Thomas Graf’s birthday: several generations of GRAFFITIs get together

On the 11th of October 2019 I had the true pleasure of organizing a one-day symposium in Barcelona to celebrate Thomas’ 75th birthday. I invited old lab members and friends of whom over 30 joined the event as speakers or guests, traveling from many different countries around the world. The visitors spanned several generations of students and postdocs, including from some of the earliest days like Achim Leutz and Elisabeth Kowenz-Leutz, who both started as PhD/diploma students in Thomas’ laboratory at the German Cancer Center in Heidelberg 38 years ago where they first met (and fell in love!).

At the opening of the symposium I presented Thomas with a gift from the group: a specially carved Canadian (Salish) aboriginal “Talking Stick” arranged with four symbols representing Thomas’ character: the thunderbird, raven, beaver and killer whale: these symbols represent, respectively, Leadership, Creativity, Determination and Lifelong guardianship. In aboriginal gatherings the tribal elder passed this stick from tribe member to tribe member allowing each to offer their thoughts and opinions: a form of democracy we all grew up with in Thomas’ lab and that set the tone for our own future lab meetings.

Giulio Superti-Furga began and recounted some of the crazy happenings, parties and escapades in the days at EMBL (1983-1998) before presenting his newest and exciting research results. Although Giulio never “formerly” worked with Thomas he was an adopted member of the group from its earliest days and has been a lifelong friend. The science presentations throughout the day spanned a breadth of topics (immunology, cancer, stem cells, embryo development and epigenetics) and highlighted the influence that the time in Thomas’ lab has had on all of our subsequent careers. It was truly humbling to watch how seeds of ideas that began in work in Thomas’ lab grew into whole new research programs in so many diverse areas. The formal presentations ended with Thomas’ spellbinding recap of his own scientific career with personal stories, thoughts and ideas, and twists and turns that led to ground breaking discoveries. It was really unforgettably and, to my mind, it’s really the way we should teach science and career development to the next generation. The formal symposium ended with a video made by Filip Lim that incorporated pictures of the people who worked at different stages in Thomas’ lab, which generated a lot of laughter and brought back a flood of memories.

The day was capped with a wonderful dinner event of about 40 of us (including present lab members) that took place in the Born, an old part of Barcelona.  We were split into groups of 4 who were instructed and coached by a master chef on how to make several different types of specialty tapas (while drinking copious amounts of wine!), before regrouping for a shared dinner. I watched with genuine nostalgia how the mix of different generations of Thomas’ trainees worked together and paused to talk, reminisce and just have fun. And the products were delicious! Kudos to Thomas for such a great idea.

The event ebbed out the following day with a lunch at a seaside restaurant in Castelldefels, followed by beach games, walks and swims before we parted ways to go back to our far-flung locations around the globe. Achim and Denis, thank you for the great photos!

I miss working with Thomas just like I miss being a 5 year old:  It’s a time in your life when everything is new, exciting and joyful and when you make some lifelong friends. Until the next gathering, a sincere thanks to all of you who came together to be 5 years old again during these two days of celebration.

Kelly McNagny