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Biological Research

versión impresa ISSN 0716-9760

Biol. Res. v.34 n.2 Santiago  2001 

Professor Jaime Alvarez: don Quixote de la
Mancha at the University


Facultades de Ciencias Biológicas y de Medicina, Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Santiago, Chile

Received: April 18, 2001. Accepted: April 18, 2001


The Faculty of Biological Sciences has decided to highlight the distinguished academic career of Dr. Jaime Alvarez in the university. It is an honor to pay tribute to him.

Right after graduating from the Medical School, Jaime joined the academic staff of our university. He caused problems from the very beginning. One of the characteristics of the Laboratory of Neurophysiology of those days was that each of its rooms had its own attic accessed by very steep stairs. Professor Luco, Head of the Laboratory, asked Dr. Alvarez to stand against the wall to measure how tall he was. Jaime objected that he knew his height quite well, but Prof. Luco insisted that he was interested in his height but ­ with his shoes on. After the measurement was taken, Prof. Luco immediately called the first workman he could find and asked him to make the doorway higher and raise the room ceiling by 32 cm. This was accomplished quickly because back then there was neither a Construction Management Office nor a Commission for Physical Planning. This is how Dr. Alvarez was finally able to reach his laboratory and become a member of our Faculty.

Later on Jaime had the opportunity to receive training as a research fellow in the Department of Neurobiology of the University of Harvard, one of the most outstanding academic centers, under the guidance of the brilliant Steve Kuffler. Upon returning from the States, Jaime continued causing problems. At the time, there were neuroanatomists who looked at neurons under the microscope, neurophysiologists who speared them with microelectrodes to see their potentials displayed on an oscilloscope, and neurochemists who ground them with a mortar to determine what was inside. It was now impossible to fit Jaime into one of these categories. He wanted to know about the behavior and intimate nature of neurons and their satellite cells, the glia, and he used any tools he could find to achieve such purpose. He raised the flag of Neurobiology and became a pioneer in multidisciplinary research.

Reporting on the research subject of Dr. Alvarez seems to me quite inappropriate. He already did that during a similar ceremony a year ago. On the other hand, it seems absurd to me that any other person would attempt to explain the ideas of our guest of honor. Undoubtedly, he would feel misinterpreted in his objectives and betrayed in the interpretation of his findings. In sum, I am sure that Jaime would interrupt me saying: "Wait a minute! Let me explain that!"

But what I can do on this occasion is to mention some of Jaime's personal traits and what his presence has meant in our academic "milieu". Jaime has managed to transform what some would consider defects into virtues like his stubborn determination, for example. Whenever one of his research problems could not be resolved by the experimental strategy he had designed, he refused to abandon it. On the contrary, he was relentless. He attacked the problem from different angles and with different weapons, until a breach was made and then Jaime held up his lance and the problem shattered into pieces. Instead of having one big problem, he had several little problems, which Jaime now considered so insignificant that it wasn't worth the effort to deal with them. They just weren't up to his stature. And Jaime always likes to confront strong adversaries ­ those who offer resistance and do not vanish at the first blow.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to discover Jaime's quintessential personality during a celebration of Saint Lucas, the patron saint of the School of Medicine. The medical students had asked Jaime to dress up as Don Quixote, and he was just perfect for the part! And I realized then that Jaime was not disguised as Don Quixote ­ he was Don Quixote! It doesn't matter to him if he rides a skinny old nag or holds a rusty brass shield up to his enemy. Some might not see the sense in battling against windmills, but windmills are powerful enemies indeed. They may be disguised as windmills to make them seem harmless, but they are there, lying in wait at every turn, and hindering our academic work.

Jaime is a professed champion of some virtues that may seem old-fashioned today. He believes in austerity (request no more equipment or fungibles than what is strictly necessary); to look after the weapons (whether laboratory instruments or the preparation of a lecture or a conference); unrestricted commitment to the cause; punctuality on the battlefield (whether an experiment or a lecture); generosity with his time (for all kinds of advice); to deal only with adversaries worthy of his stature (namely, only those problems worthy of our effort); never retreating; being a gentleman with ladies (whether technicians or students) and an older brother to his male collaborators (those who are brave enough to be his collaborators). But, also a furious temper when circumstances call for it. There are a couple of broken doors that prove that I am not exaggerating.

Jaime has performed experiments and published articles in demanding scientific journals. But he has always done so as a university professor, seeking that each research instance would represent a teaching experience. Countless medical students and recently graduated medical doctors have come to work at his laboratory. At the very beginning they engaged in long sessions to discuss about the bases of each project and the strategy they were to adopt in each case. Next Jaime performed the experiments side by side with his new collaborators. Then came the long hours of fierce discussion and interpretation of results. And finally, the heated shared process of writing the scientific manuscript. Where Jaime did take full responsibility was in the bloody battle with the manuscript reviewers and journal editors. The acceptance of a given manuscript called for a celebration usually in "El Chancho con Chaleco" [a restaurant which name may be freely translated as "The pig in a vest"].

Jaime fully symbolizes what a university professor should be. He well fits the framework of what an old friend of mine, Professor Bob Torrance of Oxford University, used to tell me: "The university pays us to educate its students and grants us the privilege of doing research". Notice that Bob said "to educate" and not just "to deliver lectures". English universities preserve their tradition of educating their students: from knowing how to read English, Greek, or Latin, to write elegantly, to compete in sports like gentlemen, to dress soberly, and to appreciate a good quality sherry. Jaime faithfully and stubbornly dedicated himself to educate his young collaborators in many of these aspects.

On the artistic side, Jaime is a lover of nature, particularly of our countryside. His photograph collection shows essentially the simplest of Chilean flowers, those that are not found in gardens or greenhouses. His country house in Caleu symbolizes his Camelot castle, where he ­as a Round Table cavalier- restores his strength to continue fighting against the dragons. To find out who these dragons might be is let to the audience imagination.

The Rector of our University, present in this ceremony, has called upon us to "humanize" the education of our students of the Faculties of Sciences. I believe that we all agree with such a purpose, but we possibly "disagree" with the means used to achieve it. Personally, I think that to graft a few lectures on humanities into our science courses is not going to be of any help to our students. Young people look for role models, not abstract humanities. What I do think is worth trying is that students might share with the professor their mutual interest in the humanities. Basically, to show them that it is possible to be a good scientist and to appreciate a good concert, a great movie or an extraordinary novel, and be able to distinguish them from those of lesser quality. I believe that only through personal contact with their professors will the students acquire and appreciate these values. And it is the responsibility of the professors of our Faculties of Sciences to live and understand upon these values, instead of bringing professors from other faculties to preach these values, having no enough time to pervade our students with these values. Jaime is a good example of what a university professor might be in the strict sense of the word.

Thank you Jaime for your contribution to the strengthening of our University life.

Speech delivered at the ceremony of the 30th Anniversary of the Faculty of Biological Sciences, Pontifical Catholic University of Chile.

The contents of this speech in Spanish appeared in "BioNoticias", an internal journal of the Faculty, volume 7, issue 5, page 9-10. Thanks are due to Dr. Ernst R. Hajek, its Editor, for authorizing its reproduction here.

Special thanks are given to Mrs Carolina Larraín for her valuable collaboration in preparing the present English version of this manuscript.


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