Profile: Argentina's Daniel Gomez On Boxing And Marrying Industry With Academia
This article was originally published in Scrip
For some 20 years Daniel Gomez has been trying to heal the rift between industry and academia in Argentina and promote home-grown science abroad. In between researching new telomerase inhibitors, teaching biotechnology at the Quilmes National University and fulfilling his duties as director of international affairs at one of Argentina's most eminent companies, he talked to Scrip about national service and convincing foreign companies that Argentina has a lot to offer.
Scrip: Among your many roles, you are Director of International Affairs for Chemo Labs.How did you achieve this position?
DG: Well, I have been a consultant in international affairs for this company since 2008. That was down to a number of factors: I've worked with the pharma industry for 20 years, and when I was chancellor of Quilmes National University, I was in charge of the foreign affairs departments of 50 Argentinean universities. And I fluently speak four languages, plus I have always had a good relationship with our Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Scrip: What has been your biggest success in this role?
DG: I wouldn't say it's my biggest success, but I was part of a team that for many years tried to introduce the foot and mouth vaccine to Brazil, and after 10 years of negotiations we finally got it to the market in 2008.
Scrip: And the biggest challenge?
DG: Probably trying to overcome a certain reluctance in developed countries to believe that we can generate good science and good products in Argentina. You need to do certain ice-breaking work, and sometimes it takes too much time.
Scrip: What is the most frustrating aspect of this role?
I think frustration is a state of mind. Even though sometimes things don't work out, we always learn from it. In international affairs, you also have to remember you are dealing with different cultures and barriers, so everything becomes a learning experience.
Scrip: You also have a distinguished university career and are currently at the University of Quilmes. Tell us a bit about what you do there.
DG: For the past 20 years I have been a full professor at Quilmes National University teaching biotechnology and I am also director general of the university's Molecular Oncology Lab, where we work on developing new drugs. Although, we have several projects ongoing, I mainly work on finding new inhibitors of telomerase, a key enzyme in tumor cell machinery.
Scrip: Are there any industry misconceptions about academics you would like to set straight?
DG: Although things are improving, the two sides speak different languages. Scientists often don't really understand business and on the other side, sometimes industry underestimates our capacity to create original products.
Scrip: Throughout your career, you have worked to bring academia and industry together and improve relations. What has been the biggest hurdle?
DG: I have been lucky. 20 years ago I was one of the lonely voices in the country calling for this, but it was the right time politically and scientists and industry were starting to move from their rigid positions. So, I have basically been a facilitator in this process, mostly campaigning in the newspapers and talking with people, things like that.
Scrip: What frustrates you most about industry?
DG: Basically there are no frustrations. When both parties try to understand each other and work in good faith, the results of negotiations can be either positive or negative, but never frustrating.
Scrip: Is there anyone in the pharmaceutical industry you admire?
DG: Well I have not only admiration, but also a lot of respect and affection, for Dr Hugo Sigman and his wife, Dr Silvia Gold. Both created one of the most important pharma holdings in Argentina (Grupo Insud) and worldwide (Chemo Group).
Scrip: Until recently, you were director of the National Cancer Institute. Why did you step down?
DG: Well, the National Cancer Institute was founded five years ago, with a structure of one director and five counsellors. I was a counsellor from the start. In March my boss, the health minister, resigned to run for governor and I felt at that moment we had completed a cycle. I expect the new authorities to continue with this important project taking it to its highest potential.
Scrip: What are your own long-term aspirations? What's next?
DG: This is probably the most difficult question. When you finish one cycle, you need to look back and take stock. At least for me, I need a certain amount of time just to feel the fresh air before I look to the future. Having said that, I guess I want to continue my research and develop a long and satisfying scientific career. Of course, if at some point I can be useful to the country in any other way, I will try to help.
Scrip: What was your first ever job?
DG: With very fond memories I was a teaching assistant of histology and embryology at the medical school of the University of Buenos Aires when I was 20.
Scrip: What are the key things that shaped you when growing up?
DG: Probably my grandfather. He was from Galicia, in Spain and they have a very particular way about them. He was serious, a hard worker, silent, but also a very loving person. Gallegos are very introspective people, very conservative, but he taught me the basics of courtesy, passion for creation, love of poetry and he gave me an interest in politics, among many other things.
Scrip: Who was your biggest influence, and why?
DG: Professionally I could not name one. Scientists are trained to doubt everything, so it's difficult to admire someone. But several mentors left an impression. My professor at medical school taught me more than medicine; my thesis director taught me the basics of scientific research, my superior at NIH taught me to be creative under pressure with both carrot and stick. I should also mention my fellows; they are young and often directly or indirectly push me to be sharp.
Scrip: What is the best advice you've ever had?
DG: That we should not engage in every battle, only in the ones that really matter to us.
Scrip: How do you get step back and get perspective?
DG: I see that I have had a long and satisfying career but also that I have faced plenty of challenges and emotions. I don't regret either the good times or the bad times. Both helped me grow.
Scrip: How do you relax?
DG: Mostly by reading non-scientific literature. And I like movies, theater and meeting with friends to have long philosophical discussions.
Scrip: Tell us something surprising about you.
DG: At the age of 54 I am an amateur boxer.
Scrip: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
DG: I guess I should say my love of science, but it's much broader than that. I have a sort of epiphany every morning, I think 'Wow, a new day! What it will bring? Let's go and explore!'
Scrip: If you weren't in your current role, what would you be doing?
DG: I'd probably be a psychiatrist.
Scrip: What has your proudest moment been?
DG: In my career, when I finished my time as Chancellor.
Scrip: And what about your most difficult moment?
DG: My mandatory year of military service when I was a medical student.
Scrip: What was your favorite subject at school?
DG: There were a couple, besides biology obviously. History and geography got my attention. And of course, languages.
Scrip: What are you reading at the moment?
Well, it is difficult to resist reading the hot ones; at the moment I am reading 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' by Thomas Piketty. But I always go back to the best Argentinean writer of all: Jorge Luis Borges. To relax I like no one better than John Le Carré.
Scrip: What is your favourite book, and why?
DG: 'The Praise of Folly' by Erasmus of Rotterdam, written in the seventeenth century by 'the prince of humanism'. It's extremely satirical and learned. It gives readers the chance to be self-critical, to observe human nature, all with very dry humor and double or triple meanings to get through our deepest layers.
Scrip: What is your favourite piece of music, and why?
DG: It's difficult to mention just one. Maybe it would be 'What a Wonderful World' by Louis Armstrong. It was written as an optimistic piece for the generation of the 60s, but for us youngsters of the 80s it took on other sarcastic or nostalgic overtones when it was used in films like 'Good Morning, Vietnam' or 'Meet Joe Black'. Another one would be 'Surface of the Moon' by Del Amitri – it's a hymn for all of us who have left something unfinished. Finally, being Argentinean I can't leave out the Tango. Among my many favourites is 'One'. Its lyrics express the search for happiness in the face of failure: 'You search, full of hope for the road that your dreams promised to your longings.../ You know that the struggle is cruel and it's too much but you fight and bleed for the faith that makes you stubborn'.
Scrip: If you could meet anyone dead or alive, who would it be?
DG: I guess it would be a dead person, Sir Isaac Newton, just to meet someone who excels at everything without fear of making a mistake. He was a supreme physic, philosopher, theologian, inventor, alchemist and mathematician and did everything with passion, intelligence and a fresh view. He also defended Cambridge University against King James II. And he was an MP as well as warden of the Royal Mint.