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James Sharpe: «Barcelona should be fully committed to science and research»

James Sharpe: «Barcelona should be fully committed to science and research»

James Sharpe moved to work in Barcelona 15 years ago but he and his wife have lived and raised their children in Sant Cugat, a short distance from the city. Born in London, James has also lived in Santiago de Chile and Edinburgh. For the past 3 years, he has been the director of EMBL Barcelona, one of the six sites belonging to the European Molecular Biology Laboratory network, Europe’s leading life sciences research group. In addition to Barcelona, EMBL has two sites in Germany, one in the United Kingdom, one in Italy, and one in France.

Why did you choose Barcelona?

I moved to this beautiful city when I was invited to lead a group at the CRG, one of the best molecular biology research centers in Spain, a wonderful opportunity for a scientist. But there were many other reasons: I have always been attracted by the warmth of the Mediterranean culture, while the location of this city is incredible. Close to the mountains and the sea, a stone’s throw from France and the Pyrenees, and the laboratory overlooking the sea… Could one ask for more?

What do you see as the city’s strengths?

There is a modern, progressive and international attitude here. Barcelona is very welcoming and open to foreigners. Sometimes it is a bit too self-obsessed, but it has numerous qualities: its culture, architecture, gastronomy and, above all, its great people. And as far as my interests are concerned, it is certainly a city that offers a critical mass of cutting-edge science. So much so that it is attractive to many foreign scientists like me. That’s why the EMBL decided to open its latest site right here.

What do you think needs to be improved? 

I confess that I have always lived in the Vallès, but I take public transport to work in Barcelona every day. I think one of the city’s problems are the traffic-filled streets of the Eixample (its endless geometric structure reminds me of one of Borges’ stories—The Library of Babel!). But the city is aware of this and has taken some major steps to reclaim more space for pedestrians and greenery, with the «superillas» project, for example.

What kind of research is carried out at EMBL Barcelona?

We work on tissue biology and disease modeling. The human body is much more than just the sum of its cells. It depends a lot on how cells interact with each other to form healthy or diseased tissues—chemically, physically and dynamically. We have a highly interdisciplinary approach to research, with experts in tissue engineering, molecular biology, mesoscopic imaging, organoids, gene circuits and computer modeling. This allows us to study a range of issues such as malaria, cancer, and the formation of organs in collaboration with centers such as CSIC, CRG, IBEC and the UPF.

What do you expect from Barcelona in the coming years?

Barcelona should focus increasingly on the information economy and be committed to research, as is already the case with the Science Plan. It should take advantage of an already strong position and become a global hub for research centers dedicated to generating innovative science. It is not just a matter of exploiting data, but of devising experiments capable of giving us a deeper understanding of living systems, experiments that will guide us towards the biological revolutions of the 21st century.

How can the EMBL contribute to the development of the city?

Today, the most important problems that need to be solved are global ones. No country can solve pandemics and climate change alone. EMBL is intrinsically international, as it benefits from the involvement of people from 27 European countries. With an EMBL site in Barcelona, we can strengthen the connection between local scientists and the rest of Europe, attracting more scientists and collaborative projects to help us tackle the most important challenges.

Which city do you think of as your own?

It may seem curious, but I don’t have a city that I think of as «my own.» I am an international person, with a very international family. My children have grown up here, go to local schools, and speak Catalan, Spanish and English; I am from the UK and my wife is from Croatia. I’ve spent 15 years here, and now Barcelona is my city, yes, but it is not the only one…

Read the interview in El Periódico.

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El Periódico

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