The journey of scientific discovery by Gipi Schiavo

Every project that we got down on a piece of paper, every experiment that we plan in our notebook (paperbound or electronic) or we carry out in our laboratory is a journey.

Sometimes this is a major endeavor, sometimes it is just a stroll within familiar territories, but it is always a journey. Sometime rewarding, sometime frustrating, but always exciting. This tells a lot about science and the approach many of us adopt about the process of scientific discovery.

However, science is also defined by other types of journeys, which break the barriers of the physical laboratory and take us to other institutes in the world to start collaborations, to conference venues to discuss discoveries and debate problems.

Both types of journeys have been incredibly important for my scientific education, professional growth and maturation. I experienced many of these in the last 30 years and maybe surprisingly, I never felt displaced or lonely. The reason is that I had several trustworthy companions during these journeys. They were always there, anchored deep in my thoughts, resurfacing often and never forgotten.

The BNN meeting in Oxford brought them together once more: Cesare Montecucco and the clostridial neurotoxins. Many would be horrified to be linked to such poisonous poisons. But not Cesare, because the clostridial neurotoxins became slowly but surely part of his life. He taught me how to tame the beast and how to look for the beauty hidden in these marvels of bacterial evolution.

I have never regretted the decision of working with them. I feel that the team (Cesare, tetanus and botulinum neurotoxins and I) always travelled together and probably will continue to do so for the years to come. Discussions on how to unravel the mechanism of action of these neurotoxins, starting with their translocation across biological membranes, to their catalytic activity and membrane binding, and ending with their biological effects in vivo, came with us wherever we went, and whenever we had time to discuss. On the bench of the laboratory, in conferences and seminars, but also in long drives across the Pennines and hikes on Dolomites. The Dolomites were and will always be the true point of arrival of these journeys: where the ideas finally materialized and the next set of experiments was conceived.

Many great fellow travellers joined us in these “toxin” journeys: Cliff Shone, Bernard Poulain, Bibhuti DasGupta, Eric Johnson, Matteo Caleo, Jordi Molgo to cite a few. Some stayed with us briefly, some others, like Ornella Rossetto, became an essential cornerstone of the team, providing a fresh look to the future.

A fantastic journey, which I look forward to continue.


Gazing the sea during a journey (from right to left Cesare Montecucco, Ornella Rossetto, Andrea Montucco and Gipi Schiavo, (Virgin Islands, 2002)

Sic itur ad astra

(Virgil, Aeneid, Book IX)