Interview with Howy Jacobs, questions by Minni Änkö

MLÄ: You are retiring from active research after decades of work. What are you going to miss the most?

HTJ: Daily discussions about science with colleagues and with members of my lab. Of course these became drastically reduced during the pandemic and are not helped by the geography of our building where labs and PI offices are not adjacent, and where next-door spaces are often occupied by people who have little in common. Those daily interactions are the life-blood of science.


MLÄ: So what is next? What are your plans in the short and long term?

HTJ: My problem at the moment is that I have too many such plans! I hope to stay connected to science, and will continue editorial work and writing. I still have 4-5 papers to finish off. Not to mention those unpublished novels. At some point I hope to go off on an extended ‘post-career sabbatical’, some of which will be spent in labs in Australia, but part of which will just be an extended trip in the southern oceans. I have a vague plan to return to Antarctica at some point, maybe with a science project in mind.


MLÄ:You have dedicated your research career for studying the mitochondria. What is the one mystery you wish you had resolved but still remains a mystery?

HTJ: There are many, but what excites me the most is our current recent project on mitochondrial heat production, and trying to figure out what part it plays in organelle function and dysfunction.


MLÄ: You are leaving a big legacy in Tampere. What do you think is the future of the mitochondria research in Tampere and in Finland?

HTJ: I don’t really see such things in local terms. Science is global. Whatever we have contributed is a legacy for all, not just for Tampere. I have trained plenty of students and postdocs who are now doing their own thing. I hope that what comes after me in Tampere is something new and different, not just a continuation of my own research.


MLÄ:Seasoned emeritus researchers still have a lot to give to the field. What do you hope will be your major contribution going forward?

HTJ: The fun of doing science is that we really don’t know where it will lead. If we knew the result of a project before starting it, there would be no point in doing it. For me, being emeritus is akin to being a scientific tourist; so I’d like to offer ideas wherever I roam, and become peripherally involved in lots of ongoing research works, and not just on mitochondria.


MLÄ: Tampere was not the most obvious choice when you first arrived here and it was a quite different place then. What made you come here in the first place and what would convince you to come if you had to make the decision now?

HTJ: In many ways it was just a dot on the map and that is what attracted me. I was also exhilarated at how unbureaucratic Finland was in those days and how the institute I joined embodied a can-do attitude, largely driven by its leader. To attract incomers we need to recreate some of that spirit and way of working.


MLÄ: During your career you must have met many of your science heroes. Who would you still like to meet?

HTJ: Well, the ones much older than me are mainly retired or dead, so meeting them is no longer possible or worthwhile. And the younger ones are mostly still building their careers. Anyhow, I’d just like to go on meeting enthusiastic young scientists rather than those who, like myself, have ‘had their day’.


MLÄ: What do you hope you will be remembered of in Tampere and in the field of mitochondria research twenty years from now?

I’ll take that as two separate questions. As I already said, mitochondrial research is well entrenched globally and in Finland, and whatever catalytic effect I may have had locally is trivial compared with the explosion of interest in mitochondria as a key hub for energy transactions, metabolism and signaling inside cells. I feel honoured just to have been a small part of this realization: that mitochondria are not simply prokaryotic intruders in the eukaryotic world but, rather, expert hijackers, still exerting the levers of power a billion and a half years after their original invasion. On the local level, I hope I will be remembered as someone who helped bring Tampere more onto the world stage of life sciences, through high-profile seminar speakers, summer schools, congresses and especially via EMBO. I also hope that I will be remembered as one of the founders of CMP and that it will grow and flourish as the bastion of basic life sciences here.


MLÄ: A message to the MET faculty?

HTJ: I think I have said this before in many places. The mega-faculty is a nonsense. We should split into four or five autonomous divisions, one of which would obviously be CMP. And the resourcing of each division and of each research group should be based on meaningful results and potential, not on spreading the funding around so thinly that it disappears from view.