"The brain is my speciality"

Professor Jerzy Silberring is a specialist in biochemistry and neurobiology. He has worked at Medical College in Krakow and the Pharmacology Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In 1987-1997, he was in Sweden where he cooperated with high-quality specialists at Uppsala University and Karolinska Institute, and after returning to Poland at the Jagiellonian University. He current heads the Biochemistry and Neurobiology Faculty at the AGH University of Science and Technology in Krakow. His main research interests include addiction and pain pathway mechanisms. 

Ireneusz Białek talks with Professor Jerzy Silberring.

Ireneusz Białek: I have invited you, Professor, to talk about a culture of organisation and cooperation between top-class specialists. Yet my first question will be about you finding yourself in Sweden in what was a special time for Poland.

Professor Jerzy Silberring: In 1987, I was working at the Pharmacology Institute of the Polish Academy of Sciences and my boss decided to send me for an internship to a well-known Swedish University of Uppsala. I did not want to go as I had other plans. He convinced me, however, saying that it was just six weeks and the professor in Uppsala in whose team I was to work was a world-class expert. So I went for six weeks and stayed on for ten years.

I.B.: Did you quickly find yourself in the new environment?

J.S.: At first I did not even learn Swedish, as all Swedes speak fluent English, yet then the inability to use Swedish became slightly uncomfortable and I switched to that language relatively fast thanks to a friend and “beer courses” as I call them. I do not know whether that is a revolutionary learning technique but such courses were very effective indeed.

I.B.: Did you watch the Polish transformation from the Swedish perspective?

J.S.: I was rather watching it when I visited Poland every year. In Sweden people were not as interested as we seemed to think. Despite the transition I had some fears concerning my return to Poland, but I guess we will discuss it later on.

I.B.: Yes, we are now in 1987 in Sweden and I wonder what struck you first.

J.S.: What strikes one in Sweden is primarily its administrative order. There is no need to go to public offices in the first place so people do not. You telephone them. I had to, for instance, change my driving licence to a Swedish one, but it did not require any contact with a Swedish official. After a telephone conversation I received the relevant documents already completed and ready for me to sign. The postal service took them from me and so I did not learn even where my clerk worked. Also, there were no queues, you just would not stand and wait anywhere. Everything was predictable. Public transport worked smoothly. That came as a shock to me.

I.B.: This may be shocking even today.

J.S.: Indeed, I am aware of that. Sweden is a country where things are discussed a lot. If there is a problem to solve, you do not have that one person who stands up and everyone must listen, but people sit down at a table and choose a solution. Sometimes it is better and sometimes worse, but everybody is convinced that it leads towards reaching some common goal.

I.B.: So there were no orders?

J.S.: They do not issue orders over there, in general. There was a boss, of course, who one needed to pay attention to but one could always talk to him about why things were done that and not some other way. I could approach anybody with a question, if they knew more than myself or were experts in some other field and they would always help me. No-one ever said, which is so common in Poland, that something just could not be done. Things could not be done when I was leaving Poland, and many still could not be done on my return, but in Sweden they could be done.

I.B.: Do you mean team spirit, dialogue with your boss?

J.S.: Yes, but equally not keeping knowledge to yourself, sharing it with others, because that drives scientific progress and social progress, too. In Sweden I never heard something I heard a lot just after I had returned. Asked about our potential collaboration, one of the professors I approached told me: "your science ends where mine begins". His achievements being pretty mediocre, why be so arrogant?

I.B.: Did you feel well in that international team?

J.S.: I felt great. First of all I was able to communicate with each and everyone and they treated me as an equal. It also had to do with language, first English, then Swedish, which opened new doors for me. In science it is extremely important because if you are not able to tell your partner what you want to say, communication is broken. But I got inspired internationally, so to speak, initially by Professor A. Koj and Dr A. Dubin (I owe both of them a lot), and later the Pharmacology Institute in Krakow and so I was able to formulate the problems I wanted to focus on in my work.

I.B.: You have worked with Nobel Prize winners.

J.S.: Those were great minds. My first boss brushed with a Nobel Prize. He was a fantastic team manager, in a team where everybody was of assistance for everybody else and the sum of our actions let us obtain great results. Later, already at Karolinska Institute, one of our partners, Professor Paul Greengard from the US, won a Nobel Prize after two years of cooperating with our team so we joked that was thanks to us. At Karolinska we also collaborated with other Nobel Prize winners. Interestingly enough, those people were very approachable. No-one made me feel that if they got a Nobel Prize, I could not be their partner. A few years ago, already in Poland, for two days I accompanied one of Nobel Prize winners visiting our country. I did not asked him a single “typical” question like “How did you achieve it?” I may surprise you, but we talked about our common friends.

Coming back to Sweden, I remember how one day my boss was contacted by a professor, who had a fully equipped peptide synthesis laboratory. Such equipment costs a lot, believe me, and he asked us about our needs, so that the lab could be used and he was keen to let us use it. That was another shock I experienced over there.

I.B.: Maybe after your homecoming you also lent something to someone?

J.S.: I tried when a fellow researcher had financial issues and problems with lab equipment. I told her to come as we had all she needed and we could help. She just gave me a strange look and said “No, I will manage myself somehow”.

I.B.: In Sweden people trust each other more.

J.S.: I should study the issue more profoundly as it is about the brain, so my specialty, but maybe an equally valid opinion could be given by a social psychologist. The Swedes were predominantly open, honest and trusting. Karolinska Institute is the world’s scientific top and so there is rat race there, too. Yet they know that in that race they are better off cooperating than not cooperating, as the result of the collaboration is better for all the racers. This kind of thinking is still sorely missing in Poland.

I.B.: Your discipline in particular requires such cooperation, doesn’t it?

J.S.: Yes, this is knowledge embracing chemistry, biochemistry and pharmacology. What we now call interdisciplinary cooperation I did already back than in Sweden in my daily work. In both places, in Uppsala and at Karolinska, we had great appliances. There were generally resources for everything and so we would buy all we needed to do our research. Yet we produced results not just because we did not have any financial constraints as regards equipment purchase but also because people collaborated. I wish to stress very much here that it is not equipment that matters most but good research ideas because when we buy something, others will have it as well.

I.B.: And how did you find cooperation in Sweden on the sensitive interface of science and business?

J.S.: Great. For instance in Uppsala we collaborated with a pharmaceutical company making research equipment and they offered us various appliances on which we were able to work. Then we would publish something, which was possible thanks to our work on those appliances and as a result everybody benefitted from the process. They were learning how their equipment works in practice, and we were able to use state-of-the-art equipment and had better results. The company also sponsored some trials and gave us various reagents. Many scientific ideas travelled seamlessly to industry, developing production and bearing multiple fruit.

I.B.: After a decade of work in such conditions, in 1997 you return to Poland. Why?

J.S.: In Sweden teams are highly dynamic. One project ends and new activities begin. I already knew quite a lot back then and so I decided that the working formula pursued there had been exhausted somehow and I could use my experiences in Poland, where I was asked for help in numerous cases. I thought that I could still teach someone something over here. There were family reasons, too.

I.B.: And you, Professor, created your own research team. Did you manage to use your experience of cooperation and dialogue coming from Sweden?

J.S.: Upon my return, I experienced something of a bureaucratic shock. I learnt that I needed to have a stamp, while in Sweden stamps do not exist. In Poland, when I want to go to a scientific event I have to fill in an  application and the admin people ask me whether I have an invitation or some other supporting document. And when I tell them that I am going there paying with my own money from a grant and so no invitation is required (I have bad recollections from communist times related to that), I hear: it makes no difference, we need it anyway. So I conclude that nothing has changed in that regard since 1987 when I was leaving the country; quite to the contrary: tendering procedures have been added to cover the purchase of every single little thing and there is clearance of EU projects which entails Polish red tape, which is peculiar. As a professor I also have 210 hours of teaching load and I always prepare something for my classes with students, because after all I am not going to use the same material for a decade, in my field new knowledge comes in each year so I must update what I teach, replacing some 25% of the material. Student groups are growing larger, education is becoming a mass phenomenon and everyone counts costs. All this combined with dreadful bureaucracy overwhelms me, one just cannot work this way. And I am not the only one who sees it.

Yet I am glad that I can still find young people who are precious and hope for the future. Even if they leave the country for good, as my former doctoral student is in the Netherlands, and another in Brussels, I feel satisfaction that they learnt something at my side and had some impact on me, too. The members of my team understand each other, do not quarrel and have a good future ahead of them.

I.B.: And is there a way to make them return as you did, Professor?

J.S.: Maybe we should emulate the one the Chinese have now. Those who return to China after a stay in a wealthy country receive funds for their own research work and specialist teams are formed. In this way, they have quite good results and publish in journals which used to be completely inaccessible to them some time ago. These are often very good teams with results renowned academic centres would not mind. This goes on to prove that there are countries which are able to encourage their researchers to return.

I also think there is some hope in the openness of science and the fact that people see what others do, can communicate freely, travel and have access to scientific information, and all that will finally force changes. In this way the freedom of science may be expanded while economy may get an additional boost to grow.

I.B.: Thank you.