Spain's Top Cancer Researcher Has A Simple Wish For The Next Decade

05/14/2015 09:35 am ET | Updated May 14, 2015

Oscar Fernandez-Capetillo is a different kind of researcher. He doesn’t care about publishing; he cares about discovering. He’s not afraid of failing, he says, because he knows that without failure there can be no success. Last year, Óscar Férnandez-Capetillo was the only Spaniard listed in Cell magazine’s "40 Under 40" list, which includes the top 40 researchers in the world who are younger than 40.

Férnandez-Capetillo earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of the Basque Country and worked in the United States for the National Cancer Institute for several years. A decade ago, he returned to Madrid in order to lead the Spanish National Cancer Research Center (CNIO)’s genomic instability group. Since then, he has won the Eppendorf award, the EMBO Young Investigator award and the ERC Starting Grant, among other honors. Today, he is Spain’s star researcher, a man who has been called to answer some of the key questions concerning cancer in the next decade. As head of CNIO's Genomic Instability Group, Férnandez-Capetillo researches the role of DNA damage in the development of cancer.

In his work at CNIO, Férnandez-Capetillo says he does not look for projects that might afford him short-term success. He prefers to forget his ego. That way, he can jump into the unknown and search for more thorough explanations that encompass a larger perspective. He is happy when he can research freely while watching his four children grow up, he notes.

Capetillo received a 2 million euro ($2.2 million) grant from the European Union to continue his research, which ties him to CNIO for now and allows him to reject some otherwise tempting offers. After the grant, however, he will open to all options.

HuffPost Spain sat down with Férnandez-Capetillo to discuss his research, his life, and his thoughts on the next 10 years.

What goals do you hope to achieve in the next 10 years?

Ten years is a long time. For the moment, I hope I’ll still be here. That far ahead, I hope I will have contributed in some tangible way to extending the lives of cancer patients. Of course, I also want to discover some fantastic thing that I can’t even imagine today.

In the past year, what was your most important accomplishment?

Implementing a new system that, I think, can allow us to discover the mechanisms that help tumors become resistant to chemotherapy in a relatively short time.

Who is the person that you most admire?

I am not particularly fond of icons. I admire and acknowledge values like generosity and sense of humor much more than professional success.

What advice would you give to a young person who is deciding what to do with his or her life?

I would tell them that, unless religious faith leads them to believe that there will be an afterlife, they should dedicate life to something that makes them truly happy.

Who are you most grateful for?

My wife, Matilde Murga. I’m grateful to her for so many reasons that it would be unfair to name just a few. She is a force of nature unlike any other, and she has pushed me forward every time I’ve fallen behind.

Where do you like to get your news?

New technologies aside (Twitter, etc.), I still love waking up or going to sleep with a radio under my ear. My most frequent pathology is the transistor being practically embedded in my body.

An issue that you would like to see resolved in the next 10 years is…

Sufficiently educating our children in scientific subjects so they won’t fall for idiotic questions such as “Do vaccines work?” or “Is sugar toxic?” or “Is evolution just another theory?” It’s ridiculous that, in 2015, my wish is for such elemental things to be resolved in 10 years.

What is the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning?

Look for the kids, who are already awake in the house, so I can hug them and kiss them.

How do you relax, recharge and maintain your balance?

Unfortunately, for a very long time I haven’t been able to do that. I don’t recharge, I don’t relax, though I like to think that I am still relatively in balance. In the summer, when I can, I like to go fishing in a small boat, far from the noise.

Finish the following sentence: In the year 2025, we will...

Have personalized treatment for most cancer patients.

How many hours do you usually sleep each day?

From five to six. I don’t sleep too much. I never have. It had to do with my family, and I think I passed it on to my children. If I wake up, I can’t stay in bed. I feel the need to do something.

What do you value the most?

A constructive personality. Those people that, when they hear someone talking about their work, immediately become a flow of ideas to improve it. In the same way, I hate destructive personalities and narcissists. Narcissism doesn’t convey security; it conveys lack of intelligence. Truly brilliant people have sufficient vision to realize that most of us, whether we are kings or commoners, rich or poor, will be forgotten with the same ease.

This post was originally published on HuffPost Spain and was translated into English.

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