The Institute brings together its international research scholars from 10 European countries, in the Czech capital.
The Institute held the first meeting of its International Research Scholars from the Baltics, central Europe and the former Soviet Union in Prague on June 23-26, 1996.
Nearly all of the 90 scientists selected last year by the Institute attended the gathering at the Hotel Forum on the Vlata River. They came from Belarus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Slovak Republic and Ukraine, as well as from the host Czech Republic. The scholars were joined by several of their scientific collaborators from the West, and by HHMI staff members.
"Until today, most of you have just been names to us," Purnell W. Choppin, the Institute's president, told the scientists in his keynote speech. "During the coming week, I hope that all of us will get to know each other as colleagues and friends."
During the next three days, the participants discussed dozens of scientific topics, held poster sessions, attended a concert in an ancient church in Prague Castle, and toured the historic city.
"It was a very good opportunity for us to learn more about each other, both personally and scientifically," said Antal Kiss, senior scientist in the Institute of Biochemistry at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
"I go to a lot of scientific meetings, and I think the quality of the science at this one was very high," said Mikhael Tukalo of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics in Kiev, Ukraine. "The presentations were very professional."
Tukalo was not alone in his assessment. "Scientifically, this meeting is on a level with the ones I attend back in the States," agreed Edmund Lin of Harvard Medical School, who is collaborating with Ruslan Grishanin of the Belozersky Institute of Physico-Chemical Biology in Moscow.
The presentations, all delivered in English, dealt with a wide array of topics, such as neural plasticity, oncogenes, signal transduction and macromolecular structures. Indeed, several participants said the diversity of subjects was more challenging than any language or cultural barriers.
"The average meeting you go to is extremely focused," said Anant Menon of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, another collaborator. "That's not the case here. It's a way to get into other areas."
"It was interesting," agreed Alexei Finkelstein of the Institute of Protein Research in Pushchino, who added with a laugh that "it's easier to speak with people from other countries who work in my field than it is to talk with scientists on another floor of our institute in Puschino who work in quite different fields."
The gathering was the first of the 90 scientists who were awarded $15 million in five-year grants by the Institute in 1995. Selected from more than 2,000 applicants, they are carrying out research at their own institutions. Several said the awards made it possible for them to work at home.
"Without the grant, I would not have gone back to Lithuania," said Jolanta Vidugiriene, who is collaborating with Wisconsin's Menon and worked previously at his lab, at The Rockefeller University and elsewhere. "I had no other opportunity to support my lab."
"Without the Hughes support, I think I would go abroad," said Tukalo. "What's also important to me is that the money is very flexible."
Svetlana Sidorenko, a Ukranian who worked in Seattle before receiving the Hughes award, said talking with the other scientists reassured her about her own opportunities. "I was very impressed by what people are able to accomplish back home," she said.
Participants reported wide variation in conditions. Mart Ustav of Tartu University in Estonia, for instance, said he was able to obtain several grants under the new system. "I wouldn't say we have the same conditions as people have at UCSF or Cold Spring Harbor," he said, "but things are getting better."
Others reported much bleaker conditions, and there was much discussion during meals and coffee breaks about how to obtain funding in a rapidly changing system. "I've spoken with all of the other Poles about how to apply for grants and deal with problems," said Elzbieta Pyza of Jagiellonian University in Krakow. "I've also spoken with the Russians and some of the others about this."
The state of science in the ten countries also was the focus of reporters who attended the conference for Czech television, radio and newspapers, and for international scientific publications.
Inevitably, much of the most important business took place outside the formal sessions. Pyza said she especially welcomed the opportunity to meet the ten other Polish scientists, only two of whom she knew before the meeting. Andras Liptak said the same about the 13 other scientists from Hungary, joking that he had to travel to Prague to meet them. Several participants said they also hoped the gathering, along with their grants, would persuade officials back home to recognize the importance of their research. "The message is simple," said Jiri Forejt of the Institute of Molecular Genetics in Prague, who led a committee of local Scholars that helped HHMI staff organize the gathering. "If the Institute found it worthy to support our research projects, then it gives a signal that basic biomedical research is worth being sufficiently supported by our own governments."
"This will have a long-term impact on local institutions to recognize that it's worth putting money into this," agreed Andrzej Jerzmanowski of the Institute of Experimental Plant Biology at the University of Warsaw. "Countries play 'follow the leader,' and the United States is considered the leader."