"In order to promote the career [in science] you also have to acknowledge the successful career," asserts Daniela Corda, chair of the European Life Science Organization?s (ELSO?s) Career Development Committee. Corda was explaining the purpose of the ELSO Early Career Award at ELSO?s second meeting, held in Nice last week. Shortly after the presentation of this year?s award, she pointed out the hordes of young postdocs and PhDs milling around. "If they see you can have a recognised career at a young age," she continued, "they may stop thinking a career in science is such a hard thing."
And this year?s awardee is certainly a fine example to up-and-coming researchers. Maria Blasco is pursuing her career in her native Spain. She chose science in high school because she saw that molecular biology was "already a very exciting field" offering the opportunity to address problems important for health "using very neat tools." For her PhD, at the Centre of Molecular Biology in Madrid, Blasco studied a bacteriophage genome, but it was around that time that telomere biology was "starting to be a hot issue." So for her postdoc she jumped both to eukaryotes and to the United States to work at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CHSL) with Carol Greider, one of the pioneers of the field.
Blasco spent 4 years in the U.S., returning to Spain to take up a permanent position at the Spanish Council for Scientific Research?s National Centre of Biotechnology in 1997. Finding a job at home was "very easy" she says. Permanent positions at government research institutes are given strictly on the basis of your publication record, she explains, and her time at Cold Spring Harbor had been very productive. In fact she describes the decision to go to the States as "totally critical" to her career. There she discovered a "completely different way to look at science," describing the atmosphere at CSHL as "very fast; very dynamic."
Now she tries to run her lab "in an American way." It?s important, she says, that the students working with her "know that they can do anything" and also that "what they do is important" and has an impact on science. She describes the department she works in as "very American-like" in that it is filled with young people and has no "big bosses" or rigid power structures. However, the funding situation in Spain certainly makes a difference. "My lab is mostly graduate students," she explains, whereas American labs have more postdocs, who often come with considerable experience.
All the more credit to Blasco, then, that she has continued to do great research in Europe. Indeed in judging the award nominees, while their whole CV is important, explains Corda, it is the amount of time spent doing good work in Europe--and doing good work as an independent researcher--that really counts. On this basis, Blasco was the clear winner of the award, for which 31 scientists from 15 countries were nominated by ELSO members, although choosing the short list of nine was extremely difficult, according to the Career Development Committee?s Nancy Lane.
The Early Career Award, worth ? 1000, is presented to an outstanding researcher who is within 10 years of receiving his or her PhD. The award is given at each of ELSO?s meetings, which means that the honour is up for grabs annually. Elisa Izaurralde from the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg was the winner of the first Early Career Award. Izaurralde, who works on the transport of mRNA between the nucleus and the cytoplasm and its turnover in the cytoplasm, says that the impact of receiving the award is "difficult to evaluate." However, she thinks that the international colleagues she meets at EMBL are impressed by the fact that she has received this prize. She is also hopeful that, when she comes to look for a permanent position in a few years time (posts at EMBL are for a maximum of 9 years), the boost it gives to her CV will be a benefit. Above all, however, she was happy that her "research is somehow recognised at the European level."
This simple fact of recognition, "to see that there are people who appreciate the things that you publish," is important to Blasco too. "It?s the best thing for a scientist," she points out. And Blasco was pleased not only for herself and for the people in her lab, but also for the field of telomerase research, in which she works. "It?s still very small in Europe compared to the U.S.," she explains.
For the future, Blasco hopes "to keep working as I have been, to try to contribute to the field," and to "try to do good work." It sounds like a modest ambition, but such perseverance is the key to a successful scientific career, according to Izaurralde. "It?s true [that a career in science] is not an easy choice, especially for women because you require a lot of mobility" and dedication to spending a great deal of time in the lab, she admits. However, she adds, "I have always been convinced that this is what I want to do." The hardest moments are early in your career, perhaps when the results may not be coming in. If you know that research is for you, then keep going, she advises: "You shouldn?t give up at the first problem or difficulty."