Funding to Start a Career

(September 20th, 2016) In early September, the European Research Council announced the lucky winners of their Starting Grants. More than 300 researchers will receive up to €1.5 million. We talked to three of them.

After a few months of nervous waiting, the results are out as the European Research Council (ERC) announces the recipients of this year’s Starting Grant. Almost 3,000 researchers applied, but only 325 received the good news that they had been awarded a share in the €485 million fund. All of the new projects will cover a wide range of topics, from basic science, such as deciphering what makes leaves fall in the autumn to revealing the true costs of bird flight; to more practical medical applications, including assessing the reversibility of autism to developing approaches for the selection of personalised cancer drugs.

The grant, which is worth up to €1.5 million for each project, can be a major step for early-career researchers to set up their own team and nurture their pioneering ideas. This is exactly why Bert De Rybel, from the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) in The Netherlands, applied for this funding. “The ERC allows me to start up my own independent research team and fund this for 5 years”, explains the researcher. “It is also one of the rare grants with sufficient budget to really tackle a big question in science with a group of people.” Also chasing a big question is Nabila Bouatia-Naji, from the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) in France. “I applied for this grant because it's a very prestigious award and it gives the opportunity to fund work that other grants could not fund”. For Bruno Correia, based at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland, this ERC funding is an opportunity for ambitious projects. "The funding awarded by this grant is truly transformative for a lab that is just starting - just like ours".

De Rybel sees this funding as a natural progression from work already developed in his previous position looking at vascular tissue development in plants. “We have developed a system in which we can control cell division orientation in an inducible fashion in any cell type of the plant”, explains the researcher. “We will now use this to find novel factors that are involved in this developmental process, by studying the transcriptional responses or cell biological changes that occur”. Overall, their main goal is to reach the end of their ERC funding with a better understanding about the molecular mechanisms controlling the orientation of plant cell divisions.

In contrast, the appealing factor about these grants for Bouatia-Naji was the possibility to explore a subject in far greater depth than she could have achieved before. “This is a much riskier research than the one I conducted until now. I have found some very interesting preliminary data results on [fibromuscular dysplasia] and this opened the opportunity to investigate more about the genetic basis of this disease”. At the moment not much is known about fibromuscular dysplasia, other than it tends to affect 40- to 50-year-old women. “We don’t really understand why this disease develops in these women”, says the researcher, but “we think genetics is going to be a way to understand what happens”. For Bouatia-Naji, this funding is the opportunity “to make important progress in understanding the genetic basis of a disease that is not very well known by the general population, it’s not even known by clinicians working on cardiovascular diseases”.

Demonstrating the real variety of selected ERC projects, Correia's project follows a more computer-based approach. "In their core, our plans are to push the boundaries of computational protein design through the development of novel methodologies and applications in relevant biomedical problem", says the researcher. "With this in mind, we will work on the design of novel immunogens for vaccine research and protein-based biologics for cancer immunotherapy".

Whatever their field, for the 325 awarded scientists, finding out about the award will most likely be a moment they will remember for a long time. De Rybel, Bouatia-Naji and Correia are no exception. “A mix of completely over-the-top excited; feeling supported by the scientific community and anxious to get started with this great opportunity”, that’s how Dr Rybel describes his feelings. “As a scientist, when you apply to this kind of grant, you really don’t think about the moment when you get it”, adds Bouatia-Naji. “I was really happy because it was something I was waiting for a long time”. For Correia, it was a feeling of pride mixed with relief. "Very proud … and relieved since it does take a lot of effort and it is a long process", concludes the researcher.

Alex Reis

Last Changes: 10.14.2016