“Healthy criticism is essential for change and success”

An interview published in Ellipse, the monthly magazine of the PRBB.
vivek malhotra (CRG)

Vivek Malhotra was born in India 50 years ago and received his formal education in England. After graduating from Oxford, he went to the US as a postdoc at Stanford. He was a professor at the University of California in San Diego where he has spent most of his life. Married to a Basque biologist, in 2008 he came to the PRBB where he coordinates the Cell and Developmental Biology programme of the CRG.

What differences are there between here and the US? 

Americans are goal oriented and very driven. They want to solve problems whatever the cost. They are aggressive and critical. And that’s how they have managed to advance so much. I have the feeling that in Spain people are scared of criticising. Consequently they cannot deal with criticism very well. Healthy criticism is essential for change and success.

Are we talking about science? 
Criticism is essential in all aspects of life, but especially important for science. As the Greek philosopher Thales said, biology, unlike maths, is not complete, accurate, and permanent. It is open to interpretation, today’s proposal may need to be revised later on based on new knowledge and one should be willing to accept that.

Why did you come to Barcelona? 
After 23 years in California I was bored. And even though I took a salary cut I am very happy here. At the CRG, I am able to do science at the same level I used to. I can see myself staying here for the rest of my career. The only thing that scares me is the general ’laissez faire’ attitude to the long-term potential of basic science. Spain needs to invest more in education, long-term and at all levels: school, university and research centres. There are now good research centres in Spain, but far too few. Jordi Camí deserves a lot of credit for building up the PRBB. If we had 2 or 3 more Jordis who could build 2 or 3, or even one more centre like this in the next 5 years, it would be terrific.

What is the best advice you have ever received? 
“Work on something you think you might be able to solve in your lifetime”. I have followed this suggestion and focused on key aspects of protein secretion. We have made significant discoveries, some of which could lead to the development of therapeutics for chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases. Drug development, however, is not for me. I dislike the corporate aspect of science.

What is a normal day for you? 
I walk to work, which takes about 25 minutes. This gives me time to focus on the key issues for the day. When I get to work I talk to the people in my lab, and in fact I keep on doing that all day. On average every 10 mins I abandon the computer and walk around the lab and my floor, and generally bother people by repeatedly asking if they have anything new. Most people hide when they see me coming but the brave and passionate ones take the bait and we have fun talking. I do not have a set routine but I try to communicate regularly with my friends both here and in the US. My iPhone is always on. If I am awake at 3am and come up with a useful idea I send an email right away to my lab members. So there is no time limit for work. However, I am learning to keep my evenings free for my family.

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