The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stefano Bertuzzi wants scientists to see the bigger picture of what they do

Stefano Bertuzzi is set to become chief executive of the American Society for Microbiology in January. He replaces Michael Goldberg, who retired last year after leading the society for 30 years.

You grew up in Italy. Did you always know you wanted to be involved in science?

I tend to be someone who follows his passions and his interests. I’m not one of those who will be able to tell you in 10 years what I’m going to be doing. There was no science in my family. My dad was a truck driver. My mom was a middle school teacher. I hadn’t been exposed to science at all. What really did it for me was a phenomenal high school science teacher.

How did you end up at the ­National Institutes of Health?

I went to my graduate adviser and brought him a cover of Nature magazine on how to manipulate the genome of a mouse. I told him this is what I want to do. This is the coolest thing possible. He said there’s not a single lab in the whole of Italy that does this. So I sent faxes out and I ended up in a lab in NIH.

You went back to Italy and started your own lab. What made you return to the United States?

My wife had been the trailing spouse. Every decision we made was based on me moving somewhere. My wife, after getting her PhD, couldn’t find a job in Italy. It was tough for her. She landed a job in Washington. My first son was about to be born. This is the time for me to be the trailing spouse. I shut down my lab in Italy. I had to return at that time 1 million Euros in grants. It was so painful. I came here, and NIH was very welcoming.

What prompted your move to the American Society for Cell

They contacted me. I was very, very happy with what I was doing at NIH. But there was this sense that it’s a very big machine, the federal government. You’re trying to do certain things and there’s an enormous effort that you need to do those things. I felt if I can be the director of a small nonprofit, I can still contribute to science in a very significant way. You have that agility, that nimbleness to try to set the course. I wanted to ­explore that.

What attracted you to the American Society for Micro­biology?

I couldn’t be more excited about the possibilities in the microbial sciences today. [It can] contribute to solving some of humanity’s daunting problems. That’s the exciting part. I think that ASM can make a difference in getting the brightest minds to work together and solve the big problems for humanity. I find the breadth and the depth that is under its purview to be fantastic.

I read something you wrote recently about how providing a scientific perspective should be part of the mission of scientists. Yet many scientists seem reluctant to speak publicly about their work. How will you change that?

I really want ASM to provide that platform that helps scientists see the bigger picture, help them see how the work that they’re doing is changing society, is solving big problems like climate change, energy, health. What I think is very important and sometimes we fail to do is really making people understand that everything you do every day has something to do with science. Think about the anti-vaccine movement. There’s a lot of education that needs to happen there. There’s this fear of using vaccines, which has no scientific foundation, so how do we educate people about this? How do we get our scientists at the forefront? That’s what I want ASM to do, to really bring people in contact with science without being scared by science.

What was the most difficult lesson you had to learn as a ­leader?

The hardest thing, at least for me, is to better understand the team’s real motivation. All leaders understand that it’s their responsibility to motivate their team. Not everyone understands that motivation isn’t the same for everyone. Some staff members may be motivated by money. Others may be motivated by praise or a pat on the back. Others can be motivated by a challenge or a goal. Putting up a motivational poster or giving a daily pep talk, it’s not enough. These jobs are essentially about relationships. You really want to get to know people.

— Interview with Kathy Orton

Stefano Bertuzzi

Position: Chief executive, American Society for Microbiology. The D.C.-based organization is the largest single life society, with more than 39,000 scientists and health professionals worldwide.

Career highlights: Executive director, American Society for Cell Biology; director, office of science policy, planning and communications, National Institutes of Health; director, laboratory of mammalian genetics, Dulbecco Telethon Institute.

Education: PhD, molecular biology, Universita Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (Milan); MPH, health policy, Johns Hopkins University.

Age: 49