Luxembourger and professor of arbovirology Alain Kohl, pictured, has spent his entire professional career in Scotland researching viruses like Zika
Photo: Alain Kohl
Luxembourger and professor of arbovirology Alain Kohl has spent his entire professional career in Scotland researching viruses like Zika. He talks about how Luxembourg’s multilingualism is its best ambassador and how it is gaining ground as a centre of excellence for science and research.
Jess Bauldry: Tell us about what you do for a living?
Alain Kohl: I’m a virologist. My research is on viruses such as Zika virus, Rift Valley fever virus, etc., that are transmitted by arthropods such as mosquitoes to humans and animals. Those viruses are called arboviruses, and my research team looks at how they replicate, how they interact with hosts and immune responses, and whether this knowledge can inform preventive strategies. I am based at the MRC-University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research in Scotland. Of course this is a profession but I’m also very fortunate that it goes way beyond that. In fact, it is immensely interesting research and I never stop learning or being fascinated. My interest in all things nature has become my job. I’m very lucky.
What were the steps you took to reach the position you currently hold?
I am currently professor of arbovirology and MRC programme leader. Following high school I completed a year at the Centre Universitaire Luxembourg, and from there went to the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster in Germany, where I got a diploma in biology. I then obtained a doctoral degree in microbiology from the University Paris 7 Denis Diderot for work on Rift Valley fever virus at the Institut Pasteur in Paris. There were several areas of biology and biochemistry that interested me, but I became specifically interested in this topic from the first year at university onwards, when I started to hear a lot more about infectious diseases. Those that involved transmission by mosquitoes, ticks, etc., always captured my interest specifically. After my doctoral degree I moved to the then Institute of Virology at the University of Glasgow to continue working on arboviruses and, following a lab move, also spent some time at the University of St Andrews. I started my independent research career at the University of Edinburgh with a Welcome Trust fellowship, and in 2011 returned to Glasgow as MRC [Medical Research Council] programme leader and now also professor. I’m getting on a bit, clearly--I have to write more and more to fill these sections! But I have had my entire professional career in Scotland.
As a Luxembourger working abroad, to what extent do you think you contribute to Luxembourg’s international image?
That’s a tricky one. Most people don’t know immediately that I’m from Luxembourg, it mainly comes up in conversations at meetings or other professional events. Generally, people are curious, being fluent in several languages is pretty unusual and extremely useful given that universities are very international by nature, and I travel a lot. From there people ask me all sorts of things, from science to culture to life in Luxembourg. Football and sports in general are international conversation topics and Luxembourg is getting noticed more--so I owe one to our many athletes! Perhaps it makes people curious enough to check out some facts about the country and perhaps plan to visit…and not just drive through.
How is science in Luxembourg positioned on the international scene?
The various initiatives of the last decades and research topics that are being developed have contributed to strong growth. I keep up to date as I believe it is going to be very important for the future not just of Luxembourg but also the surrounding areas to develop science and technology in this part of the world. I can’t judge every topic in detail but I definetely take note of of publications when I scan journals or websites. The topic of infectious diseases is also well represented with very nice papers being published, and increasingly foundations for a lasting research base are being laid with organisations such as the Luxembourg Society for Microbiology. Virology is well represented through the work at the Luxembourg Institute of Health. To ensure continuity and also a serious push towards excellence and recognition funding is absolutely key, as well as planning for the long term to give researchers real professional perspectives. To achieve scientific recognition takes time and the next decade or two will be important to position Luxembourg against places with a stronger tradition and history in research.
As a country, Luxembourg is...reliable, dynamic and open, the government said in its nation branding exercise. To what extent do you agree with these words and why?
Looking from the outside in, after having spent far more time living abroad, Luxembourg has certainly changed from when I grew up. It’s more international, far more diverse, more interesting. This is very positive and, I believe, good for the country. When I speak to people who moved to Luxembourg they generally appreciate it. But like many other countries across Europe, Luxembourg needs to be careful not to increasingly exclude people from this “new” country. I would also like to see a country that also brands itself as fair and responsible.
What do the people you meet and work with abroad say about Luxembourg?
That’s very varied. As I travel a lot I meet people who have never heard of Luxembourg, those who just “drive through” as well as those who associate it mainly with banks, EU institutions, and cheap cigarettes. But, importantly, that often changes once people have visited. I spoke to a French colleague who visited with his family and told me they loved Vianden. This really pleases me as my mother’s family is from a nearby village called Eesbech and when I’m home with my wife and the kids we always spend time there! I think that’s frequently the case. Luxembourg has a lot to offer and word does slowly get around.
And what do you answer them to make them want to visit Luxembourg?
Contrary to popular belief in Luxembourg, keep in mind that I have lived in Glasgow for many years, I believe the weather is excellent during spring and summer. There’s many possibilities to enjoy food and drink, the countryside has so much to offer, the south has a rich industrial history, the capital’s old town and museums are great, and culturally there’s a lot happening for everyone’s taste. And all this usually within a 60-minute drive!
When were you particularly proud of Luxembourg?
That’s a tough one, I’m not keen on the idea that one should be proud of countries or origins but let’s say that Luxembourg’s role in bringing Europe together is important and something I feel very positive about in general. Also having that first gay EU leader shows how far we’ve come as a society, as I strongly believe in equality and tolerance.
In your mind, who would you say is a fine example of an “ambassador” of the Luxembourg brand abroad?
Perhaps not anyone in particular, but in general our multilingualism and our ability to unite different people.