Hidde Ploegh, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Immunologist Hidde Ploegh's career was helped along by a little bit of luck. As an undergraduate at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, he was awarded a travel grant to work in Jack Strominger's lab at Harvard University. As luck would have it, this led him to the perfect place to uncover the molecular mechanisms of the immune system, and he has been fascinated by the field ever since (see CV).

Ploegh's graduate years at Harvard set him firmly on his career path and exposed him to the latest technology. “People in our building were developing DNA sequencing techniques that we were able to take advantage of,” he says.

Since then, he has been guided by his interest in biochemistry and immunology — seizing every available opportunity to pursue his research. This has allowed him to grapple with a wide range of issues from unravelling the intricacies of immune responses to foreign cells, to discovering how viruses manage to evade their host's defence mechanism.

Having returned to Europe, Ploegh's pivotal career move was probably his decision to leave a cancer institute in his native Netherlands and head back to the United States. He arrived at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an experience he likens to being a sous chef suddenly given a pantry full of the best ingredients and access to any possible technique.

After a few years at MIT, he began an eight-year stint at Harvard Medical School as head of its immunology programme. But now he is moving to the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. With its links to MIT, this constitutes something of a homecoming for Ploegh — especially as it was the chance to exploit MIT's strength in materials science that lured him to the Whitehead. “In my research, there is an increasing importance for chemistry, materials science and microfabrication,” he says.

As for careers advice, Ploegh maintains that the best route to success is simply to satisfy your curiosity. “I've come to realize that the best students are not necessarily those who have the most clearly laid career path, but those who dive in and do the work for the sheer joy of it,” he says.