While completing her Ph.D. in cellular and molecular genetics at the School of Medicine of the Federico II University in Naples, her hometown, Italian scientist Maria Pia Cosma (pictured left) decided that she could not learn much more by staying in Naples. "To have more choice, to progress in my career, I needed to move on to experience more," Cosma says. Given the difficulties of moving between universities in Italy, Cosma decided it would be easier to go abroad rather than to work in another Italian university. This decision was the turning point on her road to scientific recognition as one of the five winners of the 2005 European Community Marie Curie Excellence Awards.
The early days
Not many scientists can claim to have started in research as early as Cosma. "My father was always encouraging me to look at nature and to discover and observe simple phenomena," says Cosma. When she was 12 years old, she designed her first experiment at school, to demonstrate the physical principle behind the Thermos flask. She broke the inner glass container of one flask, letting the vacuum between the inner and outside containers escape,and by comparing this Thermos “knock-out,” as she would now call it, with an unbroken flask, she learned that it is the vacuum that greatly reduces the heat transfer and keeps our tea and coffee hot.
Cosma's enthusiasm for science led to her first degree, in chemistry and pharmaceutical technology, which she earned from the Federico II University of Naples in 1993. Already she was determined to do research. "My focus was to get into a laboratory as an undergraduate student and to start experiments in basic science," Cosma says. It wasn't until her final-year project, working on the parental imprinting of the insulin-like growth factor II gene in rats, that she finally started doing real research, but this early contribution earned her first publication, as second author in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Cosma credits this early break into the recognised scientific community partly to her supervisor's encouragement to work hard. But the most important factor, she says, was her enjoyment of the work. The experience gave her a taste of scientific success and taught her about the crucial need for scientists to publish.
The need for mobility
Cosma went on to do a Ph.D. in cellular and molecular genetics at the School of Medicine of the Federico II University in Naples. The lab was well-funded and productive, she says, but she nonetheless felt the need to experience research in a stimulating and successful laboratory abroad after her Ph.D. She had a few possibilities in mind, but the reputation and publication record of Kim Nasmyth put his laboratory at the Austrian Institute of Molecular Pathology at the top of her list; besides, she says, "I considered Vienna a lovely city, particularly as I play the piano and adore classical music!"
So, after attending one of his talks at an international meeting, she introduced herself by e-mail. She still does not know why he considered her at the time--"Maybe it was just my enthusiasm," she wonders--but he nonetheless became her mentor as she studied the transcriptional activation of the cell-cycle regulated HO gene in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Her experience abroad was made possible by a 2-year, category B20, 4th Framework Marie Curie Fellowship, which provides funding for the training of young scientists in European laboratories outside of their home countries. That award also qualified her for her recent Marie Curie Excellence Award.
Cosma's training abroad was a key step in her career, and she recommends that scientists--especially Italian scientists--leave a laboratory if it does not offer good projects or enough resources while they are still young and have fewer family ties. "Having a smart and successful scientist as a mentor and working within a competitive environment are not easy tasks; however, by the end of your training, your attitude and approach to science will be changed for the rest of your career," she says.
The return home
Once her fellowship was over, Cosma faced the decision of whether to return to Italy or move to yet another country. She had been offered a position at the Whitehead Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but she had heard that the Italian Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine (TIGEM) was going through restructuring and expansion while moving from Milan to Naples. So she contacted Andrea Ballabio, the Director of TIGEM, who eventually invited her by phone to visit and give a talk. After this visit, Ballabio invited her to join his research team. It was a tough decision for Cosma, she says, because at first she thought that it would be crucial for her to move to the United States to develop an independent scientific career. But "this was a very attractive offer after a tough period abroad, with the idea of going back to my home city, and working at TIGEM, one of the best research institutes in Italy," she says.
The return to Italy still represents the most difficult point in the career of many expatriated Italian researchers. They may wish to come home, but "I think that the main problems are being able to find your own independent position and funding, where you often need to look outside of Italy to get the funding, which can be difficult sometimes at the beginning when you are a young group leader," she says. Cosma returned to Italy as a tenured staff scientist within Ballabio’s group in 2000. She showed that she was able to work independently within this group and was offered a principal investigator position in July, 2003. Her group, which is studying the pathological mechanisms of metabolic disorders due to sulfatase enzyme deficiencies, is made up of two postdocs, four Ph.D. students, and one technician.
Moving back to Italy was not only the right decision for Cosma professionally; once home, she was able to renew old acquaintances, one of whom recently became her husband.
Going for the Awards
During her postdoc abroad and her years at TIGEM, Cosma produced two first-author publications in Cell, one with Kim Nasmyth and the other with Andrea Ballabio. These, she thinks, were instrumental in her receiving an EMBO Young Investigator Award, for which she had nominated herself. The award consists in a research grant of €15,000 a year for 3 years, but most valuable to her is the possibility to network during a range of EMBO events.
About a year later, through the advice and encouragement of a good friend and fellow former Marie Curie Fellow Diego di Bernardo, Cosma applied for a 2005 Marie Curie Excellence Award. These awards recognise scientists who have received EU training and mobility support for a minimum of 1 year and have since achieved a level of excellence in their field of research. With no restrictions on their use, these €50,000 personal awards are designed to support career development and international recognition.
Cosma hopes that the increased public visibility of science provided through European awards will help convince companies and governments to provide more funding for basic and applied science. Meanwhile, she encourages young scientists from nations like Italy not to become oppressed by their national systems, to believe in themselves and what they can achieve right from the beginning, and to be willing to move abroad to achieve their full potential. One need not travel far: "Europe is the best place to combine a fantastic quality of life and the availability of good resources for doing excellent scientific research," she says.
The next deadline for the submission of the last Marie Curie Excellence Awards under the Sixth Framework is 15 February 2006 . For further details please see the 2006 call for proposals .
TIGEM and the Italian Telethon Foundation
Raising funds for medical research through television marathons (telethons) originated in the United States in 1966, with an appeal initiated by Jerry Lewis on behalf of muscular dystrophy sufferers. The success of this initiative in increasing financial support and raising public awareness led to the spread of telethons, and in 1990 the first Telethon was screened in Italy. These annual telethons now help support four institutions: TIGEM, the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine; HSR-TIGET, the San Raffaele Telethon Institute of Gene Therapy; Tecnothon, the laboratories for the creation of new equipment for the disabled; and the Dulbecco Telethon Institute, which provides research facilities for excellent young Italian scientists. In 2005 the Italian telethon covered 62 hours of television over three days and received pledges of almost €30 million, an 11% increase on 2004.
Chris Berrie is a freelance science writer based in Cepagatti , Italy .