Our minds don’t all work the same way – and that’s a good thing. Some scientists are energised when they bounce ideas off of their colleagues, others need to be alone with their thoughts to get their creative juices flowing. What’s important is acknowledging that innovation flourishes only in an environment where this diversity is embraced.

In 1987, years after he’d left the Roche-established Basel Institute of Immunology to become a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Japanese scientist Dr Susumu Tonegawa was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine. The research conducted during his ten years (1971-1981) in Basel was finally being celebrated for having unravelled a hundred-year-old mystery. Susumu discovered that the immune system works on a genetic level to create antibody diversity. Antibodies can’t be coded by a gene each, because that would require millions of genes to fight off the millions of possible antigens invading the body. Instead, when an antigen is detected, the DNA in a white blood cell rearranges itself during cell differentiation, moving genes around, recombining them or getting rid of them to become a custom-made immune system warrior.

Roche had set up three research institutes at the end of the 1960s (in Australia, the US, as well as Basel) so that scientists, unencumbered by commercial interests, could focus exclusively on solving science’s more challenging mysteries. When he first joined the relatively new Basel Institute of Immunology in 1971, Susumu knew he was in the right place. It was there that talented scientists were encouraged to follow their hunches and pursue their interests autonomously. To inspire bold and imaginative science, the institute had no hierarchy and treated all researchers as equals.

Susumu used this freedom to run incredibly intricate experiments. Colleagues were amazed by his tirelessness and observed him working through the night. Noting how much he enjoyed the stillness of the lab at these odd hours, Susumu began starting his “day” at 4 pm. His wife would bring him a warm meal – sometimes at 2 am – and he’d keep going until dawn.

Admittedly, his single-mindedness could lead to impulsive behaviours such as swiping equipment from another room because he couldn’t wait to test something out. Although this impatience often caused rifts with colleagues, his passion, energy and tenacity were so well respected that no one could stay angry with him for long. As a guest speaker years later at Roche Basel in 2014, Susumu reminisced about those days: “This was really a great time for me in my career. We had complete freedom [...] in the most amazing immunology science institute in the world.”

After the announcement in 1987 that he’d won the Nobel Prize, Susumu expressed just how important this extraordinary environment had been to his ability to innovate. Replying on MIT letterhead to a note of congratulations from Roche CEO Fritz Gerber, he wrote: “I am sure that without your support I could not have accomplished the work for which the high honour was given. Thank you again from the bottom of my heart.”

It was indeed the most productive ten years of my professional career and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Nobel Prize-winner Susumu Tonegawa,in a letter to Roche CEO Fritz Gerber in 1987, praising the freedom to think differently at the Basel Institute of Immunology

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