Scholars' Association News
Issue 32
November 2014


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The Onassis 2014 Lecture Series, featuring Swiss Nobel prize winner Kurt Wüthrich as the keynote speaker, was held at the Foundation for Research and Technology at Heraklion, Crete (FORTH) from 25 to 29 August 2014.

Kurt Wüthrich won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his contribution to developing nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy to identify the 3D structure of biological macromolecules. This world renowned scientist studied Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics at the University of Berne. After obtaining a PhD in Chemistry from the University of Basle, and post-doc partnerships in Switzerland and America, he returned to Switzerland where he has opted to remain to this day as Professor of Biophysics at the Zurich Institute of Technology (ETH). Since 2001 he has also been Professor of Structural Biology at the Scripps Research Institute in California. In April 2012 Kurt Wüthrich was one of the 23 top scientists (21 of whom were Nobel Prize winners) who submitted a memo to the leaders of the European Union requesting wholehearted support for Greece and its academic and research foundations.

Speakers at the Onassis 2014 Lecture Series also included 6 other world renowned scientists: Ernesto Freire from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Vincent Hilser, Dean of the Faculty of Biology at Johns Hopkins University, Birthe B. Kragelund from Copenhagen University, Hartmut Oschkinat Leibniz Institute of Molecular Pharmacology, Hans W. Spiess from the German Max Planck Polymer Research Institute and Gerhard Wagner from Harvard University, Boston. The subject of this year’s lecture series was, “Molecular Conformational Fluctuations: Origins of Biological Specificity and Applications in Pharmacochemistry”.

The subject of this year’s lecture series was, “Molecular Conformational Fluctuations: Origins of Biological Specificity and Applications in Pharmacochemistry”.

All cellular activities in a living organism are regulated by the action of specialised molecules (mainly proteins) which from a physical and chemical viewpoint are large, 3D structures (called stereostructures) consisting of numerous atoms. The functional properties of each of these macrostructures only manifest themselves when they are wrapped into a specific 3D shape. After Kurt Wüthrich introduced NMR spectroscopy to study proteins, we were forced to radically reassess the correlation between the hydrated 3D structure of molecules and their function. NMR reveals how macromolecules behave in a solvent, in other words it captures the dynamic of stereostructures and the consequent fluctuations in them and leada to the conclusion that specific stereostructures within that range of fluctuations are associated with specific biological functions.

The speakers focused on basic methodologies for recording the conformational fluctuations in macromolecules associated with protein stability and with how they fold and function. They also mentioned the thermodynamics of these fluctuations and the selectivity and specialised nature of the interactions between macromolecules and the direct chemical environment that affects them. The speakers also presented how the knowledge acquired is enabling new pharmaceuticals to be designed and optimised (smart drug design) to regulate these structural fluctuations.

With financial support from the Onassis Foundation, the Onassis 2014 Lecture Series was attended by 35 Greek and 15 foreign students, chosen based on outstanding academic performance. Students from universities on Crete, as well as Greek and foreign researchers were also allowed to attend (selected based on the same criteria but without financial support).

Prof. Emeritus Giannis Papamastorakis (FORTH) chaired the Organising Committee for the Onassis Lecture Series.

The Onassis Lecture Series has now been held for the 14th consecutive year in Heraklion, Crete, in partnership between the Onassis Foundation and FORTH. The Onassis Lectures relate to branches of the sciences (physics, biology, chemistry, IT, mathematics) and always focus on issues in the front line of research. Lectures are in English and are given by outstanding figures from the world of science, complemented by lectures from outstanding Greek scientists in the relevant disciplines. This has enabled the lecture series to become firmly established as a top-level event.

21 weekly lecture series have been held so far since 2001 in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology and IT. 141 internationally renowned scientists have spoken including 16 Nobel Prize winners, 3 Turing Prize winners (the top IT prize), and 1 Fields Medal holder (the top Mathematics prize). 43 speakers have been Greek (19 from foreign institutions and 24 from Greek ones). Overall, more than 1,500 students (1,200 from Greece and 300 from other countries approximately) have been allowed to attend the lectures. In addition to special lectures for students, the keynote speakers have also traditionally given a public lecture open to all. All lectures are recorded and then posted to The public lecture given by each Nobel Prize winner is streamed live across the Internet. What makes the Onassis Lecture Series special is that the world class scientists (who hold Nobel Prizes or similar awards) don’t merely give a lecture, as happens at other similar events, but stay for the whole duration of the lecture series in the FORTH Amphitheatre interacting with students. A 10-member scientific committee comprised of internationally acclaimed Greek professors has been set up to select the guest speakers.

Lectures are intended to provide further education and encouragement to young, talented scientists, post-graduate and final year students in the sciences. Each lecture series lasts a week. The Onassis Foundation covers travel and accommodation expenses in Heraklion, Crete for speakers and students allowed to attend. The sole criterion for selecting students is academic excellence. This is based on certificates of studies and two letters of reference sent directly by professors familiar with the students and their work in general.

Students who are accepted are obliged to sign in daily before the lectures commence, and to attend all lectures without fail and take lecture notes. Within 30 days of the end of the Lecture Series they must send a 10-page report based on the notes kept, in order to obtain their Certificate of Attendance. The contribution the Onassis Lecture Series has made to promoting Greece’s international reputation became clear in 2012 when 23 world-class scientists (21 of whom were Nobel Prize laureates) submitted a memo to leaders of the European Union in support of Greece, requesting heartfelt support for Greece and its academic and research foundations. 12 of the Nobel Prize winners who signed the memo are former Onassis Lecture Series speakers. Important factors in them agreeing to sign the memo were that they got to know Greece’s research community at FORTH and that they came away from their visit with an extremely positive impression.

For more information about the Lecture Series at FORTH please visit the relevant website.

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