Anders Backlund: With the whole world as his workplace
“I’m driven by curiosity about how things are interconnected,” reflects Anders Backlund, professor of pharmacognosy. When he is not navigating through the eight dimensions of chemical space, Backlund is trying to define the emphasis of Uppsala University’s role in global society.
“Did you know that two out of three pharmaceuticals sold at Apoteket’s pharmacies in Sweden originated in nature? All the same, science has only managed to study a few per cent of all known organisms. So with prevailing climate change we can only imagine how many potential medicines are being lost, with the species that are already gone or dying out.”
Anders Backlund, professor of pharmacognosy, is evidently a man with many irons in the fire. Our session was preceded by an assiduous search for space in his engagement diary. At last a gap appeared, between a meeting with the Vietnamese prime minister and a congratulatory speech in the Grand Auditorium of the University Main Building for the students who had just graduated from Uppsala University’s International Master Programmes. There was just time for a late-spring lunch a stone’s throw from Uppsala’s Botanical Garden – a place close to Backlund’s heart.
“Having been born in Uppsala with two parents who were chemists, I had science in my blood. From there it was a short step to studying biology, especially botany, and then pharmacognosy. And I’ve never had any reason to regret it. Our field contains so incredibly many fascinating aspects. Irrespective of whether we lecture at a science festival, visit a school class or go out to dinner, we often get a barrage of questions, and a lot of people want to share their own experience. The subject of pharmacognosy is an unfailing icebreaker.”
Pharmacognosy may be defined as a branch of pharmacology dealing with substances of natural, and especially plant origin, and production of these substances, used for medicinal purposes. A project often starts with an observation in the natural environment, such as a plant with leaves that are not grazed or browsed by animals. The pharmacognosist then tries to understand what distinguishes the leaves of this particular plant – that is, whether the plant has chemical properties, such as toxic or deterrent substances. The task in the next stage is to understand why, what effect the leaves have on grazing or browsing animals, and which systems are involved. The hope is that discovery of a possible pharmaceutical or medical use will finally come with understanding.
“Nature is our most important resource and we devote a great deal of time to fieldwork, from Swedish flora to marine organisms in remote parts of the world. In the latter half of the 20th century, we focused on Africa. Today, I’d say that the marine environment is our main source of new, exciting chemistry. We then use the tools we have to understand and define how the substances we find interact with various biological systems.”
Here we come to one of the major watersheds in the pharmacognosists’ working methods. Where the pharmaceutical industry, with its ample resources, can bear the cost of numerous trials, the research group to which Anders Backlund belongs – Sweden’s only research group in the field of pharmacognosy – had to seek out the right activities from an early stage.
“The model of chemical space we use, ChemGPS-NP, has eight dimensions. That may seem to rule out predicting how a new substance will behave. But the fact is that all compounds can be classified and grouped according to their properties, roughly like on a chemical table. The table shows us roughly what chemical environment a substance is in, and approximately how it may conceivably work. This ‘space map’ is freely accessible to everyone. We already have thousands of users all over the world who have, together, carried out many millions of searches and calculations to see where their substances are located and in what setting. And it’s also a calculation model where we see great scope for further progress.”
Pharmacognosy is a strikingly transdisciplinary field. The dearth of subject colleagues in Sweden is offset by collaborations with groups in, first, closely related research areas and, second, other countries and continents. The research group to which Backlund belongs is currently collaborating with teams in Australia, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and elsewhere. But international relations have always played a central role in Backlund’s existence – at least since the day when, with his parents and sister, he left Uppsala and Sweden for Kenya, a country where he came to spend part of his childhood.
“Not until adulthood did I realise how much those years shaped me as a person. Above all, they aroused my curiosity about people, other cultures and the interconnectedness of things. That’s something I get an outlet for both in my research and in my current position as Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor on Internationalisation.”
Eighteen months in, halfway through his term of office as Adviser, Anders Backlund is working even more markedly with the world as his workplace, and the question he is currently wrestling with is whether the academic map is not, if possible, even more complex than its chemical counterpart.
“At a university, every research group must have space to shape its own networks, and in my first year as Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor I had more than 100 meetings to get an overview of our international work. In these discussions, it became clear that shared points in common were necessary. These would enable us to focus on the University’s central internationalisation work, and currently we’re preparing a survey to give us a better understanding of what these points in common are.”
The variables sought include complementary research areas, quality awareness and a solid reputation. Both parties must contribute on an equal basis, and the collaboration must confer mutual benefits.
“Uppsala University is a fantastic platform to build on. We have breadth, credibility and a strong, attractive brand to build on. And for this very reason, we have to prioritise. Which partners should we take extra care of, where should we cultivate new relationships, but also which dormant agreements should we terminate? After all, we don’t have the resources to be everywhere.”
A successful example of internationalisation is the office Uppsala has maintained in Hanoi since 2014. Here, one full-time employee is engaged in creating new networks. This is a fixed item on the agenda that, over the years, has generated trainee exchanges, joint master programmes, collaboration with several universities – and now, most recently, an agreement in which the Ministry of Education and Training in Vietnam has defined Uppsala University as a priority partner.
“Getting established on the spot signals seriousness, and what we’ve attained in Vietnam wouldn’t have been feasible by email. I think we stand to gain a great deal from locating more regions where we’re already running the kinds of collaboration that make physical establishment the natural next step. There are several candidates, and the main thing is to find the right ones. That’s why, before my term of office is over, I want to create a priority list of how and where we should go ahead.”
The lunch hour is over, and the Grand Auditorium of the University Main Building awaits. On the way to the tray rack, Backlund tries out a few lines of the speech he has prepared – once more in English, since our international programmes attract many master students from far away. After the event, there will probably be an evening session at the Uppsala Biomedical Centre (BMC). And at some stage the question must be asked: are 24 hours a day really enough for all his commitments?
“It can certainly get a bit much. But on the other hand, every day offers wonderful variation – from fascinating research and meetings with masses of interesting people from all over the world to the fact that, as Vice Dean for Research Training, I can help make research education in our disciplinary domain even better. In short, this is a superb job!”
20 June 2019
Job title: Professor of Pharmacognosy and Adviser to the Vice-Chancellor on Internationalisation.
Age: 54 years.
Lives in: Norby, Uppsala.
Bedside reading: “The Mould in Dr Florey's Coat by Eric Lax, a book about the advent of penicillin that, in an outstandingly engaging way, describes the interplay among the people concerned and how it affected the conditions for research.”
A scientific project I’m proud of: “As a PhD student, I took part in the first major survey of vascular plants’ properties, which has gained an incomparable spread over the years.”
Unexpected talent: More than 20 years ago, we bought a middle-aged (1973) Jaguar XJ6 as a hobby project and it’s meant that, over the years, I’ve become quite a skilled mechanic and got a chance to practise a lot of troubleshooting in creatively composed electrical systems.”
My summer study programme of choice would be about “Life’s crossroads. Many young people today think they have to plan their future in detail. But in reality we face huge numbers of crucial decisions that take our lives in directions that are impossible to predict.”