Not many scientists have the audacity to change research directions in the early stages of their independent research career, and fewer still have the courage to leave a tenure-track position for a postdoc. But for Valentina Emiliani, such changes have become commonplace. A physicist by training whose work on the optical properties of semiconductors yielded a Masters degree, a Ph.D., and a 3-year postdoc, Emiliani has moved from optical spectroscopy to microscopy and from semiconductors to semiconductor nanostructures and, eventually, to biological systems. Throughout her young career, Emiliani has made a series of tough decisions and changes of course that, although they may have delayed her maturity as a fully independent scientist, have also kept her viable for the kind of work she wants to do, and the kind of life she intends to lead. For Emiliani, who this week was awarded a European Young Investigator award, it was worth the wait.

Emiliani obtained an undergraduate degree in physics from La Sapienza University in Rome in 1990, and a Masters degree in 1991 for her experimental research on the optical properties of semiconductors. She then did a joint Ph.D., at La Sapienza University and the European Laboratory for Non-Linear Spectroscopy (LENS) in Florence, using optical techniques to investigate quantum effects in semiconductor nanostructures. After that, she went to Germany to do a 3-year postdoc, spending 6 months at the Technische Universität and 2-and-a-half years at the Max Born Institute in Berlin, where she continued to study the optical properties of quantum confined systems.

See the applications more directly
Emiliani thought she had finally gained some stability in her career when she returned to Italy in 2000 to accept a ricercartore--a type of tenure-track position--at LENS, which was funded by the Istituto Nazionale Fisica della Materia (INFM). At LENS, Emiliani says, "I was in charge of forming a research team dedicated to developing high-resolution optical approaches to study single nanostructures." Emiliani had so far been working on fundamental research projects; this new work was in tune with her desire to see the applications of her research more directly.

"The difficulty was in finding applications and a good research field to develop," she says. Emiliani began to ponder the different kinds of nanostructures she could profitably study. She was aiming to find an area where there would be room for her to grow and establish a meaningful research programme. "I had been working on semiconductors for many years," she says, "and I wanted to change a little bit." So she decided to have a look at biological structures, applying high-resolution optical techniques that are most often applied to semiconductors.

It was a good decision, but things didn't work out at LENS, for a mixture of personal and professional reasons. Emiliani's husband, an Italian scientist living in France, had gotten an offer at the Scuola Normale in Pisa and intended to accept it, but at the last moment the offer was withdrawn. Her own prospects for tenure were also uncertain. "With the new government, the Italian funding situation changed completely." Even her tenure-track position wasn’t secure, she says. So 2 years after she began her ricercartore , Emiliani decided to join her husband who was already living in France.

Emiliani immediately tried to apply for a permanent position at the CNRS, but she knew it would be hard to get. In addition to getting to know all the ins and outs of the French system, by then her interest in biological systems had solidified but she was still inexperienced in her new field. So she took a postdoc at the Institut Jacques Monod in Paris, where she began to study the influence of mechanical forces on cell polarity using optical techniques. "Even if being back at a postdoc position was quite difficult," she says, "this was a necessary step."

Back as team leader
Emiliani's gamble paid off when, in 2004, she obtained a CR1 ( chargé de recherche, première classe) position from the CNRS at her institute, working on the same project as her postdoc. Soon after that, she was offered an opportunity to form another research team at the CNRS Neurophysiology and New Microscopies Laboratory at the Paris V University. She found herself back in the role of team leader, and in the research niche she had chosen for herself. "My project is to develop optical techniques to be applied in neurobiology," she says. She moved to her own lab only 2 months ago, and she plans to spend the next year developing the optical laboratory while acquiring the necessary knowledge of neurobiology.

Another sign that Emiliani is doing really well for herself is the EURYI award that she also obtained this year from the European Research Organisations Heads of Research Councils (EuroHORCS) and the European Science Foundation (ESF). Emiliani's EURYI award is a vindication of her difficult choices; she won the award partly, she believes, because of the field in which she landed.

"Being at the interface of physics and biology is, at the moment, quite promising," she says. Emiliani thinks that another important point in her favour is that she has found a very good place for her project. "I am building up a team of physicists but in a biomedical research unit, so I will be in a perfect environment to develop projects at the interface between physics and biology." The nearly €1 million Emiliani will receive will help her build her research team. "It really allows you to jump start you own research activity," she says. She also hopes that the prestige that comes with the award will make it easier for her to secure funding later on. "It is a sort of guarantee that you are in the right field."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.