Why do British scientists succeed in Europe? We look at careers, funding and the expatriate life. Despite a 26-year absence from Britain, Mary Osborn has won a new UK women in science award. Martin Ince reports
Mary Osborn's personal and scientific trajectories have both been unpredictable. Born in 1940 in England, she read maths and physics at Cambridge, was determined to be a scientist, but had no desire to join one of the mega-teams in fields like particle physics. Instead, she says, "I thought biophysics would be an interesting way into biology, fell in love with biology and never looked back." She went to Pennsylvania State University to take a PhD in biophysics, became a research fellow at Harvard in the laboratory of Nobel prizewinner James Watson and, apart from a spell at the Medical Research Council's Laboratory of Molecular Biology from 1969 to 1972 (with another Nobellist, Francis Crick), has not worked in Britain since.
Her accent now sounds distinctly German after 23 years at the Max Planck Society's Institute for Biophysical Chemistry at Gottingen, Germany. She went there after two and a half years at Watson's Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York state, where she met her husband and coworker, Klaus Weber. She moved to Germany when Weber, a biochemist, became a director of the Max Planck centre. Although the Max Planck Society has the same problems as many other German organisations, it offers conditions of which most British scientists can only dream.
She says: "We are both Europeans and were wondering whether it was possible to move back. An offer from the Max Planck Society is very hard to refuse. A director is someone in whom they have decided to invest and who gets continuing resources without pressure to publish every three months. They also have the ability to hire scientists." She was one of his hirings and they have both been in Gottingen ever since. Osborn says that while there are some British laboratories with long-term funding like that enjoyed by Max Planck, including the Laboratory of Molecular Biology, she feels that for the most part "the British system has moved into reviewing and evaluating over very short periods".
Her own work has had to do with microtubules and filaments in living cells, and has given rise to markers in everyday use in hospitals for identifying types of tumours in cancer patients that are hard to determine by other means. Along the way she has developed important methodology for examining cell structures.
Now Osborn is starting to work on material in the cell nucleus, especially on a protein called NuMA, which changes location during cell development and could offer clues about how the nucleus is assembled and how cells divide. Scientifically, she says, she draws little distinction between biophysics and molecular biology, which has become the hottest area of the life sciences. "It is attractive because it is very logical and you can see the mechanisms behind what is happening."
Osborn is a committed enthusiast for the place of women in science and, despite her long absence from the United Kingdom, she has just won the UK category of a new award for women in science run by the cosmetics firm Helena Rubinstein, supported by Unesco. Alongside a weighty programme of research, she has been involved in European Commission activities to encourage women scientists, an interest to which she was recruited after writing a letter disagreeing with a Nature editorial urging a gradualist approach to the dearth of women scientists.
* Osborn is a keynote speaker at a meeting on women in science being organised by the European Commission on April 28 and 29 in Brussels. Details from Nicole Dewandre, fax 00 322 299 4925.