Prof. Massimiliano Pagani is the Head of the Integrative Biology Program at the Istituto Nazionale di Genetica Molecolare in Milan. He is a specialist in the study of regulatory non-coding RNAs in the human immune system. He received a cum laude Biological Sciences degree from the University of Milan in 1995, and a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, in 2000. He then worked as a group leader in the biotech company Primm, which does research and design, and creates custom biotechnology products and services, for academic and industrial laboratories. In July 2008, he joined the Istituto and founded the Integrative Biology Program. He has recently been awarded an ERC Consolidator grant for his research.

Erik Campano: What do you love about your subject, ​molecular biology and genetics​?

Prof. Pagani: ​I love the fact that in my field, we are trying to understand the mechanisms of the basic functions of the cells of organisms. Obviously, this way, we may, in the future, be able to understand pathological mechanisms. This is the basis for the development of new therapies. In science, a lot of people forget that many of the most important discoveries stem from basic science. It is fundamental to have a new vision, new ideas, new types of applications. This broad reach is what I really love.

Please tell us something fascinating about your professional scientific research work.

It is the freedom. The freedom of trying to use your curiosity, your new ideas, to try to explain different observations. Our work is quite strange, because you’re testing a lot of hypotheses every day, and usually, they are wrong [laughs], in 99 percent of cases. But, when you have diamonds, in which your hypothesis is true, you can make a small step, important toward your final goals of new therapies, and so on. This is really fantastic.

We are working on the characterization of the molecular mechanisms underlying the functionality and plasticity of human T cells in different pathological conditions. In particular, what we are interested in now is trying to address the relationship between CD4 T cells and cancer. Basically, we want to re-educate these cells, in order to fight cancer.

What is it that you enjoy about teaching at IMS?

I really love teaching at the International Medical School, because it is an amazing environment, with people from all over the world. Usually, they are open-minded about the discussion and new ideas. It is a pleasure and an honor for me to have this type of student. The atmosphere is fantastic — very relaxed, with people who collaborate. This year, we also have a new experience doing practice problem sessions, and I love the students’ ability to work in teams. I decided to maintain the same course as previous years, and insert the practice lessons to review the information, give the students the chance to see what the examination is like, and to rethink problems, using knowledge learned during the lectures.

Please share some wisdom about how to be a great medical student.

Most of the people that are here are already great medical students. The most important thing is: don’t underestimate the examinations. Most of the people are really smart, and they start to study, thinking they have already learned something, but when the examination comes, they understand that this is probably not the case. So I really hope that all of you understand this. But I’m sure that after the first examination session, you’ll learn this, and that all of you will have a bright, successful future.

Erik Campano