Nobel Laureate Jules Hoffmann at Humanitas University: “Be pessimistic about Covid-19 is a mistake. My advice to young researchers? Find good question and be hard working”
Professor Jules Hoffmann, from the University of Strasbourg, earned the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine and the 2007 Balzan Prize with his colleague Bruce Beutler for their “exploration” of the immune system and the discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity. On the 15th of September 2020, Professor Hoffmann met a group of medical and Ph.D. students of Humanitas University, presented a lecture titled “Innate Immune Receptors: from Drosophila to Humans” and answered many question about immunity, biomedical research and also about the current global pandemic
What does it mean for you to meet students and young researcher? What is the value of teaching for you?
By the usual standards, one would say I’m successful. I think it is important to show students what you can do with your work. What I try to do is also to show them that, when you are a young person, even when you are doing a PhD work, you are not necessarily planning every part of what you will do. It’s something which is very open. Today we started from grasshoppers and finish with Covid-19. But all of this has a certain connection, even if you never realize that at the beginning.
What is your vision about the difficult time we are living in relation to the Sars-Cov-2 epidemic?
I’m surprised that all the people I meet here in Milan are pessimistic about Covid-19.
I think this attitude is wrong. Covid-19 started in December, but really the first moment when became serious was when we had the genome sequence, and that was on the 10th of January. In only eight months there has been such a tremendous progress.
Are you optimistic about future developments of the pandemic?
We are in a situation where nobody never was in history. We have good records of the last three hundred years of epidemiology and pandemics. Never ever was mankind in a position to find a solution as we are now. There have been developments in methodology, in molecular biology, in chemistry, extremely fine tuned. And we have a system that does react in the way we wanted to react. How can we be pessimistic? Imagine Pasteur. He didn’t have understanding of what was going on. Today it’s ridiculous to be pessimistic.
What prompted you at the beginning of your studies, and what helped you in difficult times?
I always liked nature, my father was a fisherman for pleasure. I went often with him on the field, collecting insects. I always liked it. But when I had to choose to which university to go, initially I would have gone to literature, philosophy, history and languages. But my father didn’t allow me to. He wanted me to study science and become a high school professor in Luxembourg, and I obeyed. After my degree, I decided to go to France for a PhD.
Did you plan from the beginning what your path would be?
I never thought I would win a Nobel Prize. I progressively became interested, but not fanatically interested, in what I was doing. I had an assistant, that later became my wife. We liked what we studied. The passion came a little bit later, when I realized we could find very interesting things. After a while we contacted two scientists in the United States, we became friends and decided to put together our efforts, and that was really a game changer. All of a sudden we realized that what we were doing was all about biological evolution. We all came from simpler organism, than we realized that those were model systems that could allow us to answer big questions. But that was not initially foreseen.
If you had to start now your career in university, what field would you choose?
I have no hesitation, it would be biology. The nineteenth century was the century of physics. The twentieth was the one of chemistry. Our century will be for biology, thanks to modern concepts and technology.
What advice could you give to young scientists?
In my understanding, there are three important things: a good question, hard work and luck. My first suggestion is to find a very good supervisor at the beginning, a person that asks good questions.
Like the question that my professor asked me: why would one group of insects be so resistant to infection? We didn’t know anything, it was an exciting question and a strong motivation. After that, there were several years of going through the desert. I was occasionally in despair, but I never gave up.
What is the secret to overcoming difficult times when doing research?
That is my second advice: be very hard working. When I was in college, my friends usually left on Friday night. I stayed in Strasbourg working on Saturdays and Sundays. And I could read in english, so I had access to better books from the United States, because the ones in french were more outdated. The last thing, that I never underestimate, is luck.
It seems to be something beyond our control
You can contribute to your luck, you need to help luck. Don’t just sit one your chair waiting for luck to come. Always take the initiative.