A youthful boost for Austrian plant research – New career opportunities at the Gregor Mendel Institute, Vienna

GMI Young Investigator is a new career level at the Campus Vienna Biocenter. The introduction of this position by the Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences will enable young, brilliant plant biologists both from Austria and abroad to lead independent study groups. The 32-year old Dr. Karel Riha has been appointed as the first GMI Young Investigator. As the youngest group leader on campus today, Dr. Riha’s appointment gives him the necessary freedom of research and resources to independently further his internationally respected work on the differences between plant and animal chromosomes.

In many non-university research establishments, young molecular biologists only have the chance to set up their own teams very late in their careers. One reason for this is the popular tendency of engaging younger scientists within the projects of established groups.

A Wind of Change in the Labs
The Gregor Mendel Institute (GMI) now offers excellent, young researchers the opportunity to set up their own teams 2 to 5 years earlier than usual. In the view of Prof. Dieter Schweizer, the managing and scientific director of GMI, the integration of young scientists with doctoral degrees into established groups, although in many respects beneficial, carries with it disadvantages. In this regard, Prof. Schweizer says, “The most talented among them cannot develop their creative potential and consequently gain their independence too late. Young minds have new, sometimes even revolutionary, ideas in addition to the drive to conduct elaborate experiments. Research autonomy should be granted earlier to exceptional young scientists. In such cases, performance monitoring should take place on the basis of the quality of publications, not internally by a director, but externally through an international scientific advisory board. That is exactly what we are now offering at GMI.”

The most important aspect of the newly created position of GMI Young Investigator is the freedom to decide on one’s own research programme and to put it into practice. The GMI provides well-trained technical staff members and the necessary infrastructure, and will move to a state-of-the-art laboratory complex at the Campus Vienna Biocenter in autumn 2005.

Plants are Like Animals – Just Different
The first GMI Young Investigator has won multiple awards and is, as this position envisions, a scientist with an international profile. In 1998 at the age of 26, immediately following his doctoral studies, Dr. Riha received a scholarship from the American National Science Foundation. After completing a very successful 4-year research term in the USA, in 2003 he accepted a position in the director’s group at the GMI, thus declining a second offer from a top research institute in Germany.

Dr. Riha’s passion is the ends of chromosomes called telomeres, which influence chromosome stability. In animals, damage to telomeres leads to a rapid destruction of cells or accelerates the aging process. On the contrary, plants appear to be relatively irresponsive to such damage, as cell division continues and the aging process is not accelerated. It is this difference between animals and plants that fascinates Dr. Riha and which he, with his own team and budget, will now be exploring. Dr. Riha states, “I decided on GMI because a great mix of scientific areas is available at the Campus Vienna Biocenter. As a plant biologist, I can have lively exchanges here with colleagues from medical research about the peculiarities of plant and animal metabolism. As such, I find it very satisfying that the mechanisms of how plants deal with telomere damage are met with great interest by colleagues from medically-oriented research”.

The Czech citizen Karel Riha’s interest in the molecular and genetic comparison of plants and animals can perhaps be attributed to the fact that he started his academic career at the place where the laws of genetics, valid for both plants and animals, were first described in 1865, namely in Brno, in today’s Czech Republic. Perhaps it is not mere coincidence that these studies were conducted by the Augustine monk, Gregor Mendel, after whom the GMI is named.

Image is available at: http://www.gmi.oeaw.ac.at/press.htm

Scientific contact:
Dr. Karel Riha
Gregor Mendel Institute
Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
Dr. Bohrgasse 1
1030 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 4277 56250
E [email protected]

Issued by:
PR&D – Public Relations for Research & Development
Campus Vienna Biocenter 2
1030 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 70 44
E [email protected]

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