An artist’s view of EMBL Rome

Horst Hamann is an idiosyncratic artist – a photographer who combines an unpretentious, jovial, and down-to-earth style with a sparse, black-and-white aesthetic. Horst is best known for his vertical series coffee table photo books – starting with New York Vertical. It was his passion for football, however, that led him to create his more intimate works – a series of full height portraits of famous German football players, men and women, that bring out the warmth and uniqueness of each subject. Horst knows EMBL well, having been commissioned to create a book with over one hundred portraits of EMBL staff for its 40th anniversary in 2014 called ‘DNA’.

Link to Horst and Mateo Hamann’s vision of EMBL Rome film

We are now pleased to present Horst’s artistic vision of EMBL Rome in the form of a short film. The film is a collaboration between Horst and his son Mateo, and was shot over three days last summer, in the wake of our 20th anniversary celebration on July 10, 2019. It reflects the perspective of an outsider who was carried away by the beauty of our host city and curious about life at EMBL. I believe it captures well the key features of the spirit of our institute – its collegiality, inquisitiveness, diversity, and energy.



Lab life under lockdown

Played this with my kids last night.

EMBL Rome sent all its non-essential personnel home at the beginning of this week. One day later the Italian Government imposed a blanket shutdown across all Italy. We are now in lockdown.

People are at home and go out only to shop for food, take out the trash, or buy medicine. Maybe to sneak a short walk to the local park to stretch your legs, but always crossing the street when someone approaches. Restaurants, pubs, bars, and all non-essential shops are closed. To wait to enter the supermarket one-by-one, people stand ten feet apart making lines that snake down the streets. But, in fact, there is a sense of relief in Rome after two stressful weeks of indecision.  Continue reading “Lab life under lockdown”

Horst Hamann captures EMBL Rome

Horst Hamann with one of his signature triptych images.

Horst Hamann recently visited EMBL Rome. Horst is an artist and photographer who has published a highly successful series of black and white art books, several of which use his signature vertical and triptych formats. He is passionate about football, and has published several photo books of famous footballers and stadiums. Fortunately, he is also passionate about Rome, and on the occasion of our 20th anniversary we invited him to capture the atmosphere at EMBL Rome in the form of still images and a short promotional film – all in black and white. The results are exciting and will be out shortly. Here is just a short teaser. 

EMBL vs. EMBO – What’s the difference?

This is one of the most frequently asked questions I hear, so I thought there should be a place on the web to explain. The European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) runs six research sites across Europe where it carries out fundamental research and service in molecular biology. The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) is an academy for the life sciences, provides funding, and publishes five scientific journals. In short, EMBL is a research institute, while EMBO is an academy, funder and publisher. Admittedly, the organizations are related. Both are international organizations funded by member states. Both have their headquarters on the same site in Heidelberg, Germany. Just to complicate things, the Director of EMBO has a lab at EMBL and is considered part of the Director’s Research Unit of EMBL, even though the organizations are administratively and legally separate.

In short, EMBL is a research institute, while EMBO is an academy, funder and publisher

EMBL Rome featured on Italian television program Leonardo


Phil Avner speaking to Leonardo

EMBL Rome was recently featured on the nightly prime-time Italian science television program Leonardo. Head of Unit Phil Avner and Group Leaders Cornelius Gross and Jamie Hackett were interviewed about the mission of the Epigenetics & Neurobiology Unit and EMBL’s role in supporting research and scientific training in Europe (see link starting at minute 6:18).

Turning peer review upside down

We recently hosted Mark Patterson, Executive Director of eLife, as part of the Science & Society Program at EMBL Rome. In case you’re not familiar with eLife, it’s a journal supported by four major Life Science research funding bodies: the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wellcome, the Max-Planck Society, and the Wallenberg Foundation, with a mission to explore a more responsible selective peer review system. It’s been a surprising success. Although eLife follows DORA guidelines and formally asked not to be listed by Thompson Reuters, the ascribed Impact Factor is already 7.9. It is widely regarded as a top journal in the Life Sciences on par with the Nature specialty series.

Mark Patterson is Executive Director of eLife

As promised, eLife has been experimenting, and the highlight of Mark’s talk were the results of a recent trial in which they turned peer review upside down (see this paper from Bodo Stern and Erin O’Shea for the origins of the trial). For a limited time, manuscripts sent to eLife were accepted BEFORE being sent out for review. Sounds crazy – I know. No need to respond to the reviews if you don’t like them – your paper is already accepted! The hitch, however…

Continue reading “Turning peer review upside down”

Taste is King

Jim Sawitzke running Beer 101

We recently had out first Beer 101 course for staff members. International beer judge and Head of our Genetic and Viral Engineering Facility, Jim Sawitzke, first challenged us to a blind tasting and then a tour of major beer varieties. Take home messages were: “if you like it, it’s a good beer” and “if it doesn’t come in a brown bottle, it’s skunked!” – which left me wondering why I kind of like Heineken. Apparently Heineken tried to change their green bottle color at some point, but were forced to relent by popular demand. Find a scientific explanation for the skunk effect here. The tour ended with us sipping beers with names like ‘Arrogant Bastard Ale’ and ‘Rauchbier’ (trans. Smoke Beer) – both dreadful! Unless of course you’re at the higher levels of beer appreciation. Can’t wait for the advanced course.

Here’s why I became a neuroscientist

Brains come in all colours (Timm staining of mouse hippocampus with Warhol colouring; T. Ferreira, E. Audero, EMBL)

An intern in my lab recently asked me why I became a neuroscientist – he had read this piece about how it’s all just luck. I’m not so sure. I am convinced there are explicit and hidden environmental (and a few genetic) influences that restrict and channel our behaviours during our lifetime. It’s only the fiercely independent that escape these influences – and then that is usually itself a reaction to them.

Continue reading “Here’s why I became a neuroscientist”

Remembering the snow

The days are so balmy now that I can’t help thinking back to our recent freak snowstorm. Do you remember this – February 26, 2018?!

Rare snowstorm at EMBL Rome

Daniel won kudos as the only staff member to ski to work that day. Here he is getting ready to ski home – skins strapped to his touring skis in what ended up turning into a night-time hike under headlamp illumination back up the hill to Monterotondo. You learn useful things growing up in Switzerland.

EMBL postdoc Daniel Rossier skiing home from the lab



Sex sells & immigrants steal

The embarrassing fact: sex sells

The brain is hard wired to respond in predictable ways to important environmental stimuli. This was certainly an advantage to our ancestors living off the land, but it can lead to some awkward situations in our modern lives. The large letters plastered over the explicit magazine section that we’ve all seen at airports – SEX SELLS – ring true to us in an embarrassing way. Yes, when it comes to sex our rational thought system has been hijacked and our instincts rule.

Continue reading “Sex sells & immigrants steal”