Reinhard Jahn


2016 Balzan Prize for Molecular and Cellular Neuroscience, including neurodegenerative and developmental aspects

Balzan Prize Awards Ceremony 2016
Rome, Palazzo del Quirinale, 17 November 2016

Acceptance Speech

Mr. President,
Mr. Chairman and members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor to be selected as one of the recipients of the Balzan Prize. When looking at the list of famous artists, scholars, and scientists who have received the Prize in the past, I feel very humble, asking myself whether I do indeed deserve such honor.
In my field of work, true breakthrough discoveries are rare. Also, it often takes some time to recognize that a scientific discovery has indeed fundamental significance and goes beyond the specialist area we all are working in. I have been privileged to be part of a network of scientists who unraveled the molecular basis of neurotransmission in the Nineties of the last century. These were very exciting times. It was known how neurons signal to each other, what happens at these contact points termed synapses, but when I started in the field, not a single one of the molecules that govern these processes was known. I remember well when, together with my students, I looked at fresh results that we did not understand, leading to animated discussions.
One should not forget that in my field the research is carried out by teams composed mostly of young scientists (mostly doctoral students) who do the actual experiments. Indeed, I consider it as a privilege, at my age, to be able to continuously work with young colleagues and to convey some of the excitement I feel for this type of research. Personally I consider it as one of the most beautiful aspects of the Balzan Prize that part of the award shall be used to support young scientists.

Science is international and thus is capable of building bridges between different nations. For instance, in my research team there are scientists coming from all parts of the world, including members of twelve different nations. Among those there is also an Italian who for her thesis has recently been awarded a medal from the Max-Planck Society. Moreover, one of my closest collaborators during the exciting years in the Nineties was an Italian, Pietro De Camilli, a great scientist who – despite being in the US now for many years – has never forgotten his Italian roots.
Science also requires freedom and democracy. Without the open exchange of ideas, the ability to challenge “authorities” and established theories, science cannot thrive. From what I have been reading, this is also what Eugenio Balzan stood for. For many years he was responsible for one of the truly great newspapers of the world. He was forced to resign and leave the country when these democratic values were demolished. They are thus connected with the name of Balzan and with the Balzan Prize.
I am looking forward to continue working in this field and to continue working with young scholars. I would also like to thank you for the great honor of the Balzan Prize