Full professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences (ETHZ), principal investigator on the drugability of RNA as well as KTT delegate at the NCCR RNA & Disease, Jonathan Hall shares with us aspects of his career and reveals the person behind the science.
Why are you active in the field of chemical biology?
I enjoy being engaged in arguably the highest challenge in science – understanding how our organism works. Progress is nearly always thanks to combined advances in chemistry and biology.
Describe the most intense moment of your career.
A visit to Celera Genomics around 2000. Seeing machines sequencing the human genome made me realize that our profession was on the verge of a quantum leap.
Which is the best idea you ever had?
I can’t tell you. It was in the nineties and I have not yet found the time to commercialize it.
Do you have a role-model or a driving force?
Two role models representing the top of their professions stand out for me. Professor Jean-Marie Lehn and Roger Federer: the former for the way he shares his passion for chemistry, the latter for his passion for fairplay sport.
The philosophy along which lines you lead your lab?
We design our projects with goals that are aligned to the global mission of the lab. However, in pursuing those goals we are inevitably confronted with surprising results that lead us down unexpected paths, outside of our comfort zone. This is how we mature as scientists.
Pick a paper you praise for the elegance of its demonstration.
Tetrahedron Letters, Vol.24, pp 5095-5098, 1983: “Une nouvelle famille de molecules: les metallo-catenanes” by C. O. DietrichBuchecker, J. P. Sauvage, J. P. Kintzinger. The paper demonstrates that curiositydriven synthesis of elegant molecules can have unforeseen consequences much later.
Can you shed light on the relevance of interdisciplinarity for scientific breakthroughs?
Scientific breakthroughs often only come after input from different disciplines. Interdisciplinarity – the breaking down of barriers between disciplines – accelerates the exchange of knowledge and ideas, and yields new approaches to tackle scientific problems.
Define research in just three words.
Frustration, Thrill, Satisfaction, in that order.
How do you match the words beauty and science?
High-vacuum distillation: a carefully assembled apparatus, a simple physical principle, a period of patient waiting and eventually, the delightful production of a colorless oil from a dark viscous starting material.
A piece of advice you’d like to give to the young generation of researchers?
Always remember that to be a researcher by profession is a privilege.
A book, song, poem, music or painting that you spot out and get inspiration from?
Autobiographies of Richard Feynman.
Jonathan Hall received his PhD in organic chemistry at Imperial College in London in 1988. He did postdoctoral work with J.-M. Lehn in Strasbourg (France) and with Y. Kishi in Cambridge (USA). He joined the nucleic acids section at Ciba Central Research Labs in Basel in 1992 and in 2000 he was promoted to head of the group. In 2003, he was presented with the Novartis Leading Scientist Award. In the following six years his group established high-throughput oligonucleotide synthesis and genome-wide screening using siRNAs. Together with the Neuroscience Department, they developed methods to use RNAi in vivo which resulted in therapeutic effects of siRNAs in clinical models of pain. In 2007, he joined the Institute of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the ETH as Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry and in 2012 he served as Chairman of the Institute. A principal goal of his interdisciplinary group at the ETH is to help bring RNA as a drug and a target into mainstream pharmaceutical research.