Interview spotlight: Professor Ole Petersen, Cardiff Hub Academic Director and Vice-President Academia Europaea

Interview spotlight: Professor Ole Petersen, Cardiff Hub Academic Director and Vice-President Academia Europaea

As the first in a new series of interviews with Members of Academia Europaea connected with the Cardiff Knowledge Hub, Louise Edwards asks Professor Ole Petersen CBE FMedSci FLSW MAE ML FRS, to share highlights of his life and career.

Ole, tell us something about your professional and personal background

“I did Medicine at the University of Copenhagen, expecting to become a hospital physician. I do not come from a medical family, but one of my father’s close friends was a Consultant Dermatologist and one of my cousins was a Senior Registrar in Internal Medicine. They undoubtedly influenced my choice.

The medical course in Copenhagen in the 1960s had two parts, each ending with a major round of examinations. Part 1 was theoretical, dealing with Chemistry, Anatomy, Physiology and Biochemistry and Part 2 consisted of all the clinical subjects with a lot of time spent in hospital departments. During Part 1, I was lucky enough to have an outstanding and very inspiring teacher in Physiology and this changed my outlook profoundly.

In this period, medical student numbers increased enormously and there was insufficient staff. Therefore, the University hired those who had just passed the Part 1 examinations with top grades as Instructors in the basic science subjects. In this way, I was engaged as teacher of Physiology to students just a few years younger than myself.

My first years as a clinical student were largely spent in the Department of Physiology, where I also started independent research. This may seem very strange to those who know the regimented medical courses now on offer but, at that time in Copenhagen, the progress through the medical course was largely self-directed. Teaching and instruction was offered, but attendance was voluntary and everyone was responsible for themselves. The control was exclusively carried out by tough final examinations and many failed. The Physiology Department in Copenhagen was also in a peculiar position at that time with a Chairman who hardly knew even the senior staff so, although I was only an undergraduate clinical student, I found it easy to establish myself as an investigator carrying out experimental work without any supervision. In fact, I have never had a scientific supervisor.

During my clinical student years, I actually published a substantial number of original papers on the function of the salivary glands and was even an Invited Speaker at a high-level international symposium on exocrine glands at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The organisers had no idea that I was still an undergraduate student! This symposium turned out to be of great importance for my further career.

This was because I met Sir Arnold Burgen FRS on that occasion and he invited me to come to Cambridge to work with him (he held the Shield Chair of Pharmacology at the University of Cambridge at that time). Unfortunately, when I finally managed to come to Cambridge – a few years later after I had passed my final examinations and become a Lecturer at the University of Copenhagen – Arnold had just been appointed Director of the Medical Research Council’s National Institute of Medical Research in London and had also changed research field. I therefore never worked with Arnold, but he nevertheless continued to take an interest in me and my work and consistently supported me, particularly after I moved to the UK in 1975 when I was appointed Symers Professor and Head of Physiology at the University of Dundee. I was only 32 years old and actually the youngest member of staff in the department.

Arnold played a particularly important role in my appointment 6 years later as George Holt Professor and Head of Physiology, succeeding Rod Gregory CBE FRS, at the University of Liverpool, a chair I held for 28 years until my appointment, now 7 years ago, as Director of the School of Biosciences at Cardiff University. My years in Liverpool were not without success. The department was consistently top-rated in all the national Research Assessment Exercises in the 1980s and 1990s – beating Cambridge, Oxford and University College London – and, to my great surprise and amazement, I eventually received the exact same levels of recognition (CBE, FRS, Vice-President of the Royal Society) that my predecessor, Rod Gregory, had obtained.

Opening of the new Physiology Research Building, Liverpool, 1992
Opening of the new Physiology Research Building, Liverpool, 1992

One of the highlights of my Liverpool period was the opening of the new Physiology Research Building in 1992 by the Nobel Laureate Bert Sakmann MAE, who was elected a Foreign Member of The Royal Society a few years later. Many years later, in 2006, it was a great privilege for me to give the introductory ‘Laudatio’ for Bert at the AE Annual Conference in Budapest, when he gave the Erasmus Lecture.”

You were at the very first meeting of Academia Europaea in 1988.  How did you get involved?  What was your experience?

“The connection with Arnold (Burgen) was key. Arnold had been Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society from 1981 – 1986 and during this time felt the need for an All-European Academy of Sciences and Humanities. When Arnold’s plans came to fruition in 1988, I was still young – by ‘Academy Standards’ – although I had just been elected Foreign Member of the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters. However, I had not yet been elected to The Royal Society and it was therefore extremely surprising that Arnold decided to invite me to become one of the 100 Foundation Members of AE. I think all the other British Foundation Members were either FRS or FBA (Fellows of the British Academy), so I can only assume that Arnold took the opportunity to help me, at a unique moment when he was completely and solely in charge. We have never talked about this.

As you can see from the picture in our office, taken during one of the intervals of the Foundation Meeting in Cambridge in September 1988, the Foundation Group was essentially composed of senior European research leaders including several Nobel Laureates, Presidents and Chief Executives of the major research institutions and the then French Science Minister Hubert Curien (who arrived by helicopter), and who eventually succeeded Arnold as President of AE. One of the most important issues discussed at that meeting was the question of whether the Academy should be an EU Academy or elect members from all European countries irrespective of whether they belonged to the EU. It was decided to go for the all-European mode which, in view of Brexit, is quite lucky for the UK!

The Foundation Meeting was of course a fantastic opportunity for me to get to know some outstanding research leaders, including Sir Michael Atiyah, who became President of the Royal Society two years later, and Heinz Staab who at that time was President of the Max Planck Society.”

Academia Europaea Foundation Meeting, 1988
Academia Europaea Foundation Meeting, 1988

What led you to set up the AE Hub at Cardiff?  What are the main ambitions for the Hub you want to realise?

“Given the trust Arnold placed in my, by electing me to AE at a relatively early stage of my career, I have always felt a strong obligation to do as much as I can for this organisation and have therefore, over the years, accepted many positions such as Chair of the then Physiology & Medicine Section, Membership of Council and Board and am of course now Treasurer and Vice-President.

In 2014, Sierd Cloetingh was elected President of AE, an outcome I had been very strongly in favour of. I had been in close contact with Sierd for many years and realized that his election opened up new and very important opportunities for the Academy. In discussions with Sierd, it became clear that he was enthusiastic about the idea of establishing an Academia Europaea Knowledge Hub at Cardiff University and at the same time I had useful discussions with Pro-Vice Chancellor Hywel Thomas CBE FRS who, also as a Member of Academia Europaea, was favourably inclined.

This led to the invitation to Sierd to come to Cardiff in January 2015 to give a lecture on the European Research Council (Sierd was at that time Vice-President of the ERC) and to discuss with our Vice-Chancellor, Colin Riordan, the possibility of establishing the Cardiff Knowledge Hub. It was a very successful visit and, therefore, you are now here as Hub Manager and we are having this interview!

I should say that the timing for me, personally, was excellent. In 2015, I was at the end of my 5-year term as Director of the School of Biosciences and I had the great luck that my outstanding PA, Judith Lockett, was keen to take up the position as Executive Officer in the Hub. It would have been impossible to get started without Judith’s hard work and total commitment to this task.

My initial aim for the hub was simply to provide a science link between Wales and Europe and utilize this also to signpost excellence here in Wales on the European scene. However, very soon after Sierd’s visit here in January 2015, it became clear that AE had the opportunity to become very actively involved in the newly evolving European Scientific Advice Mechanism (SAM) and at an AE meeting in Kiev in September 2015, I accepted Sierd’s proposal that the Cardiff Hub should be the main vehicle for delivering AE’s contribution to the EU Horizon 2020 project which, in February 2016, at a meeting at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science, was given the name SAPEA. The final award of the Euro 5M SAPEA project at the end of last year, with a significant element coming to Cardiff, and your crucial role as the first appointed Science Policy Officer, has of course increased our ambition level, which has been further heightened by Brexit, as we now really have to prove our efficiency in delivering science advice for policy.”

What impact do you think the Hub’s involvement in the SAM can make?

“We (the Cardiff Hub) and you, in particular, have already had a major influence on the final version of the document that resulted in the award of the SAPEA project. As such, we have already proven ourselves to be one of the effective branches of this very complex project. However, the major challenge is still ahead of us. This is to be able to harness the specialist knowledge of our distinguished Academy Members and be able to utilize this knowledge in formulating scientific advice that is useful for policy makers and actually will be made use of. This is not a trivial task! AE’s reputation in SAPEA is now to a considerable degree dependent on our work and we are only a small team. Dedication, which we definitely have, is essential and I am therefore optimistic that we shall have a significant impact.

We shall of course need help from many colleagues and organisations. I am encouraged by the support we have had locally here in Cardiff, particularly from our Pro-Vice Chancellor International & Europe, Nora de Leeuw, and by the commitment of the Chair of our Steering Group, Sir John Skehel FRS, who is the Biological Secretary of the Royal Society and, like the Royal Society’s new Foreign Secretary, Richard Catlow FRS with whom we have also established a valuable relationship, is a Member of AE. With hard work and help from such eminent colleagues and organisations like The Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences and the Learned Society of Wales, we have a chance for success that could benefit not only the AE, but also science and scholarship throughout Europe, including the UK!”

4th January 2017. For further information please contact Louise Edwards, Cardiff Hub Manager

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