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DNA Helix Gets Spanish Twist

"A scientific environment that would promote scientific excellence within an interactive milieu." That's how Luciano Di Croce describes what he was looking for in a research centre in which to begin his career as an independent team leader. It was an atmosphere he had found during his postdoc at the European Institute in Oncology (EIO) in Milan. His search for that same "community feeling," where "people are more than willing to give advice or reagents, or to collaborate on projects," might have led him to the United States. But he has been able to find exactly what he was looking for much closer to home.

The structure of the new Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG) in Barcelona, "with numerous small groups, most of which are headed by young group leaders, will promote a very open, scientifically stimulating, and interactive environment similar to that found within Heidelberg's European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL)," Di Croce hopes. So, thanks to a Catalan government ICREA (Catalan Institution of Research and Advanced Studies) award, designed to lure senior scientists working abroad to the region, this up-and-coming Italian researcher will shortly move to CRG to lead a group studying epigenetic events in cancer.

CRG director Miguel Beato (pictured at left), who headed the Institute for Molecular Biology and Tumour Research at the University of Marburg from 1993 to 1999, acknowledges that, in designing CRG from scratch, he was inspired by the EMBL model. In addition to postgraduate and some undergraduate students, each group will have two to four postdocs and technical support. "The idea is that there's a constant turnover of postdocs," says Beato, with the majority expected to spend between 3 and 5 years at CRG.

And it's not just the postdocs that will change. Beato estimates that perhaps 20% of team leaders will spend the rest of their careers at CRG. Junior group leaders such as Di Croce will be hired initially on 5-year contracts, with an evaluation after 3 years, which determines whether at the end of the first 5 years they will leave or get a second evaluation. The second evaluation will lead to an extension of 2, 3, or 5 years, with an indefinite contract offered in exceptional cases. Although senior group leaders get an indefinite contract from the beginning, they too, and Beato himself, will be subject to regular evaluations, which will determine their working conditions. And Beato expects that excellent young group leaders will want to "move to university departments or other research institutes ... because the limitation of space will not allow them expand in the CRG."

Di Croce (pictured at right) himself is laid back about this arrangement. "The atmosphere is very positive in the institute. People are highly motivated, and I think that most feel that the 5-year time frame is long enough to be successful and are confident enough in themselves to believe that their groups will be successful," he suggests. What's more, "there is a lot of scientific mentoring and evaluation along the way to help the new group leaders in the initial years. This avoids a harsh sink-or-swim atmosphere that leads to a nervous, negative working environment," he points out. Indeed, the built-in support for junior group leaders is one of the factors that particularly appeals to Di Croce, compared to "more traditional institutions," where "there is often little or no scientific support and each group's success is independent of the others in the same institute."

The 28 groups that will eventually make up the CRG will be organised around five main programmes--Gene Regulation, Development and Cell Biology, Cell Differentiation and Cancer, Genes and Diseases, and Bioinformatics and Genomics--each of which will be headed by a senior scientist leading his or her own group. The more junior leaders of the other four or five groups in each programme will thus have an extended infrastructure of colleagues working within a related area on which to call for support.

The CRG's 28,000 m2 building is currently under construction, part of the Park of Biomedical Research of Barcelona (PRBB) next to the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, however, the centre is already open for business in 2000 m2 of borrowed lab space at the nearby Centre for Marine and Environmental Research. Once fully operational, the CRG--a nonprofit foundation formed by the Department of Universities and Research (DURSI), the Department of Health of the Catalan government, and the 4-year-old Faculty of Human Biology of the public University Pompeu Fabra (UPF)--will employ about 220 scientists. Due to be completed by the middle of 2004, the PRBB building will also be home to the City Institute of Medical Research (IMIM) and the UPF Department of Life Sciences. Housing more than 1000 researchers, it will represent the "most significant concentration of biomedical research in Catalonia," says Beato.

There is a palpable sense of enthusiasm for scientific research among Spanish policy-makers and the wider community, says Thomas Graf, professor of developmental and molecular biology at the New York-based Albert Einstein College of Medicine. This enthusiasm, he notes, has translated into the creation of new institutes such as CRG and the Spanish National Cancer Center in Madrid, both of which aspire to become new European centres of excellence. Graf, who worked in EMBL from 1983 to 1998 as programme coordinator and senior scientist, will move to Barcelona once the new building is functional to head the Cell Differentiation and Cancer programme? which is focused on mouse models of adult stem cell differentiation and tissue regeneration. At CRG he will lead a research group interested in learning what causes hematopoietic stem cells to become red or white cells. "The centre has had an excellent start and has already attracted an impressive number of internationally recognised scientists, many of whom are expatriates who returned from abroad, as well as some foreigners," highlights Graf.

And, although only time can tell whether CRG will be able to compete with top biomedical institutes around the world, the conditions are, in Graf's opinion, favourable: strong leadership, a critical mass of researchers, a fabulous location, close links to a university that teaches a graduate programme in English, an effective and nonbureaucratic administration, and, last but not least, the enthusiastic support of the Catalan authorities.

Di Croce concurs: "The Catalan government seems determined to increase the quality and competitiveness of its science." Because the working language at CRG is English, there should not be any language barriers to overcome, he says. And the "incredibly beautiful setting of the centre will be helpful in attracting international scientists at all levels who are interested in doing good science but also want a stimulating environment."

"I think that CRG will exemplify the best of European science--that is, top-level science in a high quality-of-life environment," says Veronica Raker, a U.S. citizen who is currently finishing her first postdoc at EIO. Raker, pictured at left, plans to do a second postdoc in the CRG alternative splicing lab of Juan Valcárcel, a senior group leader coming from EMBL. She notes that such an environment is especially important to her. That is because, as the mother of a 1-year-old son, "I want to continue high-impact research but do not want to compromise on the quality of life for my children." Raker believes that CRG will be equivalent to other top institutes she has seen, such as EMBL or the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge. The structure of numerous small groups with a high turnover at all levels will keep the scientific environment stimulating and competitive, she argues.

Brendan Bell, a postdoc who has spent most of his life in Canada where he completed a PhD at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, sees both the European and the North American job markets as offering good opportunities for a future group leader position. Bell, pictured at right, joined CRG last fall as a senior postdoctoral fellow on a Marie Curie Fellowship, having contacted Valcárcel while he was still at EMBL. Bell decided to join Valcárcel's group in Barcelona "knowing the inception of any new institute imposes logistical and infrastructural challenges, but convinced that the research programme at CRG was a fresh initiative in Spanish science and would therefore create a dynamic and collegial research environment."

Di Croce too sees good opportunities in the future. "I think that Europe is opening up to transnational movement," he says, so he is positive about finding somewhere to continue leading his group after his time at CRG. "The key is to successfully start up a productive group--once that has been achieved it is much easier to continue, even if not in the same institute," he surmises.

CRG will have to work hard to fulfil the great expectations that are placed upon it, notes Graf. However, probably an even more important challenge is to keep attracting talented researchers--from graduate students to group leaders--regardless of their nationality, and to succeed in fostering the mobility of the institute's staff. "Only this will allow it to become a new European centre of excellence," he says.

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