In the modern "knowledge-based" society that Europe aspires to be, it is rather difficult to survive and develop a successful scientific career if you are stuck with only the 'hyperspecialised' skills that typically result from a standard doctoral education. In theory, there is nothing wrong with the traditional model, in which you become excellent in one particular field--becoming, in effect, a clone of your supervising professor--as long as that can later guarantee you a good job and the opportunity to work with the tools and equipment you need. But in today's job market not many people are lucky enough to be able to say that something like that has really happened to them!
Indeed, compatibility with the scientific job market today requires that we have skills beyond our hyperspecialisation, and that we can combine them and use them in all their complexity. It also means that we have to be familiar with different research approaches and points of view, and the best way to acquire such familiarity is to work with at least two completely different supervisors. To some extent your scientific personality will then be shaped by both.
For me, the opportunity to work with a different supervisor during my PhD research came through the EC's Marie Curie training site programme. The idea of this is to give people opportunities to travel and to learn new skills and approaches, which in turn will make them more attractive in the European job market.
What I really liked in my training site, at the University Eye Hospital in Tübingen, was that I was given the freedom to choose and to practice different methods and skills. I am a medical doctor, a specialist in ophthalmology, and for my PhD research at the Medical University in Sofia I have been looking at the ultrastructural changes of the proliferative tissues in the eyes of diabetics. I was working mainly in the fields of electron microscopy and immunohistochemistry, and the research plan for my yearlong stay at the training site, drawn up before I left for Germany, was to extend my use of these techniques.
However, once at my training site, I became fascinated by some techniques being used in the laboratory which were new to me. The Tübingen group was making organotypic eye cultures and examining in vitro the changes that occur in the cells of living individuals. This particular technology is designed for cultivating tissues (retinas, proliferative tissue, corneas, etc.) in conditions which resemble to the highest possible degree the conditions found in the human body. The cultures can be kept alive for different periods of time--14 to 20 days at most--and not only is it possible to examine the ultrastructures of the cells, but also the effects of different agents on those structures.
I was not only interested, but also sure that these new techniques could help me develop my dissertation work further and in a different direction. On the other hand the technique I wanted to learn was a difficult and demanding one, and not only time consuming but also expensive.
Despite this my supervisors were kind enough to allow me to learn this novel technique and to provide me with all the necessary equipment. I had the best teacher from the lab and the opportunity to be a little bit more multidisciplinary and develop skills in cell biology and biotechnology.
Not only did they help me discover something really interesting and useful for my future scientific career, but they also helped me a lot in presenting my work in different scientific forums (especially at the 100 Jubilee Congress of the Deutsche Ophthalmologische Gesselshaft). I was given a hand in improving my presenting and communication skills, which are not usually a part of any university programme but are really important for a scientific career.
Needless to say, when I returned to Sofia I wanted to use the knowledge I had gained in my future work as a scientist. It was no longer enough for me to just work with electron microscopy--I wanted to continue with the in vitro experiments. However, in the department of cell biology at the Medical University the necessary equipment for such experiments was not available. That, of course, did not discourage me, and after several weeks of asking up and down, I finally found the laboratory I was looking for. Of course it was not as modern as the one I worked at in Germany, but I could continue with my scientific experiments without any problem. Now I am cooperating with the Laboratory of Cell Cultures and Biotechnology in the Bulgarian Academy of Science. I was very well received there, and my techniques and knowledge were of interest to my new colleagues, with whom we are now working a lot.
It is strange, because I have been working on my project for several years and never had the slightest idea of looking for this lab and performing these kinds of experiments. It's only when you know lots of things, and possess different skills, that you can decide which is the most interesting experiment for your project, with real practical application. To me it feels like seeing things only in black and white, and then suddenly seeing the same things in colour. The picture is much more beautiful, detailed, and alive. That is what my training abroad very much helped me to do and I am really grateful for it.
The purpose of writing all this is not only to thank in some way my training site and my supervisors at the Department of Experimental Ophthalmology in Tübingen, but mostly because I really believe that all training sites must be centres for acquiring multidisciplinary skills, and not just places where someone goes for 1 year on an excursion, without learning anything new from the stay abroad. I do believe that centres which help young scientists take new opportunities and make new turns in their career should be praised and rewarded by giving them extra points when evaluating the quality of the training sites. Maybe then all of them will be providing new chances for young people to become better suited to our European scientific labour market. They will be providing them with new skills which can transform their scientific ideas in a new way and help them be different and more adaptable to the changing conditions of our dynamic world.