At a time when mobility has become almost a prerequisite for a scientific success, countries with knowledge-based economies are competing fiercely to attract and cultivate the best scientific workforce. For talented early career scientists, this means better, if also more competitive, opportunities. Among these opportunities is the Chairs of Excellence program, launched in 2004 by the French government in order to give world-class scientists another reason to choose France as their career destination.

The Chairs of Excellence provide more money to young scientists from abroad who have been recruited to French research institutes to set up research groups. Ten junior laureates were announced in 2004; among them was Lena Alexopoulou (pictured above), a Greek researcher now working at the Centre for Immunology, Marseille-Luminy. In an interview with Next Wave, Alexopoulou reflects on her career progression and observes that for her the award is already making a difference.

The Early Days

After finishing her Ph.D. studies in molecular biology at the Hellenic Pasteur Institute in Athens in 1998, Alexopoulou headed for the United States. A 2-year fellowship from the Human Science Frontier Program financed a postdoc at Yale University School of Medicine on the role of so-called "toll-like receptors" in immune responses. She stayed at Yale for 3 more years after her postdoc, as an assistant researcher employed on soft money.

"After 5 years in the United States, I decided that I prefer to live in Europe, for a combination of reasons," she says, noting especially the desire to live closer to her family and a preference for European lifestyles. She also felt that delaying her return might make it difficult for her to integrate into the European working environment, because the funding systems and the lab culture in the United States and Europe are quite different. So long before she left Yale, she started looking for group-leader positions back in Europe. "You have to start looking around and applying for jobs 1 to 2 years ahead of time," she says.

A Permanent Position in France

Alexopoulou did well, attracting six interview offers at research institutes in Italy, Austria, England, and France. In the end, she accepted a group-leader position at the Centre for Immunology, Marseille-Luminy (CIML) in France, a mixed research unit of CNRS, INSERM and University of Aix-Marseille II. "I liked the CIML a lot," she says. "My future colleagues looked happy and interested in science, and the institution had the main resources that I needed to do the research that I was planning. In general, I felt it was the right environment for my research."

Finding a group leader position, she believes, is all about finding the best fit between the candidates' and the institutions' needs and resources, from both the candidate's and the institution's perspectives. "In order to do the projects that you are planning [to do], most of the time you need special facilities and expensive equipment that sometimes the institution doesn't have," she says. At other times "the institute fits your needs, and you can be a very good scientist, and still don't get the position because another candidate fits better the aims of the institute."

France is unusual in that finding a position doesn't necessarily mean finding employment. "The institute agreed to give me space lab, furniture for my lab with all the appropriate equipment, and support the cost for my research, at least for the first few years. But they did not have resources that could be used for my salary," she explains. So in France one usually needs to apply for salaries separately. "Probably this has to do with the fact that in France you have permanent positions at an early stage in your career, something that is not possible in the U.S. or in many other European countries," says Alexopoulou.

So she started her career as a group leader as ... a postdoc. "Since I wanted to join the institute in early 2004, I applied in advance for a postdoctoral fellowship--a Poste Vert from INSERM--and I stayed at this salary until I got the permanent position." By the end of 2004, she had obtained a Senior Researcher Grade 1 (CR1) position at CNRS, along with an ATIP ( Action Thématique et Incitative sur Programme) grant for junior researchers from the CNRS to continue her activities as group leader. "The only thing that changed is that I was bringing money to the institute and that I [would] not have to worry for my salary anymore," she says.

Starting from Scratch

Her appointment at the CIML was Alexopoulou's first taste of independence, and like many young investigators, she learned that independence has its challenges. "The challenge is to build everything from zero," she says. "You have a lab that is totally empty, and you are responsible for things you know how to do because you have been trained before, and [other] things you have no clue." But being in a supportive environment can help. The opportunity to "ask senior scientists for advice" and to share experiences with other junior researchers in the process of establishing themselves can make the transition to independence much easier.

Still, she warns, setting up a group takes longer than you think. After about a year and a half, she feels that the lab is "starting having the critical mass of people, and doing the experiments that we want to do." She now has a permanent technician who was provided by the institute, as well as two postdoc fellows and two Ph.D. students, for whom she was able to secure funding from French agencies. Still, though it is important to get your lab up and running as quickly as possible, Alexopoulou advises others to take their time; attracting people to the lab and choosing the right ones is particularly tricky for a young investigator. Because the lab is small and new, it is essential to find good people, but for the very same reason young group leaders may lose talented candidates to more established labs.

The challenges of setting up a lab may be large, but the rewards are worth it, says Alexopoulou. "You see the whole lab growing, and it is something you have achieved."

Stepping onto a Chair of Excellence

"I was informed about [the Chairs of Excellence] when I was already in the CIML", recalls Alexopoulou. Chair of Excellence fellows may be of any age, field, and nationality, but they must be coming from a research experience abroad, and they must have been offered employment by a research organisation in France for at least 3 years. "I wrote the application shortly after joining the institute, and at that time I didn't know what were my chances since it was the first time this programme was running," says Alexopoulou. She was successful, she thinks, because her proposal fit the objectives of the programme well. "The [French] government is looking for young scientists, and new projects and ideas that are not well established or developed in France. I proved I had the ability of doing it because of my previous career [path], and I was in the right place to do it."

The Chair of Excellence for young researchers pays €250,000 over 3 years-- €150,000 in the first year--to be spent on equipment and other lab costs as well as salaries for short-term contract staff. Along with the extra cash comes good publicity. "It is a prestigious grant; the fact that I already have this grant makes [other] applications a little stronger," she says. It should also make the lab more attractive to bright young scientists. "The award is an advertisement," she says. "It exposes the existence of your new lab to the scientific community."

Settling in France

For now, the programme may be attracting young group leaders to France; but whether it will succeed in its aim of building up the French science workforce remains to be seen. The success of the programme hinges on whether these young scientists decide France is the best place for them to stay in the long-term. "In 5 years['s time], I would like to see how the lab is doing, what we have achieved, and what are our future plans and challenges, and then will decide for my next step," says Alexopoulou.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.