Interview with Dr Joan Josep Guinovart

“We need to make people aware that they have to donate money for their universities, research centres, hospitals, etc.”


Last Friday, October 14th, Dr Joan Josep Guinovart, Director of the Institut de Recerca Biomèdica de Barcelona (IRB), gave the Inaugural Lecture of the Official Master of Neuroscience at the Institute.

The Laia Acarin room was full of students and researchers of all ages listening to Dr Guinovart’s latest discoveries and research, which are focused on the negative consequences of the glycogen accumulation in neurons.

1- You are the director of the IRB and also the president of the International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. How can you reconcile the laboratory work with the management position?

This is the normal career for many people: first you are a student, then you are a post-doc researcher, after that you become a junior researcher of a leader, then if you are lucky they promote you, you get some leadership and management functions… and sometimes life make you assume big responsibilities.

I do go to the laboratory, but in the future I think I will like to be able to spend more time doing research. There is a moment in which you can leave responsibilities and come back to the start: it is like a cycle that it takes off and then suddenly descends.

2- Before you funded the IRB, an independent research centre, you were a researcher for a public university. Why did you decide not to do research from the university?

The decision was not made based on not doing research from the university, but rather the idea that I wanted to do research in a more interdisciplinary work environment. The university has the problem of being organized for teaching: colleges, departments, etc. Luckily nowadays this is in the process of being solved, because these separations in which researchers are working only with people of the same background are not good for research.

3- In what country would you like to do your research?

At my homeland, I’m completely ok about being here. I think that my whole life has been pulling and fighting for the research in Catalonia: to make it of international quality as it is nowadays.

4- Statistics shows that a few women have leadership positions in science. Do you think you would had more difficulties in your career if you had been a woman?

Sure! And I am so committed to change it. The problem is that it is not only depending of one thing, for which you can make a law or a general rule. The specific responsibility is not clear because it is something for the society at large. We have to change social attitudes, gender roles, men selfishness …

But I am so positive about it. It is changing so fast: around 100 years ago the society considered not appropriated for a woman to study medicine, and nowadays 70% of the medicine students are women. With management positions will be the same. Women are currently studying bachelor degrees, master degrees, PhD programs… the problem comes when they have to combine family and motherhood with science. We have to create the proper environments to make it possible. And I do not have any doubt that we will see it in just one generation. We have come a long way to reach to this point and we only need one step forward.

5- Two years ago IRB made a video in which scientists danced to raise funds. How is IRB funded?

The basic costs, such as turning on the lights or opening the doors, are supported by the Generalitat (The local Government of Catalonia), but research is funded by competitive Grant calls. We have quite a few European grants from the ERC and H2020 programs. However, what we need is more implication from philanthropy.

The big difference between our competitors, in the USA, and us is that, besides they receive more public funds, they also have a strong contribution from philanthropy and private funds. Here we need to make people aware that they have to donate money, not only for La MaratĂł de TV3 (A very successful telethon organized for the local TV in Catalonia), but also for their universities, research centres, hospitals, etc.

The general complain is that the fiscal return is too little… But I don’t agree with that. You can donate up to 150 euros with a 75% fiscal return. And if everybody donated 150 euros it would be a lot!

6- So far the video has had more than one million visits…

Yes and apart for fundraising it has been very useful to make people know the IRB and to create a good attitude towards research, which benefits everybody.

7- Which of your qualities do you think that is the most important for being a good scientist?

The passion. You do research for two reasons: to escape from the distress of not knowing and for the pleasure of learning.


8- Your research is focussed on the metabolism of glycogen. What is glycogen?

It is a glucose store to be used when we may need it.

9- And what does glycogen have to do with nervous system diseases?

It was thought that Glycogen did not have an important role in the nervous system but then it was discovered its presence in neurons and astrocytes. Neurons have an active metabolism of glycogen but they try not to accumulate it because it is harmful and may cause diseases.

10- In your opinion, what is the most promising therapeutic field?

It is the antibodies era. We are living the boom of therapeutic antibodies. Antibodies against molecules in the blood, against some specific receptors in specific cell types, etc. Antibodies bring the possibility of being very selective for a therapeutic target.

11- We read that your family had a cinema when you were a child and you spent many hours there. In that moment, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Well, look; one of my problems is that I do not know if I have reached my goals in life because I do not know what they were. I do not remember. And this makes me feel really frustrated… (Laughs)

Roser Bastida Barau