I decided to postdoc abroad for my personal development, since I wanted to combine the expansion of my scientific knowledge with the experience of understanding the values and cultural issues of another society. It's only by mastering the language of another country that you will really understand the way of life there; holidays are not enough.
In fact, this was not the first time I took the decision to work abroad. After finishing my studies in Salzburg, Austria, where I was born, I moved to Göttingen to do my doctorate.
Where to go?
The decision to go to Spain was taken together with my then girlfriend, now wife. She is Portuguese and finished her doctorate in Germany at the same time as I completed mine.
To choose the place for my postdoc, I visited several laboratories and discussed possible projects. Then, I made an evaluation table and gave each lab marks for a number of important criteria. These included the working environment, my first impression of the future co-workers, the potential of the group to publish good articles (and for myself to be first author on these), the personality of the boss (to avoid the all-too-common situation whereby the boss shows up to introduce himself to the new guy and is never to be seen again), and the opportunity to learn specific techniques that I considered fundamental for my future scientific development.
After adding up the marks for each lab, the group of Professor Antonio Zorzano of the University of Barcelona (UB) won the race. He proposed the characterisation of a novel diabetes gene discovered previously in his laboratory, an extremely interesting and challenging project.
My first application for a Marie Curie fellowship for this project was rejected by a fraction of a point because, according to the referees, the proposed techniques did not take into account the latest developments in the field. In the meantime, however, the project had already developed further and new data were available. This enabled us to submit a second application, which was reworked based on the referee's comments. This time, the project was accepted. My personal advice is not to give up when receiving a negative evaluation, but to use the referee's comments to improve your project and try again.
Arriving in Catalonia
Barcelona is a beautiful, trendy city and offers something for every taste, for both work and pleasure. I was impressed by the number of bars and discotheques per square meter!
Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, a province in the north east of Spain which has its own language, Catalan, and there are differences to the "typical" Spanish way of life. Catalan people are very proud of their own culture and language. They are very friendly and Mediterranean, but more reserved than one would expect. People very rarely invite a person they do not know very well to their home. Instead they meet in a restaurant or bar and have a splendid time there. Talking about restaurants: I really loved the local cooking, especially the Calzotada, something you cannot describe, you have to try it!
When I arrived in Barcelona, I did not speak Spanish. So, I took an intensive language course in the university for a month. As I arrived before the start of my fellowship, I paid for the course myself. After that my vocabulary increased every day so that after a few months I was able to do everything in Spanish. Generally, English is not spoken very well, so being able to communicate in Spanish or Catalan is necessary to survive.
I vaguely knew about Catalan before, but was not really prepared for the challenge of life in a bilingual region. People from Catalonia understand and speak Spanish perfectly, but among themselves will communicate in Catalan. It would, of course, have been ideal, for the sake of good communications, for me to learn Catalan as well. However, I decided instead to improve my Portuguese, which left very little time to learn another language. Normally, in everyday life not speaking Catalan is no problem, as people will switch to Spanish to communicate with a foreigner. So, with only a very few exceptions, I had no problems.
My personal experience with the UB was very good. There were no problems with my contract and I was very happy with its terms. Other people experienced problems because their host handled the contract matters quite "flexibly," or they had problems with documents that the Spanish government would not accept easily, but I had no problems of this sort. In my case the people who handled the contract matters were very helpful, and either were able to answer all my questions immediately or found out if necessary. The only exception was that I had to ask for the mobility allowance, which was not automatically transferred.
I also had a very good personal impression of the university on a scientific level. It came across as a dynamic institution with great potential. There are some excellent groups in Barcelona and collaboration with other groups never was a problem. In fact, things got even better when our group moved to the Science Park of UB, where working conditions were excellent.
My supervisor, Professor Zorzano, had already been very supportive in preparing the proposal for my fellowship. During my time in his lab he showed competent leadership, but at the same time he was open to my own ideas for the further development of the project. The way he ran the group created a highly motivated and competent environment. Observing his approach to scientific problems and how to find solutions was highly stimulating and I hope I was able to develop something of this myself.
Professor Zorzano was also a role model to me on the personal level, in his subtle way of handling things, and motivating by encouraging his group to produce nice results rather than putting them under pressure.
The working group included a number of predoctoral students and several postdocs with international experience and an excellent scientific background. Discussions with them were very stimulating and I learned a lot through planning experiments and developing concepts with them. Unfortunately, at the beginning of my fellowship, with another colleague, I worked in a different building from the rest of the group. This made it difficult to keep in close contact with them, especially as the onus was on us to travel to join in with meetings and seminars. It certainly proved more difficult than I thought initially it would be.
Outside the lab
The group had a strong social life, and several times excursions were organised. So I had my first diving experience together with colleagues from the lab and enjoyed it so much that I took a course afterwards. Another occasion saw us rock climbing at the beach, 30 meters over the sea! The group's annual parties were also legendary, not to mention all the times we went to a restaurant to celebrate whatever should be celebrated.
We also made friends who took us to several interesting places during weekends. I took advantage of the "insider knowledge" to get to know the country very well.
Even though my work in the laboratory kept me there on a number of weekends, I took time to pursue interests in areas not directly connected to science. Taking advantage of the possibilities the city offers, I participated in a bachelor of business administration (BBA) course, as well as a course for the direction and development of small enterprises at one of Spain's well-known business schools, the Escuela Superior de Administración y Dirección de Empresas. This was not directly connected to my project, so I financed it myself. The emphasis was on developing the skills necessary for a group leader--basically soft skills, finance control, and organisational control. I personally recommend everybody to develop her/his skills for running a group by participating in courses; it really pays! And in general I recommend looking for additional possibilities in your host city to develop your skills. Later you may not find time, nor have the money, to do that.
Marie Curie Fellows' Workshop
Early in the second year of my fellowship, I was invited to participate in the 9th Marie Curie Fellows' Workshop, co-organised by Wolfgang Kerner from DG Research of the European Commission and Christine Heller from Comillas University in Madrid--the host of the event.
The objective of the workshop was to bring together the Marie Curie fellows in Spain to present their research work "in progress." In such an interdisciplinary encounter, the fellows had the opportunity to try out their communication skills in explaining their research to a nonspecialist audience. Fellows from different fields presented and discussed their projects and research results with each other, as well as being informed about some key programmes of the 5th Framework Programme.
Most importantly, there was a discussion centred on the barriers that the fellows had encountered during the duration of their fellowship, important legal and financial issues, and interesting future career possibilities in the EU.
I have to admit that, had the workshop not had a somewhat mandatory nature, I would not have participated in it. Yet, it was a highly interesting and informative meeting that I definitely recommend future Marie Curie fellows to participate in when possible!
Marie Curie Fellowship Association
In the last year of my time in Barcelona, together with Meri Martell I represented the Marie Curie Fellowship Association (MCFA) in Spain at congresses, and we organised meetings of Marie Curie fellows in Catalonia. I met great people and made good friends, and also received a lot of interesting information concerning issues of contracts and developments within the EU. It is really worthwhile to get in contact with other Marie Curie fellows or ex-fellows, as they are a great source of help and valuable information. Information about national groups in your country can be found on the MCFA Web site.
I have now returned to Germany and obtained a group leader position. International experience, education in group leading, and languages were very helpful in obtaining this position. And I maintain a strong partnership with Professor Zorzano. Before I left Spain, we discussed future collaborations, and he provided valuable assistance in preparing my proposals for the reintegration grant and funding from the German Science Foundation.
In all the years I was working abroad, I realised how much integration into a society or group depends on mutual efforts. Some people might fail to integrate themselves because of lack of interest on their part. Sometimes it is necessary to "help" people become part of a group, because they will not "fight" for it, or are insecure and easily feel repelled. Later on their frustration at not feeling a true member of the group might become a problem. This is definitely something to be taken into account when running my own group, and perhaps would be a good lesson for our politicians, and indeed all of us, to reflect on.
In summary, the period I spent in Barcelona was an excellent experience, on a scientific and personal level, as well as for my further career development. It really paid to prepare carefully for it. Going to Spain was the right decision and I can recommend others to choose this country, which appears to me to be doing much better on a scientific level than people might think.