Josef Penninger—The Making of a Scientist

by Eleonora Windisch


Penninger_Josef_captionIn January 2005, Josef Penninger, scientific director of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology (IMBA), will be the first speaker of the newly launched lecture series by the Office of Science and Technology (OST) at the Austrian Embassy in Washington, D.C. The series will feature recipients of the "Austrian Scientist of the Year Award," an award created by the Austrian Club of Education and Science Journalists.

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}With Josef Penninger becoming the Club's tenth recipient of the Award, the nomination process has come full circle. The first award recipient was Prof. Georg Wick in 1993, the very man who later became one of Penninger's most important mentors in Austria. Wick took under his wing an eager medical student who had little interest in becoming a general practitioner but was willing to explore the vast field of immunology with dedication and little pay.
A self-described mediocre student in high school but who had a knack for mathematics and physics, Josef Penninger clearly found his true calling when venturing into research. Yet, he was still a far cry from becoming the "Wayne Gretzky of research," as he often would be referred to a decade later. And it remains a mystery to many why this unpretentious young man, who was not quite sure where he wanted to be, would become such a successful scientist. Some say it resulted from a great deal of luck combined with determination; others believe that he is truly brilliant. For Penninger himself, the key to his success is passion. He is convinced that his competitive advantage lies in the intellectual curiosity and the determination he brings to his research.
At the same time he is willing to take risks and constantly explore new paths. It was that streak that brought him to Canada in the first place. His postdoctoral stint under immunologist Tak Mak at the Ontario Cancer Institute, Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto was meant to be a temporary assignment. However, unable to find an interesting position in Europe, he decided to stay on. In hindsight this decision was a blessing in disguise because it opened the door for Penninger to Amgen, the world's largest biotech corporation. Tak Mak handpicked Penninger to join him at the Amgen lab as principal investigator. It was at Amgen, where Penninger—working with knockout mice—got the opportunity to excel. He earned his laurels first in heart disease, followed by groundbreaking work on the osteoprotegerine ligand and the discovery of AIF, the gene that controls cell death.
An ardent believer in innovation, Penninger attributes equal importance to an interdisciplinary approach in science. "To join seemingly unrelated pieces and create something new, that is what science is all about," Penninger stated in an interview with More recently, Penninger emphasized that people need to keep their minds open to be able to explore new territory. "All great discoveries occur when scientists wander off the beaten track, pursuing unpopular, unknown ideas or merge knowledge from disparate fields," he said at the Keys Memorial Lecture held on October 4, 2004 at Trinity College in Toronto.
"Wandering off the beaten track" is one thing. But jumping from one idea to another can be an extremely risky undertaking in science. More than once was Penninger warned by colleagues to be careful about projects. But Penninger would not hear any of it. He kept on churning out ideas. By 2002, he was a full professor at the Departments of Immunology and Medical Biophysics at the University of Toronto. In little over a decade Penninger published some 200 articles, books and research papers. The sheer number of prizes and awards he received is overwhelming. The 40-year-old researcher was included several times in Canada's 'Top 40 Under 40' list. In 2002, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research named Penninger one of Canada's top 20 scientists. Three years in a row he was named into ISI's Top 10 list of the "hottest" scientists in the world.
Penninger's departure from Canada in 2002 and his subsequent return to Austria did not diminish his scientific standing in the least. The virtual stock exchange of Nobel prize winners, a research project by the University of Frankfurt, lists Penninger as "hot commodity." More recently, in October 2004 he was elected "Austrian Scientist of the Year 2004." No wonder that the Austrian Academy of Sciences considered itself extremely lucky to have gained a world-class scientist for its new facility—the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology.
When Josef Penninger became the head of IMBA, the Austrian science community hailed the move as an important sign of Austria's importance in the area of biotechnology. Penninger already was a highly renowned scientist in Canada by that time, who had "uncovered several 'Holy Grails' in molecular and developmental medicine," according to media reports. So why would a scientist of his caliber return to Austria, where funding for basic competitive research still faces a rather dismal situation? (see Sigismund Huck in bridges Vol. 2)
"The dream is to build a center in Europe, where people can share ideas," Penninger said at his October address for the Keys Memorial Lecture at Trinity College in Toronto. He openly admits that he wanted to stay in North America and that the "decision to return to Austria was a very difficult one, primarily for private reasons." At the same time he felt that the offer from the Austrian Academy of Sciences to head IMBA was too good to turn down. "With the enlargement of the European Union, Vienna has become one of the most interesting cities for innovation," Penninger says. "Vienna has all of a sudden become the gateway to 40 million well-educated people," he adds.
Penninger's personal ideas set aside; one must concede that the offer by the Austrian Academy of Sciences to head IMBA was indeed an attractive one, an offer not easily to be disregarded. Penninger will undoubtedly be a major player in the Austrian science community. Almost unprecedented in Austria, he has enormous freedom to administer a generous research budget. Over the next couple of years, IMBA is set to increase its staff to 150 researchers. Unlike universities and other institutions, IMBA researchers will be unburdened by obligations to teach or to write grants. The mouse facility at IMBA—meant to eventually serve Central and Eastern Europe—is key to Penninger's team.
The Austrian Academy of Sciences has taken all the right steps in setting up IMBA. The Institute is well funded with enough resources to do excellent research and hire the best scientists. Penninger is fully aware that this is not the norm in Europe. Again and again Penninger emphasizes the need for Europe to catch up with North America. "Good infrastructure is key to good science," he underlines. Penninger referred to the example of a colleague in France, who had not been able to buy any new equipment for five years. "It is a wasted effort to try to bring scientists back to Europe if funds and infrastructure are lacking," he says. "Good scientists are the essence. Not even Michael Schuhmacher can win a Formula One race with an old race car."

While Penninger does not praise North America as a paradise for the sciences, he nonetheless feels that the North American "can do" attitude paired with the notion that research is international and that the best scientists need the best facilities still give America a competitive edge. Heavy bureaucratic layers and stark hierarchical structures, in contrast, continue to burden Europe. Penninger has little appreciation for red tape. He feels that "good science" should be based on its merits and not judged by geographical importance or subjected to political peddling.

Some Austrian scientists abroad share Penninger's criticism of the scientific environment in Europe. Apart from a stifling bureaucracy, scientists often experience deeply rooted reservations against those who come from outside. Moreover, the lack of invaluable networks makes it often impossible for returnees to reintegrate into the local science community. Aware of these sentiments, Penninger tries very hard to promote the IMBA as a center of excellence and stay away from "playing politics."
Trying hard and being successful, however, does not entail "breathing and eating science 24 hours a day." His weekends are solely dedicated to his family, says Penninger, adding that "being successful makes only sense if my children still know me, and even that is a challenge."

Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences (IMBA):

First Person: Josef Penninger, In: The Scientist, Vol. 17, Issue 4, Feb. 24, 2003,

Mary Rogan, Josef Penninger, In: Keep Media, July 2001,