Since 2000, the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO)--an organisation dedicated to promoting biological science in Europe--has used its Young Investigator Programme (YIP) to help talented life scientists start independent research careers in Europe. But even as 180 young scientists were benefiting from the extra funding, mentor support, and networking opportunities YIP provides, EMBO was growing worried that Western European researchers--who arguably need those resources less than their eastern colleagues--were winning most of the awards.
"We didn't receive the number and quality of applications" from Central Europe, says YIP manager Gerlind Wallon. It is particularly difficult to become a group leader at an early age in these countries, Wallon explains. In addition to the challenges faced by early-career scientists elsewhere--scarce funding and a dearth of permanent positions--eastern scientists must deal with tiny national research budgets and a reluctance of established professors to help them gain independence.
An unfortunate consequence is that often, "good people go outside" their home countries "and then do not find anything to return" to, says Wallon. To address this problem, last year EMBO launched its Strategic Development Installation Grants programme to help less wealthy parts of Europe catch up with the West and attract their best scientific talent back home to establish independent labs. So far, five Eastern European countries--Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Poland, and Turkey--and Portugal have taken part.
The first generation
Last December, EMBO announced the first 10 installation-grant winners; three of those winners will be setting up their labs in Poland, two each in Turkey and Portugal, and one each in Croatia, Estonia, and the Czech Republic. To apply, scientists must have spent two consecutive years abroad and have an offer of a position at an institute in one of the participating countries. For the first year of the programme, scientists who had already returned--but not more than a year before--were also eligible. The 10 winners, Wallon says, were selected from among 74 applicants. "The programme is important because these people are selected by an independent body, ... so that the countries will be sure that those are indeed the best people," says Claudio Sunkel, chair of the programme's board and vice-director of the Molecular and Cellular Biology Institute in Portugal.
The winners will receive 50,000 euros annually for the next 3 years. At the end of that period, an additional 2 years of funding may be awarded, pending a positive evaluation. "EMBO also gives them the opportunity to participate in the Young Investigator network," attending meetings and setting up collaborations with other young scientists in Europe, choosing a mentor from among EMBO members, and accessing lab-management training courses and facilities at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL). This support, together with "the feeling that they don't come back to a single country; they come back to Europe," is very important in attracting young scientists back and helping them succeed, Sunkel says.
The quality of the applications was very high, says Wallon. "Most of them were in a good U.S. or Western Europe lab," she says, adding that the first thing she looks at is whether applicants have a good publication record. A research project that is original, tackles major, fundamental questions in biology, and isn't "a mere continuation of what has been done during the Ph.D." is also necessary. It should also be "doable within the frame that one has available"--that is, in the specified time and with the facilities available at the new home lab and collaborating labs.
A winning experience
After graduating from Warsaw University in 1997 with a degree in organic chemistry, Marcin Nowotny, 33, attended the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry. He studied calcium-binding proteins, which "are useful markers for the development of cancer," he says.
When he finished his degree in 2002, Nowotny joined Wei Yang's lab at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH). "One of the main goal[s] for me was to learn crystallography," he says. There, he worked to determine the three-dimensional (3D) structure of a nuclease that is key in the replication of HIV, which "really helps the development of drugs." He liked the group's small size and its close interactions.
In 2005, Nowotny secured a 5-year position in Poland, at the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw, where he plans to establish a protein structure and mechanism laboratory after he finishes his postdoc at NIDDK. "This is the best opportunity for me to go back to Poland," says Nowotny, because the institute is "run and managed on Western Europe standards." The position came with funds for start-up and salary for two Ph.D. students. He plans to use the EMBO money to purchase consumables and small pieces of equipment to study the 3D structure of a protein involved in DNA repair and cancer--the project he proposed in his installation grant. "The opportunity to be part of the YIP network will also be of great help," says Nowotny.
From where Nowotny stands, the future looks bright. The Polish science community is small, but his new institute is located on a campus where "everything is concentrated," so opportunities to recruit talented students and set up collaborations are good. Also, "I was surprised [at] how many different funding opportunities are available." Polish spending on science is still very low relative to its gross domestic product, but with support from the E.U., "Poland has a lot of potential to grow," and Nowotny wants to be part of that growth. "If I stayed in the U.S., it's huge; nobody would even notice I'm here," says Nowotny. But in Poland, "I have a chance to make a difference."
Silva-Santos, 33, gained a B.Sc. in biochemistry from the University of Lisbon in 1996. Then he entered an international Ph.D. programme in biomedicine at the Gulbenkian Science Institute in Oeiras, Portugal , where he took 1 year of postgraduate courses. As part of the programme, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, together with the Portuguese government, pay for the students to do their Ph.D.s abroad.
Silva-Santos studied signalling in the regulation of T-cell development with Michael Owen in the Lymphocyte Molecular Biology Laboratory at U.K.'s London Research Institute. Then, in 2002, he did a 3-year postdoc under the supervision of Adrian Hayday at the Department of Immunobiology at King's College London with a Wellcome Trust research fellowship. There, he worked on harnessing T cells in the fight against cancer, picking up molecular and cellular biology skills along the way.
"The major problem Portugal always had is that [there were] only very few institutes that were of international standards," says Silva-Santos. But today, "there is a big improvement compared to 10 years ago. Very few people could find their way back to Portugal" then. "I felt that it was time to return, now that Portugal was changing and giving us much better conditions, [and] that we should contribute to the development of the country." So in 2006, he took a position at the Institute of Molecular Medicine in Lisbon, where he is now establishing a lab in molecular and cellular immunology. The lab will focus on the development and activation of T cells for drug-discovery applications.
"But it is still difficult for Portuguese scientists to get international recognition," so "for me, the EMBO fellowship was crucial," says Silva-Santos. "It will give me credibility for other grants." The extra funding is welcome, too: The 30,000 euros he got from his institute in his first year is exhausted, and although he is confident his research will attract government funding, it hasn't yet. The EMBO grant will keep the two Ph.D. students and two postdocs, all of whom came to his lab with their own funding, well-equipped and supplied. Silva-Santos is eager "to put across this message that we can do good things in Portugal." He wants to encourage students to enter research and expatriated scientists to come back home, like he did.
Nesrin Özören, 34, gained a B.Sc. in molecular biology and genetics from Boğaziçi University in Istanbul in 1995. She then did a Ph.D. on death-receptor signalling and cancer at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, choosing the lab of Wafik El-Deiry because "he was at that time a just newly established faculty with a huge funding," says Özören. "Going to the U.S.A. gave me broader choices," although there are, she says, more research opportunities in Turkey today than during her undergraduate years. Özören defended her Ph.D. just 1 month before giving birth to her son. "The end of the Ph.D. is the best time to go through pregnancy," she says, because with all her experiments complete, she could stay at home and write her thesis.
In 2002, Özören started a 3-year postdoc with Gabriel Nuñez at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She started working on a novel gene that is important in the process of apoptosis via mitochondria. But "after 1 year and a half, there was something more exciting going on," so she began studying the role of a new family of cytosolic receptors in the immune system, picking up animal-experimentation skills along the way.
Her visa was running out, and a desire was growing "for our son to grow in the kind of environment we grew" up in. So Özören returned to Turkey in 2005, securing a tenured assistant professorship back at Boğaziçi University. "The department had a new building, and the department chairs were very supportive," she says. But her position does not provide any start-up funds, so she spent her first year applying for grants. So far, she has secured 10,000 euros from her university's research fund, another 110,000 euros from the Turkish Science and Technology Research Council, and a Distinguished Young Scientist Award from the Turkish Academy of Sciences, which provided 24,000 euros for 3 years as well as mentoring and networking opportunities within the academy.
Özören plans to use her latest and biggest grant--the installation award--to buy consumables and some small equipment for her group, which today includes two master's degree students and one postdoc, all with their own fellowships. She also intends to make full use of the EMBO networking opportunities and the privileged access the award provides to EMBL facilities. Meanwhile, "I say to all my friends abroad, it's the best time to go back to Turkey and Europe," she says.
Keeping it up
Even with EMBO support, scientists returning to their homes in Europe's less prosperous countries should expect some tough times. They will have "to fight very strongly against isolation, to maintain international links, to bring new ideas and work that is possibly not well-developed" in their home country, says Sunkel. And most importantly, they will have "to fight strongly against complacency." The key, says EMBO Executive Director Frank Gannon, is to keep up their standards and compete internationally. "Don't use the environment as an excuse," Gannon says. Coming back "is a difficult decision at the time," agrees Sunkel, but for many the opportunity to come home is worthy compensation.
The deadline for the next round of applications for EMBO Installation Grants is 15 April 2007.
Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.
Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.