual. I happen to be of the opinion that you ought not to pay attention to prizes as a researcher. Awards, prizes, honors – at the end of the day you have to focus on the topic itself if you are going to be successful. To put it another way: people who are successfully engaged in science and research are, almost without exception, individuals who are truly interested in the subject matter. Being a researcher is a pretty tough gig, a difficult job. Researching purely with prizes in mind would be a hiding to nothing, in my view.
Of course it is nice to be given recognition, but that is not enough of a reason in itself to become a researcher.
"In-person contact is absolutely essential"
How important are in-person events such as the EBSA congress still for research?
In-person congresses are absolutely necessary. The virtual existence that we have all experienced during the course of the past 18 months is ineffective in many respects. It can be confusing and often leads to, in most cases unintentionally, the wrong messages being sent out. In-person events and talking to other people about different subjects is absolutely essential in my view.
What aspects of meetings like this are important in your community and will continue to be so? What is it that is so essential about in-person congresses like this?
The essential thing is to ensure that you have the right balance. No one thing is of itself the most important part. In other words: it is important to have lectures, but there also has to be enough time for questions and answers, and the same goes for social events.
The congresses that work the best are the ones which give participants the chance to discuss highly specific issues and not just engage in small talk. So you need a mix: lectures, round tables, discussion forums, coffee breaks, poster presentations. At the end of the day, there’s still a difference between listening to someone in the same room as you and watching a lecture online – even though the lectures are just a small part of the whole.
"Vienna has certain advantages as a location"
And finally a question that has less to do with the congress: what impression has Vienna left on you?
Vienna is a great city, there's no doubt about that. Its cultural offering is second to none. It also looks like there's a lot going on research-wise – although I have to admit that I don't really know enough about the research institutions here to judge that.
Unfortunately I just haven’t had the time on this trip, but I would very much like to come back. I can imagine that there could be yet more attractive conferences taking place in Vienna in future. There are increasing tensions also on the international research scene. A city like Vienna, which occupies a neutral position surrounded by major research nations, undoubtedly has certain advantages as a location.