For Nønne Prisle, winning an ERC Starting Grant last summer means she has the freedom to focus on the future.

Aleksi Poutanen/KASKAS MEDIA

Career success stories of the European Research Council

When the European Union launched the European Research Council (ERC) a decade ago, the scientific community had high expectations. The ERC promised to give European researchers unprecedented levels of funding and freedom to pursue a basic research project of their choice, using scientific excellence as the sole criterion. Even more unusual was the attention given to early-career scientists, with the very first call dedicated to them. Since then, ERC Starting Grants have continued to support early-career scientists as they transition to independence and establish their own groups in Europe, with the majority of the 7000 grants that the ERC has distributed going to researchers under 40.

Today, the agency is facing broad challenges and mounting pressure for change, but there’s no question that ERC Starting Grants have been career-changing for the young scientists who have won them. As the ERC and research institutions around Europe celebrate the funding body’s 10th anniversary, Science Careers talked to three winners, from 10, five, and less than a year ago, to discuss the impact the grant has had on their professional and personal lives.

Nicole Boivin is one of the researchers who got a grant in the first round, in 2007, when enthusiasm and competition were particularly high. Ten years later, Boivin is now director of the Department of Archaeology at the new Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. “My career would not have been the same without receiving the ERC grant,” Boivin says.

Building a lab and career away from the scientific powerhouses in the north and west of Europe can be particularly challenging. Lino Ferreira was able to overcome these difficulties and establish himself in his native Portugal thanks to a €1.7 million grant he received 5 years ago to develop nanomedicines using stem cells.

Nønne Prisle got her grant just last summer, but it is already having profound effects on her professional and personal life. Today an associate professor at the University of Oulu in Finland, winning an ERC grant meant finally getting confirmation that the research idea she has been developing for years is well worth pursuing.

A passport to a dream job

When Nicole Boivin applied for an ERC Starting Grant 10 years ago, the opportunities that it offered to young researchers in Europe were mind-boggling. “At that point … for a young researcher like myself to get €1.2 million was astounding,” says Boivin, who was 37 at the time. And “it wasn’t only about giving a young researcher a lot of funding, but also giving them the freedom to spend it in whatever way they saw fit, which [was] pretty extraordinary.” Boivin describes getting her grant as a “transformative” and “defining” event in her career.

Back in 2007, when the ERC opened its first call, Boivin saw it as an ideal opportunity to bring together the natural sciences and humanities to study the past. Boivin had studied cellular, molecular, and microbial biology for her Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Calgary in her native Canada, but, she says, “I always had an interest in archaeology.” So, after traveling the world for a while, she decided to pursue a master’s degree and later a Ph.D. in archaeology, both at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. This move meant going “to the other extreme” in terms of research fields, she says, because in Europe at the time, “archaeology … was dominated by a humanities perspective.” Later, as a postdoc at the nearby Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, a natural science-oriented center with a multidisciplinary focus, she started bringing together the two sides of her education.

The research question that she set to pursue in her ERC application was something that she stumbled on during archaeological fieldwork in South India. “We were finding the remains of plants that came all the way from Africa, and … the whole process by which they might have arrived was very mysterious,” Boivin says. She proposed studying the emergence of long distance trade and biological exchange across the Indian Ocean using tools derived from archaeology, historical linguistics, molecular genetics, taxonomy, and palaeoenvironmental studies. As her research progressed, the flexibility of the grant allowed her to adapt as her fieldwork countries became too dangerous and she discovered new approaches and collaborators.

The grant also gave Boivin more flexibility to reconcile her professional and personal lives at a time when she and her husband—who is also an academic—were struggling with the two-body problem. “Securing the ERC grant was a critical development that allowed us to then go on and negotiate two permanent positions” in the same place, Boivin says. She also appreciated that, when the couple had their first child, she was able to extend her grant by a year so that she could take a maternity leave.

Boivin commends the ERC for taking a bet on early-career researchers. “Young researchers, they have energy and they have drive and they have originality and all sorts of ideas. But very often, in traditional funding systems, [the really large grants] were given out to senior researchers,” she says. Certainly, “I was learning the ropes as I was going along, because it was a very large amount of money for a young researcher to receive,” she acknowledges. “But I think it worked out in the end.” Her resulting research has contributed to breaking down traditional boundaries to study the past in what has since become “a very large movement, to the point that now it is a strong driving force within the discipline,” she says.

Today, Boivin is still benefiting from having received her ERC grant. As the funding was drawing to an end, Boivin was approached by the Max Planck Society to create the Department of Archaeology. “I had demonstrated through the ERC grant that although I was relatively young, I now had quite a bit of experience in directing [and] getting a whole team of other people to produce good research,” she says. “It put me on the path towards getting the job that I have now, which I think is one of the best jobs in my field.”

An opportunity to work close to home

When Lino Ferreira came back from doing a postdoc in the United States to set up his own group at the Center for Neuroscience and Cell Biology in the University of Coimbra, in 2008, he had two clear objectives. One of them was to establish his career in his native Portugal. The other was to get an ERC grant that would allow him to do that. He knew that public national funding calls in Portugal were irregular, so “it was an objective to have an ERC grant so it would give me stability,” he says.

In his first few years as a principal investigator (PI), working with stem cells and emerging nanotechnologies to develop nanomedicines, Ferreira was able to make do by licensing some of his technologies and securing industry funding and Portuguese government grants. But his funding situation was far from secure, he says.

His first ERC application was unsuccessful. But he persevered and focused his efforts on developing a research program for submission the following year that better fit the ERC’s guidelines and philosophy, he says. The funding body looks for proposals that “will be a new research avenue,” so he looked for a significant, novel research question that also required developing new tools. All the interdisciplinary skills and knowledge he had gathered during his scientific training—which had covered biochemistry, biotechnology, biomaterials, and stem cell biology—put him “in a very advantageous position to address this question” of how to develop nanoparticles that could modulate stem cell differentiation on demand, he says. “And, of course, [at the ERC] they want some proof that the PI is able to conduct the research program, and so I had the chance during that time to reinforce my skills as a PI.” The second time around, Ferreira was convinced that he had a good chance—and he was right.

Getting his ERC Starting Grant in 2012 allowed Ferreira, who was 40 years old at the time, to boost his work and keep some key members working in his group. The grant came with other advantages, too. Because the ERC is more flexible than other funding sources, Ferreira has been able to be more exploratory in his research, he says. And he feels that the ERC grant has helped him gain national and international visibility and recognition, despite the fact that government austerity measures in Portugal over the past few years have made it nearly impossible to secure a permanent university position, even for ERC grantees. For one thing, he recently became a European Research Area (ERA) Chair holder for a research program in aging as part of a European Commission initiative intended to boost research in less well-performing countries. Getting the Starting Grant “was an important step in my career,” says Ferreira, who today contributes to strategic decisions at his institution and encourages other researchers working there to apply for ERC grants.

Still, Ferreira’s situation is not entirely secure. As his Starting Grant is coming to an end this year, he is preparing to apply for an ERC Advanced Grant. His current position at the university is equivalent to a full professorship, but he may not win tenure until the end of his ERA Chair in 2020, he says. But even though the research climate in Portugal is challenging, having the ERC grant has helped him succeed there. “The grant really gave me the chance to stay in Portugal.”

A vision recognized

For Nønne Prisle, winning an ERC Starting Grant meant that her boundary-pushing research was finally being recognized. Before she got the grant, Prisle—who studies cloud droplet formation and its effect on atmospheric chemistry and climate change, combining experimental, theoretical, and computational approaches across multiple disciplines—had struggled to find her place. Rejection letters in response to her funding and faculty applications abounded. “I had really big difficulties convincing anybody that my research was important and relevant—and when I succeeded, that it was feasible,” she says. But Prisle’s grit carried her through. Now that she has her ERC grant—which she applied for convinced that she had what it takes to carry out her idea but doubting that her CV would be competitive with others—she has the opportunity to make her research vision a reality.  

Prisle’s disciplinary boundary-pushing began when she was pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in theoretical physics and mathematics in her native Denmark and was inspired by an environmental chemistry class to study physical and chemical processes in climate change. She went on to do a chemistry Ph.D. at the Copenhagen Center for Atmospheric Research, where her adviser gave her free reign to pick her own project—as long as it used a shiny new piece of equipment that measures the efficiency of aerosol particles to seed cloud droplets.

She decided to study the role that organic particles play in cloud droplet formation, because a large proportion of marine aerosols—which have a significant climate impact—are organics. She knew she had something interesting on her hands when her experimental results didn’t match the models that existed at the time, which suggested that previously unknown processes occurring at the droplets’ surface played an important role in the cloud-forming potential of organics. But there was a catch: To prove the finding, she needed to study individual cloud droplets, and at the time, there was no way to detect their surface composition or properties, she says. Prisle has been wrestling with this problem ever since.

During a first postdoc, she focused on the theoretical side, producing a mathematical model complex enough to represent the physical processes at play yet simple enough that it could also be included in a global climate model, she says. “It was something that people had said … cannot be done [or] is not going to make any difference” to climate predictions, she recalls. Not only was Prisle successful, but running simulations with her model made a big difference in climate predictions. “This gave me the justification both to myself, and also to apply for funding, that [those droplet surface effects were] actually important to figure out,” she says.

Then, during her second postdoc, she turned her attention back to experiments. By adapting existing synchrotron-based techniques, she was able to take a first peek at droplet surfaces and molecular interactions. “We saw all kinds of things that we didn’t expect. And to me it started becoming clear that surfaces are really important, and they are … enigmatic worlds of their own,” Prisle says. But, to study individual droplets, she needed access to an even brighter light source.

The timing couldn’t have been better. In the summer of 2016, as she was nearing the end of her eligibility for the ERC Starting Grant, the new MAX IV synchrotron facility in Lund, Sweden, started providing “the highest, most stable, and most reliable photon flux” in the world, Prisle says. She decided to give the Starting Grant a shot so that she wouldn’t have any regrets.

Going to Brussels to present her proposal to the judging panel after making it to the shortlist was “tremendously empowering,” she says, because everyone she spoke to was respectful and enthusiastic about her work. “I came home from Brussels just thinking, 'Of course I want to get [the grant], but even if I don’t get it, this is what I needed in order to have the courage to continue for a while longer,’” she says.

She did win the grant, and soon she secured a permanent position at the University of Oulu, where she had moved earlier that year for a 2-year senior researcher position. Her newfound job security “has allowed me to shift my focus … to long-term objectives, and this changes completely the decisions that I make and also the peace that I have when I go to sleep at night,” Prisle says. “Everything that I do now, I feel it’s something I can build upon.” She plans to grow her new lab to eight people within the coming year. The grant has also had a positive impact on her personal life. Her partner is also a scientist, and having the Starting Grant helped provide the leverage to negotiate for positions for both of them. “We are now for the first time ever able to live in the same country and buy an apartment,” she says.

Prisle now also enjoys broad recognition. The “immediate stamp of approval” from the ERC means that, after years of “fighting a lot for visibility and for impact, suddenly I don’t have to argue this anymore. People immediately think this must be important research, so I can actually focus on the next step in the communication,” she says. The flip side is that now “everybody wants to do this kind of research, and … I have competition,” she adds. But Prisle sees this as an opportunity, and she is involved in building a small research community around the topic in northern Europe.

Her research path has been “a story of good luck,” Prisle says. “But, of course, there have been periods during that time when things have not looked very good.” In hindsight, though, Prisle believes that the adversities she went through helped her make the cut. The rejections forced her to sharpen her scientific vision and demonstrate more convincingly that the technical challenges could be overcome, she says. On a more personal level, “there was a time when I really felt at a loss and wished I had stronger scientific and career mentorship, [but] I also realized afterwards that, for [the] ERC, where you are supposed to be original, maybe that was an advantage,” she says.

Prisle also believes that refusing to confine herself to being either an experimentalist or a theoretician was instrumental in her success. “I have a foot in each camp, and it was a disadvantage” to start with, she says. “But I was not able to choose, because every time … I was doing experiments, I felt that … I wanted to know how I can express this in a beautiful mathematical or computational formalism. ... But then, if I was doing modeling only, I felt detached from reality,” Prisle says. “My place is somewhere at the interface.”

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