Max Birnstiel Foundation
Max Birnstiel was a pioneer of molecular biology, inspiring mentor, enabler of careers and creator of European scientific institutions. Born in Bahia to a Brazilian mother and a Swiss father, his personality had many facets, combining sharp wit, great perseverance and a keen drive to succeed with a generous and sociable personality and an expert appreciation for culture and art.
When Max Birnstiel was five years old, his family moved to Switzerland. Max always had a keen interest in biology and, after graduating from high school, enrolled at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, where he majored in physical chemistry on the advice of his botany professor Albert Frey-Wyssling. This unorthodox choice for an aspiring biologist taught him how to look at complex biological questions from a quantitative perspective. After obtaining his PhD in botany, he moved to the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena to work as a postdoctoral fellow with James Bonner. Here, he met some of the 20th century’s greatest biologists, including Linus Pauling, Renato Dulbecco and Max Delbrück, and witnessed the early beginnings of the biological revolution. Max Birnstiel was one of the first researchers to use the then revolutionary technique of RNA/DNA hybridisation to show that the ribosomal RNA genes of eukaryotes are highly repetitive.
In 1963, Max Birnstiel was recruited by Conrad Waddington to the University of Edinburgh, where he rose through the ranks from lecturer to professor in 1971. During this time, he and his colleague Hugh Wallace managed to purify the repetitive ribosomal RNA genes of the frog to homogeneity by repeated rounds of density gradient centrifugation. This was the first time that a single gene had been purified by using solely physical methods, long before the advent of restriction enzymes, recombinant DNA cloning and PCR techniques, which later revolutionized genome analysis.
Early Principles of Gene Regulation
In 1972, Max Birnstiel was offered a chair in molecular biology at the University of Zurich, where he purified and characterized the sea urchin histone genes as the first protein-coding genes of a multicellular organism by using an improved density gradient centrifugation procedure. With his experience in gene isolation, he subsequently had a head start in quickly adopting the new method of recombinant DNA cloning for studying eukaryotic gene regulation. Among many important discoveries, he identified a regulatory element of histone genes, which he named "modulator" and which fulfilled all the criteria of enhancers that were subsequently identified. Moreover, his team discovered the basic principle of mRNA 3’ end processing by demonstrating that a small nuclear RNA as part of an RNA-protein complex was responsible for the correct recognition and cleavage of the precursor RNA, thus forming the 3’ end of the mRNA. His rapidly growing scientific reputation and the resources at the Institute of Molecular Biology II attracted many brilliant young scientists, including Meinrad Busslinger, Rudolf Grosschedl, Walter Schaffner, and Carmen Birchmeier.
By the mid 1980s, Max Birnstiel was an acclaimed international scientist, the head of a prestigious institute and an icon of Swiss science. As a good scientific citizen, he served as Chairman of the EMBO Council and organized many international conferences on gene regulation. In recognition of his great scientific achievements, he received numerous awards and honours, including the membership of the US National Academy of Sciences, honorary doctorates and professorships.
Modern Biology in Vienna
In 1986, he was again ready for a change and accepted the challenge to establish a new basic research institute in Vienna that was financed as a joint venture of the pharmaceutical companies Genentech and Boehringer-Ingelheim. He rapidly managed to recruit the 5 internationally renowned senior scientists Hartmut Beug, Adrian Bird, Meinrad Busslinger, Kim Nasmyth and Erwin Wagner. With all his experience, enthusiasm, and wisdom, Max Birnstiel succeeded together with this team to develop the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) into an international center of excellence in molecular biology and biomedicine. From the start, he also had the vision to use the IMP as a nucleation point for the development of a Vienna BioCenter. Birnstiel served as IMP’s founding director from 1986 until his retirement in 1996, and, when he left, the institute was not only playing in the top league of biomedical research centers, but had also sparked off the development of today’s renowned Vienna BioCenter (VBC).
Max Birnstiel passed away in 2014, but his legacy lives on and is cherished in many ways. One of his visionary ideas for the IMP was to ensure a constant influx of young, critical minds, which was essential for further increasing the international visibility and research excellence of the institute. This philosophy is reflected by today’s VBC PhD Programme, successfully running for the past 25 years, and the VBC Summer School, now into its tenth year. Birnstiel himself was a brilliant teacher and inspiring role-model. Although his enormous knowledge and legendary reputation may have felt intimidating at times, he was a father figure for the early IMP community and fostered the careers of many aspiring scientists. As Adrian Bird, who did his PhD with Max Birnstiel in Edinburgh, remembers: "His enthusiasm was infectious and became part of our way of doing research later on. We were his scientific ’family’ and he unstintingly gave us his time, energy and wisdom.".
Vienna BioCenter Summer School
The Max Birnstiel Foundation supports the Vienna BioCenter Summer School, which was initiated in 2009 by the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology with the aim to invite undergraduate students to spend their summer in Vienna and to gain valuable research experience for their future career decisions. Four other research institutions joined the initiative and, in the summer of 2010, the first fellows came to Vienna. Since then, 20-25 fellows have spent each year their summer time in Vienna.
The Summer School provides an attractive opportunity for Bachelor and Master students from all over the world to carry out a scientific project in a top research lab. Besides the research project, the Summer School fellows attend a lecture series. The program also includes social events.
The Vienna BioCenter Summer School Program has been very successful in attracting young talents, as evidenced by over 1,500 applications from more than 70 nations each year.
International Birnstiel Award
Doctoral Research in Molecular Life Sciences
Through a collaboration with the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP), the Max Birnstiel Foundation has established the International Birnstiel Awards for Doctoral Research in Molecular Life Sciences. This award aims to celebrate exceptional talent in molecular life sciences and reward early achievements of young scientists.
The Birnstiel Award is given annually to up to six PhD students or recent graduates in molecular life sciences from anywhere in the world except Austria. Award ceremonies are held at the IMP. The "Birnstiel Award" comprise a trophy, a certificate, and prize of 2,000 Euro. Travel and accommodation expenses of the awardees for the symposium are covered.
The award targets doctoral students at an advanced stage of their PhD research or recent graduates who have contributed to make an outstanding discovery in their field. The selection committee comprises four scientists from the IMP faculty. Only one nomination may be submitted per department or programme.
Nominations comprise the nominee’s CV, a description of the PhD research project and one recommendation letter from the student’s supervisor. Deadline for nominations is 30 June each year. Further information on the Birnstiel Award can be found at https://imp.ac.at/birnstiel-award
At group meetings in Zurich, Max would stay quiet and after everybody had spoken, ask the one key thing in his bass voice that was always 10,000 times more important and critical. One day I asked him how he did that. He said: "You always have to ask: what is the single most important experiment to kill an argument or a doubt. No time to waste. Go for the jugular!"
Scientific Director CeMM | Professor for Medical Systems Biology | Medical University of Vienna
Max Birnstiel was a very visionary man! His vision of a Campus filled with excellent researchers, teachers and students came true. The VBC today reflects this inclusive approach to science.
Professor of Biochemistry | University of Vienna | Group Leader at MFPL | Vienna BioCenter
Max was driven, but generous and with a ready sense of humor. His enthusiasm was infectious and became part of our way of doing research.
Buchanan Professor of Genetics | Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Biology | University of Edinburgh
The Max Birnstiel Foundation was initiated by the Birnstiel family and was established in 2017 in honour of Max Birnstiel, who was a pioneer of molecular biology, an inspiring mentor of young scientists and the founding director of the Research Institute of Molecular Pathology (IMP) at the Vienna BioCenter (VBC). The mission of the Foundation is to promote the training and career development of young researchers, working in the field of molecular life sciences. The Foundation is a non-profit organization that depends on donations and income from sponsorship.
The Max Birnstiel Foundation will promote the following activities/actions in the field of molecular life sciences that:
- Attract young scientists to Austria to participate in educational and training programs.
- Establish and implement programs for the education and training of young scientists.
- Support young scientists during their stay in Austria by providing assistance and financial support for accommodation and their daily needs.
- Organize small meetings for young scientist on emerging new topics and techniques.
- Disseminate and communicate the above programs internationally.
Meinrad Busslinger, Chair
Harald Isemann, Deputy Chair
Birnstiel Family (Founding Funder)
Mila Charitable Organisation
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