Interview Spotlight: Professor George Gegelashvili,
Faculty of Health & Medical Sciences, University of Copenhagen

18 December 2020

(Recently elected member of Academia Europaea, George Gegelashvili tells us about his career highlights and shares his most noteworthy professional experiences)

Could you give us an overview of the milestones in your professional career?

I was born in 1959 in Tbilisi and brought up in an academic family. I have finished
the 51 st public school with a gold medal of excellence, and in 1981 graduated with
honors from Tbilisi State University as biochemist/biologist. I spent four years of
postgraduate studies and research training at the Palladin Institute of Biochemistry in Kiev to obtain doctorate in Biochemistry, equivalent to PhD degree, in 1987. In 1991, after staying at University of Minnesota for three months, I have obtained an exchange fellowship to visit Denmark (where I soon learned about the collapse of the Soviet Union and, thus, independence of Georgia in December 1991).

Thus, I have been offered an extension of my tenure at University of Copenhagen in order to continue a promising research project and this finally led to my permanent stay in Denmark. In 2001, I got a position of Assoc. Professor at the Royal Danish School of Pharmacy, in 2005 - qualified as full professor in Molecular Biology at Roskilde University. In 2007, I became research professor at Bispebjerg Hospital, and since 2011 - full professor of pharmacology at University of Copenhagen. During these years, while Denmark remained my core base, I have been acting as visiting professor or research advisor in USA, Japan and France, both in academic sector and private biotech companies. Received numerous research grants – both small and large, also several awards. It’s noteworthy, that my connection with the Georgian scientific community has never ceased and since 2007 these ties have significantly tightened upon joining Ilia State University as a professor of Molecular Biochemistry.

My passion for biomedical sciences, particularly biochemistry, has been determined by several lines of my early interests. When I for the first time discovered in an old microscope the intriguing complexity and beauty of the cell, I got so fascinated that cell biology instantly became my prime enchantment. At the same time, I was quite interested in physics and chemistry, especially organic, and my initial intention was to focus on these subjects. However, I have soon realized that there was a merging point of all my interests – biological chemistry, simply, biochemistry. Thus, this fundamental area of scientific research – Chemistry of Life, in many of its incarnations, from cell structure to molecular mechanisms and pharmacology of disease, became my prime occupation for the next four decades.

How did you first become interested in studying Biological Sciences?

You became a member of Academia Europaea very recently. What does being part of Academia Europaea mean for you?

It is truly a great honor for me to be an elected member of Academia Europaea – an elite unity of scientists that have demonstrated sustained academic excellence. On the other hand, it is also a great responsibility to support popularization and prestige of science among general population and to facilitate productive crosstalk between academic and industrial research, public and governmental sectors of the society. It is especially important with regard to Georgia where two decades of political- and socio-economic turmoil, regretfully, downgraded the image and societal importance of scientific research, prestige of being scientist. In this regard, recent establishment of Tbilisi Hub of Knowledge should be viewed as a highly important, timely initiative to support the revival of rich academic
traditions of the region, including Georgia. Within this context, I see my role in bridging Georgian and European scientific communities within my field of expertise using different channels and mechanisms of transfer of knowledge.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic impacting your career? What challenges do you have to overcome and which opportunities can you see?

My current area of research is molecular basis and pharmacology of chronic pain. COVID-19 pandemic has significantly affected the functioning of academic education and research, both positively and negatively. For example, majority of teaching activities are now online, that repesents a progressive mechanism of knowledge transfer, yet this deprives students and teachers live contact that is still highly important in many aspects. The social distancing rules forced us to reduce the number of researchers per laboratory that, of course, reduces quality of research output aswell as training of young researchers and students. International collaboration and contacts – one of the key components of current scientific research – due to the travel restrictions have negatively been affected as well. Quite alarming is the situation with research grants– an essential fuel for our very costly biomedical research. This is due to shifting priorities towards few subfields of research actual for tackling the COVID-19 pandemics. Another reason
is that bulk of research is funded by private foundations that currently accumulate much less money due to the declining economy. At the same time, COVID-19 pandemic has certainly facilitated research in virology, immunology,
epidemiology, biostatistics, and other relevant fields that may benefit society in case of new pandemics.

Professor  George Gegelashvili