Rebeca de Nalda Minguez (pictured left), 34, has just started her first permanent position, as Cientifico Titular of the Spanish Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) Rocasolano Institute for Chemical Physics in Madrid. She was only 2 years into her 5-year Ramón y Cajal contract, a research position created by the Spanish government in 2001 to bridge postdoctoral and permanent positions. At a time when many Ramón y Cajal scientists in their last year still have no permanent position in sight, de Nalda Minguez considers herself lucky, not least because she will begin her new position with management skills that she picked up during her time abroad.

After obtaining a 5-year degree in physics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in 1994, de Nalda Minguez did a 4-year Ph.D. at the Rocasolano Institute on laser-matter interactions. She went on to do a postdoc at the Madrid Institute of Optics in 2000; then she was off to the United Kingdom for a research-associate position at Imperial College London. She returned to Madrid in 2003 with a Ramón y Cajal at the Universidad Complutense.

"There is a tremendous bottleneck" to get a Cientifico Titular position, she says; when she applied in 2004, only 100 positions were offered by CSIC, for all fields and in the whole of Spain.

Still, for de Nalda Minguez, achieving true independence will be challenging. In Spain, "most people integrate into an existing and functioning lab," which gives them less freedom. Alternatively, "people can start afresh, but they do struggle for each aspect of research." She is seeking middle ground, joining some of her institute's activities while developing her own lines of research.

Molecular bonds are not the only things that de Nalda Minguez would like to break and rearrange during her career. "There are many problems in the Spanish system," she says: Newcomers are not welcomed, there are long delays in the processing of applications, and many scientists become permanent staff only in their 40s. Most of all, "we all have a lot to learn in this country on managerial skills--on setting up active and creative teams and working together with a common aim," she says.

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.