It's true that the events of the late 1980s led to far greater freedoms for scientists and in some countries vastly expanded scientific opportunities. But in my home country of Romania, it took much longer for real scientific opportunities to emerge. Only time will tell whether this recent increase in opportunities is permanent.
My first experience outside of Romania occurred just after my graduation, in 1992, from the faculty of physics at the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University of Iasi, where I was given the chance to be part of the new laboratory of biophysics put in place by Mircea Sanduloviciu, Petre T. Frangopol, and Gheorghe Popa. I was invited to work and study biophysics under the supervision of Zsolt Tokaji at the Biological Research Center in Szeged, Hungary, and I accepted.
Two years later, I moved to Austria to work on my doctoral thesis at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz, under the supervision of Wolfgang Schreibmayer. Earning a doctoral degree in Graz, I learned firsthand how to do high-quality research in molecular biophysics and electrophysiology. I also learned that quality research in this field requires grant money, for equipment, chemicals, reagents, books, and so on.
Tudor Luchian's laboratory Staff. L-R, Dr. Alina Asandei, a research associate, and Ph. D. students Aurelia Apetrei and Loredana Mereuta.
I earned my doctoral degree in 1997 and returned home, hoping to pursue similar research in Romania. But in Romania at that time, funding for research was very scarce. For a young Ph.D., the possibility of obtaining grant money for even the smallest biophysics project was remote. I had a choice: I could learn to be content working at home without the needed resources, or I could leave Romania again. I sought a postdoc abroad, to continue the intellectual investment made in myself during the doctoral program.
In 1998, I accepted an excellent opportunity to work as a 'research officer' at the University of Queensland in Australia under the supervision of David J. Adams and Richard J. Lewis. There, I worked to develop and implement electrophysiological techniques for the physiological assessment and pharmacological characterization of drug candidates aimed at the relief of chronic pain.
In late 1999, I returned to Romania again, still dreaming of putting together my own lab, running my own project, and becoming a scientific mentor for my young students at home. But my dreams were still unrealistic. Things had not yet changed enough. The economic situation in Romania remained bleak, and young, unknown, unconnected scientists were not trusted. Again, there seemed little chance of obtaining the funding I would need to run the lab I dreamed of.
So in 2001, I left again to work as an assistant research scientist at Texas A&M University. There, I studied biophysical aspects of molecular interactions occurring in a nanopore, using single-channel electrical recording. The head of the group was Hagan Bayley.
Two years later, I returned home for a third time. There had been some changes since I had left, in my home country and in me. Romania was in the earliest stages of preparing for its accession to membership in the European Union. Research funding was still scarce, and the political and economic circumstances were still challenging. But I was older and more experienced, with a bit more Texas-style determination. I decided to stay home, work hard, and hope for the best.
In Texas, I had learned that a strong intellectual climate in the lab, a positive attitude, and setting a good example for students counted for almost as much as a valuable piece of equipment. I didn't have much funding, but I filled my lab with young, enthusiastic graduates and we did the best science we could do with the resources we had. Still, we wanted more.
In the 2 years leading to Romania's accession to the European Union, laboratories around Romania--including mine--gathered momentum. For the first time in my scientific life, sufficient research funding was available in my home country. Today, with good ideas, enthusiastic young minds, and--finally--a couple of research grants, my lab is becoming the lab of my dreams, capable of doing research in molecular biophysics with cutting-edge techniques.
What I am most proud of is that I am now able to offer my young collaborators and students the opportunity to start a career in science at home, in Romania, with the right kind of support and real opportunities for professional development. But the situation is not settled; only time will tell whether opportunities will continue for the next generation of scientists. Key scientific and political administrators will decide whether to continue investing in these young scientists or to force them to seek their dreams somewhere else.
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Tudor Luchian is a professor in the Laboratory of Molecular and Medical Physics, in the Department of Physics at Alexandru Ioan Cuza University in Iasi, Romania.