On Going Home: Succeeding in Science in Eastern Europe

Kamil Paruch

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago, the prospect of better training opportunities, resources for research, and living conditions triggered a diaspora of young scientists from the former Eastern Bloc. Many of those who left chose to establish their scientific careers abroad. But, for some, the appeal of getting closer to family or helping their country further develop is stronger than the tradeoffs and challenges that come with setting up a lab in a country that is still shaking off the communist legacy of a chronically underfunded and ill-functioning research system. As the stories of these three young group leaders returning to the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary illustrate, the struggles Eastern European scientists find back home depend on when they left, the country they're coming back to, and their ability to get funding. But these three young scientists share a determination to succeed.

Cultivating collaborations and optimism

After 14 years in the United States, as a student and as a scientist at a big pharmaceutical company, medicinal chemist Kamil Paruch (pictured at top) decided to return to his native Czech Republic. The move was prompted both by family reasons and patriotism: "I felt like I got some experience that could help the Czech Republic complete the transition from developing to developed country," Paruch says. Today he is an assistant professor at Masaryk University in Brno.

Whether it was a risky career choice to come back is not something Polish scientist Piotr Garstecki gave much thought to. "My mind was quite firmly made on coming back," he says.

Paruch obtained a bachelor's degree in chemistry and a master's degree in organic chemistry at Masaryk University. He then got an Alfred Bader Fellowship in Chemistry to do a Ph.D. at Columbia University, so in 1995, he and his wife moved to the United States. He joined Thomas Katz's lab in Columbia's chemistry department, where he worked on synthesizing novel helical molecules with unique structural and optical properties.

With access to sophisticated equipment and advanced chemical intermediates, Paruch gained a broader range of technical skills and advanced faster in his doctoral research than he would have in the Czech Republic. But "the biggest thing about my stay at Columbia University was the daily interactions with really top scientists in the field," he says. "I could talk ... with the people who are already in the textbooks, so this was a pretty unique experience."

Twenty years after the wall

(Andrzej Sobolewski)

This week, Science and Science Careers examine how science has fared in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In Science Careers:

- After the Fall of the Wall: Science Careers in Eastern Europe. After an initial exodus of their young scientists, Eastern European countries are seeing returns on a world without walls.

- More Opportunities for International Collaborations in Eastern Europe. Eastern European scientists have many opportunities to benefit from international collaborations at home.

- Science Training and Collaboration in Eastern Europe: Resources. These programs help researchers from Eastern Europe get training or experience abroad or bring researchers from elsewhere to the region.

In Science:

- Aufbau Ost: Max Planck's East German Experiment. The Max Planck Society's expansion into the former East Germany seeded top science into the region, but challenges remain in making sure the successes take root.

- Big Dreams Come True. An East Germany family of scientists reflects on life before and after communism.

After graduating in 2000, Paruch took a senior-scientist position at the Schering-Plough Research Institute in Kenilworth, New Jersey. There, he made anticancer compounds, two of which are currently in phase I and phase II clinical trials. Paruch enjoyed his job and found the prospect of seeing his work have a significant impact "pretty rewarding," he says. But with two young sons, home beckoned, and Paruch decided to make what he knew was a risky career move.

Paruch, 37, came back to his former department at Masaryk University as an assistant professor in January 2009, this time with an Alfred Bader Fellowship aimed at supporting returning Czech scientists. He recently obtained a small start-up grant from the European Union to equip his lab and recruit two Ph.D. students and one master's student. "It's been pretty slow," Paruch admits. "You essentially have to start from scratch, and that's actually a pretty big problem," he says.

One of the major stumbling blocks for scientists returning to the Czech Republic is the national funding situation. In particular, there is a "lack of money for junior scientists, especially those who are coming from longer [stays] abroad and wanting to establish their own research group," he says. There is a lot of politics involved in getting major national grants. "You have to play the right kind of game," he says. "The Czech Republic is a small country, and ... everybody knows everybody here, which is not necessarily best for evaluation."

On the plus side, Paruch sees some improvements in the research infrastructure. "Masaryk University has been really trying," Paruch says. "It's built a whole new campus." He also sees an attitude change among the scientists at his institution: Many of them have benefited from studying or working in other countries, "so their modus operandi is different from [what] we had here 20 years ago," Paruch says. "We have a very good and flexible working relationship."

In the long term, Paruch would like to help develop his country's chemical industry. Since he returned, he has been mediating negotiations between Masaryk University and the Schering-Plough Research Institute to set up a research collaboration. (The Schering-Plough Research Institute recently merged with Merck.) "One of my goals is really [to] establish closer ties with top European and/or American companies and convince them that this Brno area is attractive enough [to] start building the biotech sector in South Moravia," Paruch says. He also hopes that opportunities will arise to launch his own start-up company.

Establishing yourself in the Czech Republic is tough, but overall, "being a scientist is a profession where you have to be an optimist," he says. "If you work on something and if you don't believe from the beginning it's going to be successful, it won't. If you do believe that you will be successful, at least you have a chance."

Not thinking about risk but opportunities

(Courtesy, Piotr Garstecki )
Piotr Garstecki

After graduating with a Ph.D. from the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physical Chemistry in 2002, Piotr Garstecki wanted a change. "I wanted to go for a postdoc to change the topic of study and to see something new and to learn," says Garstecki, now 34.

He focused his attention on the United States and decided on a 3-year postdoc in the lab of George Whitesides in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University. There, he studied microfluidic systems, which at the time were starting to find applications in droplet formation. "It was a fantastic time to go into the field," he says.

At Harvard, Garstecki enjoyed discussing science with his peers and going to seminars from invited speakers. It was "just enormously inspiring," he says. Initially trained as a theorist, he gained experimental skills. Perhaps most importantly, "I also learned a lot about the organization of research," Garstecki says. He saw that in North American labs many of the research ideas actually come from the students and postdocs and how this shapes interactions within the group, he says. "That teaches a lot about how to interact with people and how to do research effectively."

Whitesides was a great role model for "pushing the creativity and pushing the questions about the relevance of the work that one does in the lab," Garstecki adds. "This is very different to what I was used to in Poland. ... Historically, researchers didn't have much money, but at the same time there was almost no responsibility. In such a system, one stagnates."

Garstecki returned to Poland in 2005 to take a 3-year assistant professorship at the Polish Academy of Sciences' Institute of Physical Chemistry, where he did his Ph.D., because he knew it as a place "that is very friendly to young researchers." Although the traditional Polish system requires returning postdocs to join an existing lab and spend 5 years or so working toward a further diploma called "habilitation," Garstecki was given his own lab space and immediate freedom to apply for funding.

In 2006, Garstecki obtained a HOMING Grant from the Foundation for Polish Science, which he later complemented with personal fellowships from the foundation and the Polish ministry of science. He also obtained two research grants from the ministry of science, some industrial funding, and one grant from the Human Frontier Science Program for an international collaborative project. More recently, he obtained a TEAM grant from the Foundation for Polish Science consisting of fellowships for at least six young scientists to work in his lab and research money. "The situation is quite comfortable" now, Garstecki says.

Four years on, "the lab is up and running and all is in place," says Garstecki, who now holds an associate professorship. His team counts six Ph.D. students, four postdocs, four senior scientists, and one technician. His work focuses on different aspects of microfluidics, ranging from fundamental physics principles to preparing materials for the pharma and other industries.

Although he left Poland for only 3 years, when he returned he found that the country had made progress: "Actually, we have a lot of very good infrastructure right now," he says. "I expected more of a difference in resources than I actually encountered."

Whether it was a risky career choice to come back is not something Garstecki gave much thought to. "My mind was quite firmly made on coming back," he says. "Looking at my friends who stayed in the States, both Americans and non-Americans, I don't see many differences actually in the possibilities. So, of course there are differences, but they come mostly from the individuals and the way they do science. It's not coming from the environment" anymore.

Securing funding before returning

(Courtesy, Csaba Pàl)
Csaba Pàl

By the time Hungarian biologist Csaba Pàl earned his first degree from the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest in 1998, he already had a research paper in an international journal, on theoretical models of how genetic factors may influence evolutionary processes. Such a topic offered the advantage of requiring only a computer and basic programming skills. "This was actually excellent for my undergraduate studies because ... there was a lack of funding, and I could work independently," Pàl says.

The work caught the attention of evolutionary geneticist Laurence Hurst at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, who invited him to visit his lab for a couple of months. Despite his early research success, Pàl wasn't prepared for his experience in the United Kingdom. "My English was pretty bad at that time, and the attitude and the openness and the competitive atmosphere [were] absolutely shocking," Pàl says. Also, although undergraduate education in Hungary is comparable to Western countries, when it came to graduate education, "I had to start from scratch and learn loads of things I was not aware of, in terms of experimental design, writing skills, new techniques, computational skills," Pàl says.

With the first genome-wide data sets becoming publicly available in the late 1990s, Pàl decided to test his evolutionary theories during a Ph.D. in Budapest. But his scientific interactions with Hurst intensified, and he eventually spent the last 2 years of his Ph.D. in Hurst's lab working on the evolutionary consequences of sexual reproduction on genome structure.

After finishing his Ph.D., Pàl stayed in Bath with a postdoctoral fellowship from the British Royal Society until 2004. Pàl was becoming increasingly interested in the evolution of drug resistance in microbes, so he then spent a year at the Structural and Computational Biology Unit at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg, Germany, learning about systems biology. He went on to gain wet lab skills during a 2-year postdoc in microbial experimental evolution in the Department of Zoology at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, supported with an EMBO Fellowship from the European Molecular Biology Organization. He then spent another 6 months at the Microsoft Research-University of Trento Centre for Computational and Systems Biology in Italy.

That last year and a half was a "pretty tough" time, he says. He and his wife, a Hungarian ecologist, had both left home with the intention of one day returning to be close to family. But with a chronic lack of research funding, Pàl saw no prospect for returning unless he could come back with a large international grant in hand. All of his grant applications initially failed, and "meanwhile, I had many opportunities in some of the Western countries and I turned them down," he says.

Finally, in 2007, Pàl obtained both a Starting Independent Researcher Grant from the European Research Council and an EMBO Installation Grant. In 2008, he started setting up his Evolutionary Systems Biology Group at the Biological Research Center of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Szeged. Today, the group counts two senior researchers, four postdocs, four Ph.D. students, one master's degree student, and two lab assistants.

Pàl feels concerned at the lack of national funding, but overall, he feels that he returned to good working conditions in Hungary. The Biological Research Center is a European Union Center of Excellence and run according to international standards. There, Pàl has found excellent colleagues to collaborate with, good technical facilities, and few administration or teaching duties, he says. So far, "we can do the kind of research we want to do," Pàl says.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers