By Cassandra Willyard
Daniele Piomelli doesn’t sleep much. Perhaps that explains how, for the past four years, he has been able maintain a professorship at the University of California–Irvine and simultaneously oversee the drug discovery department at the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa.
Piomelli routinely works 80 hours a week, and he clocks many of those hours on planes. In June alone, for example, he flew from Rome to Baltimore for a brief stop at the US National Institute on Drug Abuse. After another short meeting at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, he hopped on a return flight to Italy. Seven days later he was back on a plane to the US, where he gave a lecture at the American Diabetes Association meeting in San Diego and then headed north to his lab in Irvine. A week afterward, he flew back to Italy, where he ended the month. “It is physically not something that I would recommend to anybody,” he says.
This hectic schedule may not be good for Piomelli’s health, but it is good for his research. Piomelli works in drug development. He gets to do basic science at his lab in California, which has funding from the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study lipid messengers in the brain. “It’s about making discoveries and publishing papers,” he says. Under normal circumstances, investigators rarely have the chance to turn those types of discoveries into useful therapeutics. In Italy, however, Piomelli has a 25,000 square-foot laboratory where 80 independent researchers focus exclusively on translation. The goal, Piomelli says, is to turn basic discoveries into drugs that will have a real-life impact. Everyone benefits. “The kind of stuff that I do in California is entirely complementary to the stuff I do here [in Italy],” he says.
Piomelli isn’t the only one shuttling between two countries for the sake of science. Neuroscientist Erwan Bezard, head of the French Neurodegenerative Disorders Institute in Bordeaux, also has a lab at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences in Beijing. Bezard first came to China because the primates he needs for his research were more readily available in that country. Now he has a large primate research facility there.
For Piomelli, Bezard and others, the benefits of holding joint positions far outweigh the jet lag, lost sleep, extra work and missed vacations. And Piomelli expects to see more scientists join their ranks in the coming years. “I don’t think that science can be French or German or Italian or American,” he says. As science becomes ever more an international endeavor, “this figure of the globe-trotting type of scientist will become much more common.”
In the following pages, we profile jet-setting scientists for whom the compass is as important as the microscope in guiding their research.
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Image: Luca Fregoso