The opening keynote address was given by Jules Hoffmann, a professor of immunology at the University of Strasbourg and research director at the French National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS) in France. Hoffmann, who has dedicated his career to understanding the mechanisms underlying antimicrobial defenses in the fruit fly Drosophila, won a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for his contribution to "discovering the sensors of innate immunity."
There are three points I would like to convey from Hoffmann's talk, From Insects to Mammals: Reflections on a European Journey Through Basic Research on Immune Defenses:
- What set Hoffmann on his research path was a serendipitous observation. The lab that Hoffmann joined to do his Ph.D.--Pierre Joly's lab in the Institute of Zoology at the University of Strasbourg--was studying the development and reproduction of grasshoppers through the routine transplantation of hormone-producing organs. Joly one day "reflected in one of our discussions that although he had not taken any precautions against microbes in these experiments, he had never observed any opportunistic bacterial infections following the dissections," Hoffmann said. "This was the determining moment for my scientific life. We decided that I would investigate the mechanisms which explain the remarkable resistance of this important zoological group against microbes."
- Hoffmann's subsequent 30 years of work were driven by sheer curiosity. At the time, there were no requirements from funding bodies to "indicate which milestones we wanted to provide within which time-frame, what applications we were hoping to generate, what networking we were planning to develop, which industrial partners we had contacted," Hoffmann said. "There was a great confidence in science that ... whatever the field and the questions, any scientific knowledge would eventually have positive outcomes for society." Hoffmann went on to identify the Toll gene as being involved in the defense mechanisms against pathogenic microorganisms in fruit flies. Because subsequent studies showed that humans also have Toll-like receptors acting as a first line of defense, Hoffmann's finding opened a new window onto the understanding of disease. Throughout his career, Hoffmann has collaborated with many other researchers and disciplines, and he even launched his own company to look into the therapeutic potential of insect antimicrobial peptides.
- At the end of his talk, Hoffmann noted the changes that have taken place in the standards for scientific careers since he started out as a young scientist. Today "the perspectives of finding a job with a scientific background, namely a good Ph.D., have so markedly increased and diversified. ... Of the numerous doctors formed in our laboratory, only 40% remained in academia, the others having taken up jobs in companies, administrations, public relations, in media, scientific journals, or other areas--and they all have done well. Likewise, whereas it was a rule in our early years that most Ph.D.s would stay in their country--this was particularly true for France--one third of those who got a Ph.D. in our laboratory now work in other European countries or in the US."