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Martin Giurfa

A Personal Ant-thology

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© A. Chézière/CNRS Photothèque


Uno es uno y su circonstancias–You are yourself and your circumstances,” quotes Martin Giurfa to illustrate his career. And citing a sentence attributed to Jorge-Luis Borges might not be unexpected, given the Argentinian roots of this 44-year-old scientist, the recent recipient of the CNRS silver medal and the current director of Toulouse's CRCA.1 But not all memories are pleasant. The dictatorship set up by Videla was still in place when he entered Buenos Aires University in 1981, to study biology. “It was a reign of terror–we were searched by police when entering campus, and informants were everywhere,” he recalls. It was only two years later, in 1983, that democracy was restored. “Such happiness... Many high-level Argentinian researchers returned from exile. A real intellectual effervescence had begun.”

But the euphoria did not last. The austerity plan imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF)–started in 1986–cut back on both education and research,  once more pushing Argentinian scientists out of the country. But this also coincided with his first stroke of luck. Among the few remaining scientists were two specialists in behavioral neurobiology, Giurfa's chosen field. “I had always wanted to understand how we learn, how we memorize things. I was fascinated by the work of Nobel prize-winner Karl Von Frisch on the behavior of bees.”

The publication of his thesis work in various international reviews led to an invitation to join the Institute of Neurobiology at the Free University of Berlin. He arrived in 1990, another period of historical effervescence: The Wall was coming down. This man, who had witnessed the return of democracy to Argentina, has a fond memory of the time. Twelve years in Berlin made him an experienced neurobiologist. Then came a new “circumstance”–in the form of a work opportunity in France. CNRS and the Paul Sabatier University in Toulouse invited him to found the Research Center on Animal Cognition (CRCA). The objective was to undertake the comparative study of cognitive processes in a wide range of vertebrate and invertebrate animals, focusing on both individuals and animal societies, such as those formed by ants and honeybees. He accepted the position because of the “great serenity in research that France offers through permanent positions; it is crucial that this serenity be preserved by the institutions.” Today, the center has some 30 scientists and an equal number of PhD and post-doctoral students–research scientists working side by side despite coming from different fields like ethology, molecular biology, neurobiology, modeling, experimental psychology, and robotics. He himself heads a group focused on behavioral, neural and molecular bases of learning and memory in invertebrates (honeybees, fruit flies, and ants).

“I like building gateways,” enthuses Giurfa. “Gateways towards international cooperations, but also gateways to the public.” This warm and open man leads his team into pedagogical actions through associations for popularizing science. He also organizes the “Brain Awareness Week” in the Midi-Pyrénées region. Would he go back to Argentina to encourage others to take up a similar calling? “One can never say never, but I now have a lot of ties in France. This is the country I chose for my research project.” He concludes with another quote, but this time he can't seem to recall the author: “your home country is the one that allows you to flourish.”

 

Jean-François Haït

Notes :

1. Centre de recherches sur la cognition animale (CNRS / Université Toulouse-III).

Contacts :

Martin Giurfa
CRCA, Toulouse.
giurfa@cict.fr


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