HHMI's international program brings together scientists from the Baltics, Central Europe and the former Soviet Union.
It was new science for old friends in June of 1996 as the Institute's international research scholars from Central Europe, the Baltics and the former Soviet Union gathered in Warsaw.
The four-day scientific conference, attended by nearly all of the 87 scholars, brought together scientists who were largely strangers to one another when they first met last June in Prague. This year's meeting had a relaxed feeling of friends reassembling to learn what's new with each other's research.
Mart Ustav of Estonia presented his latest work on how the p53 protein inhibits certain kinds of DNA replication, a process implicated in numerous cancers. Evgeny Rogaev of Russia described two novel genes that may play a role in Alzheimer's disease. Elzbieta Pyza of Poland discussed the physiological changes during the day and night caused by genes involved in circadian rhythms. Svetlana Sidorenko of Ukraine spoke about a novel coreceptor molecule, CDw150, that may play a role in leukemia.
In these and dozens of other talks, the scholars demonstrated how they have put the Institute's resources to use in tackling a wide range of biological topics, from neural plasticity to gene arrangement and expression.
"In the long run, biomedical research may affect the course of history as much as any political event," Institute president Purnell W. Choppin said in his keynote address. "Issues such as Poland's recent vote about its constitution, or the expansion of NATO, are very important, of course. But so is research on the cell cycle that helps us understand, and perhaps overcome, cancer. So are our efforts to learn how viruses infect cells, how our senses perceive the world, and so forth. When today's headlines are forgotten, this research may be the greatest legacy we leave to future generations. You are the people who are writing this legacy."
The scholars were selected in 1995 from more than 2,000 applicants to receive a total of $15 million in support over five years from the Institute. Since 1991, HHMI has awarded this and three other rounds of grants totaling $53 million to support biomedical scientists in 19 countries worldwide.
Most of the scholars from the 10 countries represented in Warsaw are collaborating with scientists outside the region, several of whom attended the meeting. Poland's Andrzej Kolinski, for example, was joined by Jeffrey Skolnick of the Scripps Research Institute in California, his collaborator in developing models for predicting how proteins fold. Virologist Jitka Forstova of Charles University in Prague discussed how the major structural antigen of polyoma virus, VP1, interacts with cellular functions. Her collaborator, Beverly Griffin of the Royal Postgraduate Medical School in London, also attended, and the two were featured in a long article about scientific collaborations, based on the conference, that appeared subsequently in The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Several of Poland's scientific and political leaders also participated, discussing the importance of biology to Poland and its neighbors in the former communist world. "It's a very good sign that we hold this conference here in Warsaw," said Polish foreign minister Dariusz Rosati. "We've gone through a very difficult process of transition, but we still have great potential scientifically."
Previously, "the level of our scientific output was far lower than for our Western scientific colleagues," said Leszek Kuznicki, president of the Polish Academy of Sciences, adding that many "young and gifted researchers" emigrated to the West in search of better opportunities. Some problems have eased, Kuznicki said, as Poland has moved to a scientific system that puts more emphasis on individual merit. Yet, amid the country's many other pressing needs, funds are still lacking for even the best researchers.
A member of the Polish parliament, Krysztof Dolowy, urged scientists to do a better job of explaining the significance of their research to legislators and the public. "Science is regarded highly by a very narrow elite but not outside," he said.
At an evening symposium about science policy in Poland, it was noted that only 0.5 percent of the gross domestic product of Poland is spent on science, compared with 2.5-3.5 percent in Western countries. The higher education system, meanwhile, is straining to accommodate a university-level student population that has nearly doubled since 1989, the beginning of the post-communist era.
Scientists from Poland and many of the other countries discussed how best to support research in the face of these challenges. Many of the same issues also arose during a press conference, which was conducted in Polish and attended by numerous local reporters.
"For the last eight years or so, most of us have been living through revolutionary change," said Andrzej Jerzmanowski of Warsaw University, who led the group of Polish scholars who helped organize the conference. Like other speakers, Jerzmanowski stressed the need for HHMI and other outside organizations to continue providing support, saying "science is a truly international enterprise."
When not presenting papers or discussing policy issues, the scientists toured Warsaw, attended a concert in a historic palace, and renewed friendships made in Prague. "I think people mixed more this year," observed Stanislaw Zolnierowicz of Poland. "The main difference," agreed Fatima Gyoeva of Russia, "is that this time we met as friends."