Personalities Behind the Project

with Alois Saria

© The Human Brain Project 2016 / Arantxa Cedillo

Interview by Arantxa Cedillo, write-up by Lauren Orwin

Alois Saria is Head of the Experimental Psychiatry Unit at the Medical University of Innsbruck, Austria. Alois began his career investigating functions of neuropeptides in the autonomic and central nervous system, and then moved to work on neuropeptides in the central nervous system and mechanism of action of psychoactive drugs and narcotics. More recently, his research has focused on systems neurobiology, particularly reward systems, and pharmacokinetic and pharmadynamic aspects of antidepressants and antipsychotics that are relevant for therapeutic drug monitoring in psychiatry. Alois heads the HBP Education Programme, which plays a major role in providing European early-career scientists with transdisciplinary knowledge and skills.

As the sun set over vibrant Budapest and the HBP Young Researcher’s event drew to a close, we asked Alois about how his career developed, and found out what makes him tick.

So, tell us about your career.

I am a Professor of Neurochemistry, and I work in the the Experimental Psychiatry Unit at the Medical University of Innsbruck. This is a research unit associated with the Department of Psychiatry at the University Hospital Innsbruck, so I run a basic research laboratory addressing questions on psychiatry. I have been there now for twenty-eight years, and the nice thing was that I got this position at a time when the psychiatric hospital in Innsbruck didn’t have a basic research laboratory or group. I could build up a research unit from scratch, which was very challenging and interesting. I was given empty rooms, and the interesting situation for me was that I could really decide on everything; on infrastructure, on equipment, really building up basic research from scratch.

At the time, the clinicians at the University had the foresight that psychology had something to do with biology, but they didn’t know how to approach it. So they were actually actively searching for a person who could build up biological, psychiatry-related research, and eventually I was lucky enough to get this position.

How would you explain psychiatric biological research to a non-neuroscientist?

Basic research in psychiatry is now mainly biological research, assuming, and I think this is without debate, that all psychiatric diseases also have a biological background, which some decades ago was not mainstream thinking in psychiatry. Building up basic research means using the same kind of neuroscience methods you would apply to all other biological questions; to the brain and how the nervous system develops, how the neurons interconnect, how the signalling mechanisms are brought to work, and also addressing psychiatric diseases such as disturbed emotions and drug addiction.

What attracted you to your current field?

Curiosity about nature, which I had at a young age, and during university I became more and more interested in living organisms, because of their fascinating complexity. I got into neuroscience rather serendipitously; I was looking for a PhD position after I finished my first university degree in Graz, and it was a coincidence that I got a position at a pharmacological institute where the focus was on neuroscience. But again, my interest in neuroscience was there from the beginning.

How did you become part of the HBP?

I was invited by Henry Markram at a very early stage, in 2010 or so, to help develop an education programme. I think this was because around ten or fifteen years earlier, I got involved in volunteer work in international scientific organisations, such as the Federation of European Neuroscience Societies. I helped to establish an annual winter school which became a very prominent activity for this federation; their model worked very well, and everybody was pretty happy about it, and I realised that organisational skills combined with working with young people was one of my strengths. I got more and more involved in it, because some of my colleagues realised was doing a good job. I had curated three Marie Curie training programmes before I joined the HBP, so I was known for that experience, and since I love working with young people, it was not a difficult decision to join the Project. The Project is extremely interesting, so challenging, but it’s visionary. I feel privileged that now, close to the end of my career, I am again allowed to work in a visionary project, which will keep me probably mentally younger than I actually am.

What do you like about working with young researchers?

I find it rewarding when I can lead young people, instruct young people, train young people, and see them developing and eventually becoming independent researchers and developing their own ideas and projects. It’s rewarding because I have a feeling that my work and my knowledge mean something, and I can transfer them and keep research developing. Not only by publishing scientific papers, which is of course important. I like interactive work; it’s amazing to observe young researchers who are motivated, interested and curious, and see what kinds of creativity they can develop. I admire it, in a way. It is probably a kind of a mirror, because I am a very curious person, and that’s probably why I went into the natural sciences. I knew I wanted to study science when I was fourteen years old. My parents wanted me to go in another direction. I come from a very catholic family, and my mother would have loved for me to become a catholic priest or a physician, because they are prestigious. But at age fourteen I said no, no way.

If you were not doing the job you do now, what would you be doing instead?

Playing piano solo concerts. When I was seventeen or eighteen years old, the only alternative to science was music. I went to piano school for a couple of years when I was a child, and that was also something which made me happy. I learnt to love classical music, actually.

Do you have a favourite composer?

When it comes to classical music, it’s Chopin, because the emotional expressions you can put in Chopin’s music when you play it are outstanding. The decision when I was eighteen to study science, not music and piano, was an easy one because it was made clear to me that if I didn’t want to end up as a teacher in a music school, but really wanted to make a career as a musician, that would need an awful lot of effort and talent, and I decided I was not going to have that.

Why, because you thought you were not talented enough, or because it was a lot of effort?

Both. I found it difficult to be motivated or even think about practicing piano for seven or eight hours a day or more, and I had a feeling that I was not sufficiently talented. I had to face it. So, I decided, no. I still play piano when I have time, that’s not too often, but now I have switched from classical music to jazz and boogie, because that’s a little bit like research. Improvising piano is like exploring, playing with curiosity, and it suits me.

What motivates you in life?

Curiosity; I am curious about everything. That and seeing the world around me moving forward, and doing different types of research. [I like to] contribute to keeping things moving.

What is the one thing you could not live without?

My wife. She is so amazing. She’s extremely supportive, she’s a person full of love, and yet gives me the feeling that I can live my personal life the way I want to without any compromise. She is an occupational therapist of neurology, which of course is also interesting, privately, because she’s working with neurological patients, and we often have interesting debates about theories in neuroscience and the real world when you work with patients after stroke or with Parkinson’s patients.

Thank you very much, Alois!