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When a scientist becomes president

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Newly elected Estonian President Alar Karis was once a leading development biologist.

This article is published in collaboration with Research in Estonia.

One would expect the sharpest minds to rule the nations. Having a doctorate may not be a sign of ultimate wisdom, but it is an indicator that the person has read a few books – not a bad attribute for a president.

Yet throughout history, presidents with an academic background have been rare.

Only one president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson, had a doctorate. The minority of current European state leaders have the highest academic degrees – the most famous, perhaps, outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Austrian President Alexander van der Bellen, who incidentally also has Estonian roots, holds a doctorate in economics. The current Italian Prime Minister, Mario Draghi, and the President, Sergio Mattarella, have completed their thesis. These are just a few examples – the list is longer and the Estonian President can now also be added to it.

Alar Karis takes office as President of Estonia on October 11, 2021. Photo of the office of the President of the Republic of Estonia.

Work with the best scientists in genetics

After defending his thesis at the Estonian Institute of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences, Alar Karis felt that “single-celled had been sufficiently studied” and wanted to focus on something more “new”, as he put it. one day to Estonian media Delfi in an interview.

He continued in molecular biology when he joined the Estonian Biocentre. At first he was working on a vaccine for calves.

When Estonia regained its independence in 1991 and the borders finally opened, it was common for scientists to go abroad and learn more. Karis too, as well as his wife Sirje Karis and their children.

The future president studied at the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Hamburg as a visiting scientist for a year, focusing on the structure and function of human ribosomal proteins. He then obtained a prestigious Royal Society fellowship for a post-doctorate at the National Institute for Medical Research in London – now part of the Crick Institute – where he joined a research group led by Dutch molecular biologist Frank Grosveld.

Grosveld was offered a new lab at the Erasmus University Rotterdam Medical School, and he only asked a few people to join him. Karis was one of them, getting a job as director of the lab.

“He became one of the senior post-docs and was highly regarded by his colleagues, some of whom are still in contact with him,” Grosveld told Research in Estonia. “I remember him as a very good scientist with a great sense of humor.”

The research group has been working on genetic technology that targets specific genes to inactivate them. In this way, they could learn more about the functions of genes throughout the life cycle.

Their test subjects were primarily mice, which are considered pocket humans. About 95 percent of the genes in mice are sequentially identical to ours. Mice also have the same organs as humans.

His research team, which together published 18 scientific papers, found that the GATA3 gene plays an important role in the nervous system and in the production of fetal blood cells.

They published their findings in one of the best-known science magazines, Nature Genetics. This made Karis “the best scientist in Estonia at the time,” according to Raivo Raid, a developmental biologist at the University of Tartu.

An article on the scientific work of Alar Karis in the Estonian newspaper Postimees in 1997.

“His research group was one of the best in the world at the time,” said Andres Metsalu, an Estonian geneticist. He believes that every scientific achievement is based on the work of many others. “Their work has certainly played an important role in genetic technology,” Metsalu said.

A decade later, in 2007, this genetic technology received the highest recognition when three scientists – two Americans and one Briton – won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for working on the same technology, helping to establish roles. individual genes in health and disease.

When Karis – with his wife and three children – returned to Estonia in 1996, he brought with him new technology and “knockout” know-how and formed a new research group in his home country.

“For the genetic science of Estonia, this has started a new era,” said Tambet Tõnissoo, who was then a student in Karis’ laboratory.

The first animal model

Karis and his research team developed the first knockout mouse model from Estonia, with an absence of the RIC8A gene. They discovered that RIC8a is essential for the early development of mammals.

This gene, they saw, is also an important player in the development of the nervous system. The impairment is said to lead to neuromuscular abnormalities, growth retardation, coordination and balance disorders, abnormal heartbeats, neural migration and even postnatal death, as their 2013 articles in PLOS One and 2015 pointed out. in Developmental Neurobiology.

“They were the first group in the world to show the importance of the RIC8 gene in mammals,” Tõnissoo said.

More broadly, his research group focused on genes linked to the nervous system, the heart, the ear and the very early development of the embryo.

Sulev Kuuse was the first scientist Karis taught after returning from the Netherlands. He spent long hours sitting next to Karis, looking under the microscope. “This technology requires a hard bottom and hard nerves,” Kuuse joked.

Even though ‘knockout’ gene technology was extremely expensive, especially for a young, emerging economy, Karis found funding for it. Being a scientist and knowing your field has certainly helped, Kuuse believes.

Alar Karis as director of the Estonian National Museum in early 2021. Photo by Priit Mürk (ERR).

As a developmental biologist, he had a broad view of science. He never focused solely on a narrow subject, recall his former colleagues. Karis also had a great ability to bring together scientists from various fields, such as zoology and molecular biology.

Bringing the cutting edge style of Western Europe

Karis quickly became the director of the Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Tartu and implemented a new cutting-edge style which he experimented with in Western Europe.

He held meetings to make sure everyone’s voice was heard and even sought the advice of young doctoral students, which was unheard of in Estonia in the 1990s. Tarmo Annilo, one of the doctoral students at his institute, also remembers how Karis took a broader view of scientific problems and how he expected better results, based on his modern standards.

Grosveld visited Karis in Estonia a few times until the point where Karis had already become rector of the University of Tartu in 2007.

Alar Karis as rector of the University of Tartu in 2008. Photo of Ove Maidla, shared under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Karis’ former colleagues and students rejoiced when they heard that Karis would be the next President of Estonia. They believe that a scientist’s rational, factual way of thinking would benefit everyone in times of uncertainty.

Grosveld texted him congratulating him. “He responded immediately in his typical modest way,” said a Dutch scientist.

President Karis told Research in Estonia that he values ​​the power to establish the facts the most. “A scientist cannot tire of posing and formulating hypotheses,” he said. “If there is a lack of knowledge, then it has to be said. If I don’t know something, I usually admit it clearly. Among politicians, I see the tendency to give yes or no answers, everything is black or white. In science, there are so many more nuances, which makes scientists keep asking. “

Karis will have to juggle many important issues over the next five years as President of Estonia. Only this time, his laboratory will be the whole of society.

Cover: Alar Karis working from home as Auditor General of Estonia in 2017. Photo from Alar Karis official Facebook page.


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