The European Young Investigator Awards - Finding a Niche

Dutch scientist Edwin Cuppen (left) found his vocation by chance. "I was raised on a farm, and you are influenced by your environment when you are young," he says. "I thought I wanted to be a veterinary scientist; it seemed to be the nicest thing that I saw." But when his university--the Agricultural University of Wageningen--organised an introductory day and required that all students sign up for two degree topics, Cuppen picked molecular sciences as well as zoological studies. Against his expectations, molecular sciences turned out to be the most appealing of the two subjects.

It was a fortuitous choice. "The most important point in my career was to go in that direction."Now a group leader at the Netherlands Institute for Developmental Biology in Utrecht, Cuppen believes that finding a good research niche--as he did later on, strategically this time--is essential to making it as a scientist.

Cuppen graduated from the university with a degree in molecular sciences, then continued on for an M.Sc. ( cum laude) in molecular biology. He then went to Nijmegen University to do a Ph.D. on protein-protein interactions in mice, graduating in 1999. The next step was to join the Netherlands Cancer Institute as a postdoc, working on novel interacting proteins in the C. elegans nematode. His timing was good. "The first multi-cellular genome sequence had been released in C. elegans, and it opened new avenues," he says.

A year and a half into his postdoc, Cuppen followed his group leader to the Hubrecht Laboratory at the Netherlands Institute for Developmental Biology in Utrecht, where he continued to work as a postdoc for 6 more months. He was then offered the opportunity to start his own research group within the institute. "The opportunity was offered with this move, and I had applied for a big grant that was funded," says Cuppen.

Though part of it was luck, Cuppens believes his success has also resulted partly from consistently making good choices. One such choice was the decision, when he made the transition to independence, to switch from worms to rats. He anticipated that there was still a lot to be done in the field of molecular genetics in the rat model, and "In a relatively short time, I could build up a good position in that field." Had he chosen to work on mice, "that would not have brought me as far as I am now," he believes.

Four years down the line, Cuppen’s lab is rocking, with three Ph.D. students, three postdocs, and four technicians, as well as a few undergraduate students. Most are working on the development of a technique that will allow the routine creation of rat knockouts for studying the genetic basis of behaviour. The work involves a lot of sequencing and a lot of bioinformatics. "We generate enormous amounts of sequencing data, about 30 million base pairs every week," says Cuppen. "We can’t look at them all individually, [so] we use special tools to identify mutations that may affect protein function."

The chemicals, consumables, and robots necessary for high-throughput research don’t come cheap, so Cuppen welcomes the 1.2 million euros his EURYI award will pay. "This work was successful but not efficient enough" before the award to meet his goal of allowing knockouts to be created routinely, says Cuppen. His team has many ideas on how to convert their findings into a routine procedure to create rat knockouts. "I would not be able to fulfil all these ideas if I didn’t get this grant," he says.

Edwin Cuppen's Strategies for Success

"It is important that you choose a niche in a research field," Cuppen advises, because if you try to pursue well-established lines and "you are new in the field, it will be difficult. Really try and find a unique position." Once you've found that niche, make sure to keep the established people in your field informed about your work. "It is really worth investing time in your network. It is important because you may depend on that for your grant proposal; you are judged by these people." If the jury is already familiar with your work, it is more likely to appreciate the work's value. And if you are able to pull out recommendation letters from well-known people when you need them, "it shows that you are well-embedded in the field."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe .

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