Fabian Theis joins leadership board of Helmholtz Pioneer Campus

We are honoured to announce Prof. Dr. Fabian Theis as new Director for Biomedical AI @Helmholtz Pioneer Campus – and used this opportunity for a short interview with the new Director.


First of all – our sincere congratulations to this new role, Prof. Theis. Please allow us to comment that you are stepping into this additional commitment while already serving numerous demanding roles and positions. Why taking this step now?

Thank you for your kind wishes and thank you for your sympathy with my positions (smiles). I have been following – and in the last years’ actively contributing – to the development of the Pioneer Campus. I sign up 100 % to the PioneerCampus concept – attracting the most promising, technology-literate and science-driven talents; at the same time providing relevant resources, creating an intellectually stimulating environment and offering sufficient independence/room for their ideas to realize their very own vision. Much of these concepts are already ingrained in my computational institute and other organizations I had the privilege to shape or direct. In particular the clear focus on the most talented candidates, and then giving them full scientific freedom and independence is such a strong concept that helps us hire the best people with the highest motivation, which I really like. Scientifically, bioengineering, biomedicine and all other topics pursued @PioneerCampus are inevitably linked to bio-computation and AI-tools. Therefore, countless and intricate collaborations exist across our PIs and groups. So, assuming scientific co-directorship, presents a natural evolution of an inspiring and already exciting reality, at least to me mind. In practice, my new and more formal engagement allows to dedicate more time in support of our Pioneers – as far as I recon, a very exciting group of (slightly younger) principal investigators that emerged in less than 5 years – and carries the transformative capacity needed at our Center – in short, to me the PioneerCampus appears as a most valuable investment into the scientific future of HelmholtzMunich.

'I sign up 100 % to the PioneerCampus concept – attracting the most promising, technology-literate and science-driven talents, providing them with relevant resources and offering sufficient independence to realise their very own vision. To me, the PioneerCampus appears as a most valuable investment into the scientific future of HelmholtzMunich.'

- Fabian Theis

How do you envision sharing the responsibility with Maria-Elena and Vasilis, PioneerCampus’ biomedicine and bioengineering directors, respectively?

Maria-Elena and Vasilis are highly distinguished and very experienced colleagues, effectively running successful institutes and departments. True value - and major beneficiaries - of the distributed leadership @PioneerCampus are the Pioneers! As director for Biomedical AI I simply complement the integrative scope @PioneerCampus, ultimately providing all Pioneers with most easy access to a diverse range of scientific and mentorship expertise. Needless to say that accepting this role was made easy, given that all general operations @PioneerCampus seem in extremely capable hands with Tom Schwarz-Romond and his small but dedicated team.

How do you define success of the PioneerCampus?

Science is a more and more collaborative endeavour – with boundaries between fields and hierarchies within organizations blurring. The PioneerCampus aligns nicely with other international examples to redefine scientific research with a strong impetus on solution-building to benefit societies in academic, corporate or philanthropic environments – to name the Broad institute, CZI’s Biohub or Roche’s ITB as examples. Attracting outstanding talents that work aligned to accelerate science, beyond hierarchies and empowered to translate new discoveries into novel solutions, are a few of the criteria I would apply to judge success. These criteria are by no means restricted to the PioneerCampus. Rather, I suggest to leverage the PioneerCampus as a relatively new structure and potential blueprint how science can be delivered more effectively in the future. I hope that sounds reasonable?

Which topics/questions do you think will be studied/pursued here in 10 years time – will AI continue to be heavily researched OR already broadly applied as a commodity?

That is a difficult question to answer – I am also not holding a glass-ball in hands. Like many these days, allow me to refer to Large Language Models in general and ChatGPT in particular - fascinating and long-awaited tools on one hand – on the other showing us the limits of a human-programmed machine; in other words, underlining the intellectual capabilities of the human brain when it comes to abstraction, creativity, empathy and so on… I think for example AI-driven experimental design will be very popular, but other more data-sparse area, not sure there.

As a hopeless optimist, I am convinced that the future is extremely bright and opportunities endless in the space of AI, ML, DL – which make the next ‘big-thing’ rather unpredictable. It will be a simple matter of choice to continue ‘discovering’ new concepts OR start focusing on detailed, structured, robust and reproducible solutions that stand a chance of general implementation in all our daily routines. In both of these areas, and particularly interfacing with human health, I expect many transformations to come. If the PioneerCampus and our Helmholtz Center manage to contribute fostering constant exchange and dynamic adaptation, I will be happy and proud to have contributed and served my term.

Thank you for your time in sharing your vision, Prof. Theis. Once again, our sincere congratulations and all the best for putting the idea into reality.