I work on the development of gene therapy using hematopoietic stem cells. During my PhD studies and subsequent postdoc at the department of hematology at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, I learnt a great deal about selecting, culturing, transducing, and transplanting hematopoietic stem cells and their progeny. But I realized there was a gap in my education. The retroviral vectors that were used in our lab for gene transfer were developed in other, collaborating labs and sent to us for use on primary mouse, human, and nonhuman primate cells. I didn't have the molecular biology background needed to design retroviral vectors myself and I wanted to expand my knowledge in this field.
I also felt that I needed a change of scene. I had already worked in the same group for more than 7 years. It was time for me to go and find new challenges and learn new techniques before I became part of the old furniture of the department. What's more, I wanted to expand my opportunities on the job market and, not unimportantly, increase my chances of securing future project grants from Dutch and international funding agencies. Many Dutch agencies are more likely to fund your research project if you have worked in a lab in another country. That might be related to the fact that you are more skilled and have possible links to a future collaborator but it is also a sign that you take your job very seriously. Some won't even grade your proposal if you don't have any experience abroad.
Applying for the fellowship
My supervisor, Dr. Wagemaker, advised me to apply for a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship which would allow me to visit a lab with great expertise in vector design and learn a lot about molecular biology and gene transfer. At that time we had just started to collaborate with Professor Baum and his experimental cell therapy group at the Hannover Medical School in Germany. This group is well known for its design of retroviral vectors for efficient gene transfer and it seemed like a good idea for me to go there for a year and exchange knowledge and expertise.
Professor Baum was very helpful with the submission of the proposal to the EU. It is very important to contact the researcher at the host institute early and describe clearly what is expected from them. The host institute is responsible for writing part of the proposal for the individual fellowship. Don't delay too long; working against a deadline is terrible!
I must admit that I was very excited when a few months after submission I received a positive decision from the EU giving me the opportunity to move to Hannover for 1 year! Until then I hadn't really thought about actually leaving my home and family to go and live in Hannover.
Making plans and preparations
From then on I had to start organizing my departure from the old lab, find a place to stay in Hannover, and investigate all the forms and legalities needed to live in Germany. I resigned from my job in Rotterdam, but my supervisor immediately offered me a new position to start on my return from Hannover.
A few months before my fellowship was due to start, I went to a meeting in Hamburg, Germany, and was able to meet my new supervisor. Afterwards I travelled back to Hannover with him. That gave me the opportunity to meet my new colleagues, to see the lab, and check out the town. Thinking back I guess this was the best preparation one could have. I knew exactly where I would live and what to bring a few months later.
I was lucky that Hannover Medical School owns apartment buildings situated on the campus with rooms available for foreign researchers like me who are visiting for a fixed period. So, finding a place to live was easy (I just needed to sign a form that the secretary had already got for me) and although the apartments were not very luxurious, since I was only going to be there for 12 months, I didn't bother to find a nicer place in downtown Hannover.
One of the first things I had to do was to get my residence permit from the aliens' registration office (Ausländerstelle), but as an EU citizen this was just a formality, the host institute having written a confirmation that I was a fellow there.
Then I opened a bank account, which would make things easier in daily life, and of course be the recipient of my monthly allowance. I must admit that I am a total dummy when it comes to matters of finance and tax, and I learned my lesson during this fellowship! When I first started working in Hannover, I received a regular postdoc contract. This turned out to be the wrong thing, because it meant that I would receive a salary instead of my fellowship and mobility allowances.
As the allowance offered by the EU was much higher than the salary (because of the extra costs you have when staying abroad), I was not happy with that! After some explaining to the personnel department, this contract was ended (actually, I had to end it myself as the personnel department had no experience with EU fellows and did not know what to do), and for the remainder of my stay I didn't have a contract, only a letter stating that I was allowed to work and study on the premises. Fortunately, I didn't miss out on benefits such as social security as I arranged all that privately before I went to Germany. It did, however, cost me several visits to the German and the Dutch tax authorities to explain why I didn't have a contract but received an allowance every month. If I were to do this again, I would insist on using the model contract the EU supplies!
Fortunately, through all this, language was no problem for me. I can speak English fluently, as did most of my new colleagues, and I had enough knowledge of German to survive in daily life. However, language was not a deciding factor in my decision to move to Germany. I chose to work in Hannover purely because I wanted to work with this particular group, and I would happily have gone elsewhere to work with the right team. Having said that, Hannover was relatively handy travel-wise. I went home once every 1 or 2 months, and looking back, it was very convenient to be able to go home on an 'ad hoc' basis and visit my family whenever I needed to (emotionally or practically).
Getting started on the work
Finally I could start to work without having to worry about bureaucracy. With the help of my colleagues I started growing retroviral vector-containing plasmids in bacterial cultures, isolating the plasmid DNA and transfecting special producer cell lines with these plasmids. The next step was to design and produce new vectors myself. My goal was to design retroviral vectors with which two transgenes would be expressed at the same time in equal amounts. At the end of the project, the transduction efficiency of the newly made retroviral vectors was tested in hematopoietic cells, and here my 'old' techniques came in handy.
I learned a lot and was given everything I needed to do so, including bench space and my own desk and computer. The Hannover group created a very friendly environment and I had many opportunities to learn not only about specific techniques, but also less related matters, such as the projects of colleagues focussing on other issues. There were plenty of chances to share my results through many seminars, work discussions in both large and small groups, and one-to-one discussions with colleagues and my supervisor.
The year went by very fast and on returning to Rotterdam, I was able use my new skills immediately in a new project. Of course I was lucky that my 'old' supervisor had offered me a job even before I left for Germany, but I'm sure that it would not have been too difficult to find a job in Rotterdam or elsewhere in the Netherlands. Many Dutch labs prefer people that have studied abroad for some time. In addition, the area I work in, and especially the new techniques and connections I have acquired through my fellowship, make me quite confident about finding another job when necessary.
I really hope that future Marie Curie Individual Fellows also have the same good feeling about their stay abroad as I have!