Prof. Gunter P. Wagner is an evolutionary geneticist born in Austria. His background and interests are diverse within the sciences but expand to music and religion, among others. He started off his undergraduate studies in chemical engineering, but his scientific curiosity took him to a new interest in zoology and mathematical logic.This led to his doctoral studies at the University of Vienna, Austria. After postdoctoral training at the Max Planck Institutes and University of Guttingen, he obtained a position in the University of Vienna as assistant professor. In 1991, his exciting research and cutting-edge ideas granted him a full professorial position at Yale University. Since then, he has assumed several leadership roles,including Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. With over 400 research articles published, he is a recipient of many awards such as the MacArthur Fellowship. He is also an elected member of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 2010, he was elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and last year, of the National Academy of Sciences.
I met with Prof. Gunter Wagner in December 2019 and had the pleasure of interviewing him. During our conversation we covered topics such as research, mentoring and personal interests. An abstraction of our conversation is as follows:
Though finishing his undergraduate studies in chemical engineering, he was increasingly captivated by biology concepts. With the impression that “chemistry was a fairly closed system,” he felt more attracted to biology, “an open system with always qualitatively new things arriving”. With a chemistry background, he wanted to understand and expand the knowledge of biology,specifically, to shed light on how biological innovation occurs—i.e. evolution.And within biology, zoology intrigued him the most as it is one of the most complex parts of life. Nonetheless, he wanted to maintain his commitment to exact sciences and thus combined his studies with mathematical logic. This helped him “to maintainintellectual discipline while swimming in this sea of complexity and limited understanding”.
Despite him not coming from an academic family, he knew that he wanted to continue doing research. He did not know what a career in science looked like and career advice at that time was practically in existent. However, his passion for science and desire to explore and learn new things brought him to Yale—“of course I had no idea I would end up here (Yale),” he said.
When I asked about the most helpful skills he acquired in transitioning to his current professorship position, he laughed and responded, “I had no skills at all!”, and continued laughing. He acknowledged that he actually had a smooth(er) transition to his current role (than most). Before starting as a full professor at Yale, he had a taste of what entails being an assistant professor in Europe. Although assistant professors normally have limited freedom to carry out their research, his advisor gave him plenty of independence, which probably served as an introduction to the role that he would soon take at Yale. He and his wife wanted to stay in Austria, or at least Europe, but an opportunity like this (full professorship at Yale) was difficult to be rejected.
Prof.Wagner acknowledged the importance of providing a good environment for his trainees (postdocs and students) to learn the scientific skills that will enable them to pursue their career of choice. The environment is not limited to instrumentation, laboratory supplies and technical help. Social environment—i.e.your peers and supervisors—is also a key part of the learning process. He himself,an experienced mentor, would like to pass on to his students and postdocs that“being a scientist is a privileged opportunity because it allows us to have a calling that it is different from other jobs”. Pursuing a scientist career is not a choice that one makes in pursuing wealth but “something that is broader, that goes beyond yourself, your life and your accomplishments—building scientific knowledge”. He recognizes that pursuing success without other meaningful goals leads to bad science due to a misplacement of priorities. “You have to have ambition and humility at the same time”, he said. With those premises in mind, Prof. Wagner transmits these values to his group members.
Forhis research group, he hand-selects people who possess the skills and technical expertise to scientifically contribute to his research but at the same time have intellectual curiosity and motivation. In addition, trust is another key factor that he looks for in candidates. Trust and selflessness are key in establishing an environment that promotes collaboration and lowers the risk of conflicts.
Principal investigators usually do not participate in laboratory experiments—at least not involving bench work. They are usually busy with other commitments such as grant writing, teaching, administrative responsibilities or managing the research group. However, Prof. Wagner loves being actively involved in laboratory work,specifically with animal experimentation. “It keeps me engaged, mentally,”he said. “This immediate connection is important for a biologist because biology requires so much intuition… it is important for me to be connected in an emotional way”.
When asked about research that he follows, he said “the problem is that I have so many interests that I only can read for what I am trying to work on right now”.He predominantly reads articles related to his research group, an interdisciplinary team collaboratively tackling complex questions. Structural biology, developmental biology, evolution and philosophy of science are among his favorite reading topics.
Prof.Wagner is an outdoor person. He enjoys hiking the forests in Connecticut when time permits. “Experiencing the outdoors is restoring psychologically,” he said. In addition, he reads voraciously and diversely, including nonfiction,fiction, philosophy or even religion. This is his approach to disconnect temporarily from science. “It requires such a different way of thinking and relating to the world… it is a balance necessary,” he said.
Prof. Gunter P. Wagner is known for being an accomplished scientist, excellent mentor and outstanding researcher. He still “gets his hands dirty” at the bench and is excited about science. Personally, Prof. Wagner is a humble and humane person who genuinely cares about people.