To say that María Blasco (pictured left) has been blessed with awards in her still-young research career would be an understatement. With the 2000 Swiss Bridge Award for Research in Cancer, the 2002 European Life Scientist Organization (ELSO) Early Career Award, the 2003 Josef Steiner Cancer Research Award, the 2003 Universalia Research Award, and the 2004 Carcinogenesis Young Investigator Award already under her belt, the Spanish researcher can now add the 2004 European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) Gold Medal to her glittering record. Yet she remains modest and attributes most of her success to luck and a passion for her field. In talking to her, however, it rapidly becomes evident that her drive and her proactive approach also have something to do with her achievements.

A recurrent theme in Blasco's career is how focused, quick, and effective her successive career steps have been. She started studying molecular biology in 1989 with a 5-year degree at the Autonomous University of Madrid, "the only university in Spain which had this speciality," she explains. She went on to do a Ph.D. on the replication of DNA at the Centre of Molecular Biology Severo Ochoa, also in Madrid, where she graduated in 1993.

Postdoc at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

The year 1993 was also about the same time that an enzyme close to the one she was working on, telomerase, was first associated with the development of cancer in humans. "This was very appealing to me," Blasco recalls, so she started looking for a lab that would allow her to do a postdoc on the subject. This led her to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, USA. It was the only opportunity she explored. "Everything was perfect for me to go there," she says. "I first chose a theme, and then I liked the fact that it was based in the U.S. and close to New York City. I also had heard from friends that the telomerase lab directed by Carol Greider was a top place."

So she applied, visited the lab, and got the job. "I was lucky," Blasco says, "but I think it is essential now to have more than one option" when considering where to go for a postdoc, she says. She also recommends going "abroad, especially to the U.S., because this is where most of the action takes place." Although she is quick to add that some excellent science is also done in Europe, "labs in the U.S. work faster and are more dynamic; it is good to see how they work." She believes the working environment in the United States helps postdocs gain confidence in their ability to do science. "Postdocs are given more freedom with their research project, and there is more recognition of their work," Blasco explains.

She could also feel more tangible ambition and a stronger drive for career progression in U.S. labs, which she attributed to most of the people there being postdocs, whereas in Spain they are more likely to be Ph.D. students. "[This results in] different behaviour because [postdocs] have a life that is more settled, and they are more ambitious. When you are a postdoc, you are still learning, but you always think that you should go on to the next step."

Like many expatriated Spanish postdocs, Blasco was hoping her next step would take her back to Spain: "I wouldn't have come back if I hadn't found a job I liked." The offer that convinced her was a permanent position at the Department of Immunology and Oncology at the National Centre of Biotechnology in Madrid, which she joined in 1997. She was given lab space and funding to hire three Ph.D. students to start her own research group on telomerase activity, her salary being provided by El Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (the Spanish National Research Council). "Normally, you have got to apply for grants," she says. "I was lucky because I did not waste any time."

Landing this position may have been a stroke of luck, but it surely wouldn't have happened if Blasco had not been both skilled and savvy. "I found out about [this position] because my husband, who was then also working at Cold Spring Harbor, was contacted by the department [in Madrid], which was looking for young scientists to set up their own groups," she explains. She decided to contact them and explain her project as well--in a field that was budding in Europe--and they were interested. "I got the position [because of] the subject, and also for the fact that I had good publications, which also allowed me to get a permanent position from the research council," she says. Her husband, too, was offered a position at the Madrid biotechnology centre. She recalls that it was a relief for the couple that they both had found a job in the same centre and at the same time, so "no one had to sacrifice anything."

Blasco stayed at the National Centre of Biotechnology for 7 years. "Meanwhile, I knew about the Spanish National Cancer Centre ( CNIO) being built, with Mariano Barbacid as director, and I thought it would be a great place to be." She says she trusted Barbacid's ability to make it a place of excellence, and the way the centre was to be organised promised a flexibility practically unheard of in Spain.

In 2003, Blasco was recruited by Barbacid, who offered her the chance to head the Molecular Oncology Programme, which today encompasses nine groups. "The scientific community in Spain working on cancer isn't that big, so he knew everybody and thought my project was of interest," she says modestly. Barbacid, however, says he saw in Maria "one of the best scientists, not only within Europe, but within the entire scientific community. She could be a tenured professor at any of the best universities in the U.S. She also conveys the type of leadership I like to see in young people."

At CNIO, Blasco was given more lab space and the possibility to hire more scientists. Her laboratory staff now includes seven Ph.D. students, six postdocs, and two senior staff on Ramón y Cajal contracts.

It was Barbacid who nominated Blasco for the EMBO Gold Medal this year, which she is the first Spanish scientist to win. Offered annually to a scientist under age 40 working in Europe, the prize (a gold medal and a personal award of €10,000) recognises outstanding contributions in the field of molecular biology. "In a small [scientifically speaking] country like Spain with lots of people competing for the same small pie, this type of international recognition helps to place Maria one step ahead of the rest," says Barbacid.

Not an Easy Ride

Blasco's record may be impressive, but this doesn't mean that her career has been an easy ride. "There have been times when I was confused," she says. When "you have your own lab, you can choose what you want to study and the way you want to do it," she adds. But before you achieve this freedom, "you've got to do a lot of work. It is important that you look for a project that you really like; otherwise, it is very tough to keep going." Striking a good work-life balance is also key: "Work can be very frustrating sometimes; you need to disconnect."

So, what does it take to make it in academia? Blasco gives a characteristically modest reply: "I just run my lab and make the projects work for the students," while also doing work that is "of interest to my colleagues." Yet, she also recommends selecting a field that is quite new and exciting because then "it's probably easier to get some publications out." Working near the scientific frontier also means that "some students really like the subject, and those are more successful, always." Succeeding in science also requires a real passion for research ("because it is not a regular job") and the "capacity to deal with situations which can be very frustrating."

Blasco would like to encourage women scientists in particular to apply for permanent positions. "They need to be confident [and] not think that they can't do it if it's something that they want," she says. Gender bias is something that she never experienced herself, other than the occasional assumption when she came back from the United States that it was to work for her husband rather than heading her own lab.

Blasco is optimistic for the future of other young scientists in Spain. "Now, there are more opportunities for Spanish scientists abroad to come back and start their own group," she says, "and not just in Madrid and Barcelona. You can choose between different centres; what you need is a good CV and an interesting research field."

Have you thought about applying too?

Swiss Bridge Award for Research in Cancer Funding for basic cancer research, genetics and epidemiology, psycho-oncology and prevention research (total support approximating CHF 500,000). All scientists from academic and cancer research institutions in Europe may apply.

ELSO Early Career Award Annual award, open to early-career researchers in molecular life sciences working in Europe. Upon nomination.

Josef Steiner Cancer Research Award Funding of up to CHF 1,000,000 over 4 years for cancer research, plus personal prize of CHF 50,000 and attendance at a scientific conference. For early-career scientists world-wide, but priority is given to those based in European institutions.

Universalia Research Award Prize of €18,000, open to researchers in Spain under 40 years of age.

Carcinogenesis Young Investigator Award Prize of $2000 is offered to an investigator in carcinogenesis who is under the age of 40. Upon nomination.

EMBO Gold medal Annual award (a gold medal and €10,000 of personal award), open to early-career researchers in molecular biology working in Europe. Upon nomination.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.