Getting a chance to work with a top research group is something that almost every early-career scientist hopes for. Landing such a position, however, is hard to do in the current tight academic job market. Getting your foot in the door sometimes means taking risks, thinking outside the comfort zone, and taking the lead on making it happen. That is exactly what Ph.D. graduate Celine Ster (pictured left) decided she had to do. Ster, a microbiologist, left her home country of France last July to take up a postdoc position at a Canadian government agricultural laboratory in Lennoxville, Quebec.
Thanks to a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) fellowship that places postdocs in government laboratories across the country, Ster can stay within her chosen discipline and further her career. In her opinion, it's the best thing that could have happened to her.
"I think it's very important when you're young, not to put limits on yourself." says Ster. "Sometimes it's worth it to take a chance."
Ster's Ph.D. focused on the effects of mastitis in cows and its prevention and treatment. Mastitis is, by far, the most common and costly disease in milk production. It is characterized by a painful inflammation of the udders resulting from an infection by Staphylococcus aureus bacteria. Milk quality and yield is significantly reduced. Mastitis research is therefore not purely of academic interest. "It's no surprise that affected dairy cattle have serious economic impacts on local and national economies," explains Ster.
Despite the economic importance of her research field, when Ster was completing her doctoral thesis at Université François-Rabelais in Tours, France, she found herself in the middle of a daunting search for a funded postdoc position. She quickly realized that postings were scarce and opportunities in her field were limited across France."In France, it's so hard that you have to take all the opportunities that you can get," she says. "It also didn't help hearing the same stories from my peers who were also having difficulties," she adds.
But Ster was aware that her work would hold importance beyond her own national boundaries; mastitis is a worldwide problem for the farming community. The National Mastitis Council in the United States, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing information to the dairy industry about mastitis control, udder health, milking management, and milk quality, has estimated that this infection costs the average producer in that country USD 185 dollars per cow per year in lost quantity and quality. In Canada, in the province of Quebec alone, mastitis has been cited as the second-leading cause of culling in dairy herds.
As luck would have it, a Canadian government scientist who specializes in mastitis, came to visit her university laboratory last spring just as Ster was just wrapping up her studies and still hunting for her next opportunity. Working at the Dairy and Swine Research and Development Centre of Agriculture Canada, Pierre Lacasse was carrying out studies on the role of pathogens associated with mastitis.
"He asked me when I was finishing my Ph.D. and said that he has a lab back in Quebec that can use my competencies."
It didn't take long for Ster to decide to grab onto this timely opportunity. She followed-up with an e-mail to Lacasse and quickly got a reply inviting her to come over to Canada. Her postdoc would focus on the role of iron in cow mastitis and the growth of the bacteria in the udders. Both parties knew, however, that the financial hurdles still lay ahead.
Lacasse encouraged Ster to apply to the Visiting Fellowship (VF) program at NSERC. This federal award is unique in that it has no deadlines and is open to foreign applicants; most NSERC scholarships and fellowships are open to Canadian citizens only and run on cyclical closing dates. VF places early-career scientists within any one of 13 federal government institutions or agencies, like Agriculture Canada, offering a chance to get experience working in a nationally run research laboratory while providing full financial support for the term of the fellowship.
Ster went online and filled out the application form and waited to be placed on the inventory list of nearly 500 names. Researchers at the various federal agencies and their constituent laboratories sift through the inventory list looking for applicants that match what they are looking for. Last year 174 fellowships were awarded and Ster was one of the lucky ones.
Ster had an advantage, in that she had already made contact with Lacasse at Agriculture Canada. "It was simply a matter of them waiting for my name to appear on the inventory list." says Ster." It went very fast, 3 weeks after applying she received a letter stating that her name had been added. At this point Lacasse could officially send her an offer.
Now over eight months after arriving in Lennoxville, Quebec, she loves what she is doing and the international experience the VF program has given her. While the $40,000 provides the support she needs for her stay, Ster says that there was much more that was drawing her to this posting. After having so much difficulty tracking down a job back in France, it was just nice to find a team of researchers that shared her interests.
According to Ster, working in a government lab has advantages over working in a university lab. Universities have a harder time getting funding, sometimes leaving their labs equipped with older equipment. Research directors or team leaders at universities divide their time between teaching and research, which is not usually the case at government laboratories. "At university your director may not always be in the lab and so you may not always be able to see him. Here at Agriculture Canada, if I need to ask questions, the manager is in the lab."
What advice does she give for others? Do your homework before adding your name to the inventory list. Ster recommends that potential applicants do a literature search on who is doing what kind of research in a particular discipline and take the initiative and contact them directly. Ster says that while the contacts you make can't directly help with your application, "If you approach a lab and you tell them that there's a fellowship that allows you to come, then it shows that you really want to join their team, and that is an important point for any lab."
Ster also points out that the most challenging parts of the application process involves describing how your research would benefit the work of the government laboratory you're applying to is currently doing, and explaining in a few short paragraphs what impact your past work has had. "It was difficult because they ask you to explain it in words ? for non-scientists and it was hard to be able to say the right things for that audience." explains Ster.
While her fellowship at Lacasses' lab is for only one year, Ster is hopping to extend it for an extra year or two. This is possible as the fellowship can be renewed for up to two additional years at the discretion of the government department. She feels that the first year has been an adjustment period, during which she has adapted to living and working in Canada and has only just begun getting into the core of her research, "When I left France, I said that I'm going for 1 year, but I hope I'm going to be here for more."
At this point Ster feels she is on the right track. She began doing research in France working in a university laboratory, but has always seen her career involving bench work within a government-lab setting. The NSERC-VF program has set her on her way. Once she completes her postdoc, Ster is keeping her options open as to whether she stays in Canada or goes back to France. Her biggest concern now though, is a Canadian winter. "I am excited to see what the future holds for me, but I really hope that I survive winter!"
For more information on the Visiting Fellowship in Canadian Government Laboratories, visit NSERC's Web site. 
Also, check out our profile article  on the Visiting Fellowship Program.
Andrew Fazekas is Canadian Editor at Next Wave and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org