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I'll Be Back

After 7 years in the United States, Arturo Sala "had really become homesick!" He returned to an Italian research institute under a "gentlemen's agreement": an unspecified probationary period that would be followed by assunzione--a permanent position--as the head of his own research group. However, the assunzione never materialised, and 3 years later Sala took a permanent position at a UK university. Now a senior lecturer at the Institute of Child Health, London, Sala strongly recommends that young Italian scientists spend time abroad to develop their scientific careers. But his experience illustrates the dilemma faced by many such scientists: Having left can you ever break back into the system?

Roberto Papa, an associate professor at the Polytechnic University of Marche, Ancona, and Antonino Colanzi, a senior staff scientist at the Consorzio Mario Negri Sud (CMNS) research institute in Abruzzo, both played it safe, obtaining the security of assunzione before departing for the U.S.

Papa moved to Ancona immediately after completing his dottorato (Italian PhD) in Sassari. His mentors advised him "to stay [in Ancona], until I was able to have a position, and then to go abroad." So he waited a year and a half before entering, and winning, a concorso (competitive examination) for a researcher position. It then took him a further year to plan his foreign adventure--2 years as a visiting scientist at the University of California, Davis.

Colanzi's arrangements, meanwhile, were more luck than judgement: "For me, it wasn't important to go with assunzione, it just happened because my choice was delayed a lot, so I was 'assunto' before going." After his laurea and a further 2 years at the University of L'Aquila, he moved to the CMNS on a Formez research training grant. Over the next 5 years, the long-term nature of his lab project never seemed to allow time for a prolonged "sabbatical" abroad. However, soon after gaining assunzione and a position as staff scientist, and through a group with which the lab had developed close ties, he departed to spend 4 years at the University of California, San Diego.

For both, the wish and need to spend some time in a laboratory abroad was very much a part of their projected research careers. But although "to go abroad with some security about your future is a good [thing]," Papa agrees, he knows he was lucky to get a position when he did, and that if it had not all worked out he would have been in a mess, career-wise.

Despite their job security, both Papa and Colanzi admit to having thought seriously about not returning to Italy. Not that they were keen to stay in the U.S.--Colanzi in particular disliked the competitiveness of the States, where "the material objective of having publications can become a priority, [over and above] the idea of confronting and resolving problems"--but rather they were attracted by other institutes or universities in Europe where they might have been able to start up their own groups. In the end, Italy won. For the security, of course, but also for family, and the wish to achieve something important in their homeland.

Giorgio Scita and Massimo Zollo are two of the many who have left for the U.S. without any return arrangements. Both were away for almost 5 years. Although Scita acknowledges that "the chances to return to Italy are always very slim, simply because there are very few job opportunities, and especially if no pre-arrangements were made," both struck it very lucky.

Scita's return coincided with the founding of the European Institute of Oncology in Milan, where he is now a unit head. Through a standard job application, "I landed in a place where money was not an issue, guided by a very young group leader in the peak of their career, surrounded by a number of postdocs who were returning from abroad." Zollo, who had worked in industry in California, first at Genentech and then Applied Biosystems (AB), returned to Italy via a transfer to Perkin Elmer, Monza, a sister company of AB. But a chance meeting with Andrea Ballabio, who had just become the director of the then-new Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine (TIGEM) in Milan, led to an invitation to set up a core service unit within TIGEM. He then got the chance to form his own research group when TIGEM moved to Naples.

So if the unplanned return requires a large element of luck, how can you increase your chances of success? Sala's advice seems a little surprising: "The most important thing to understand before cutting ties with Mother Italy is to forget about your return. One or two years abroad are usually not enough to accomplish significant work, so for this reason it is essential to be prepared for an absence of many years, if necessary." Indeed, Luciano D'Adamio, an associate professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, who has pursued his research for the last 15 years in the U.S., goes further. "I believe it is better to cut your connections if you want to do research seriously; you have to embrace a different mind set," he says.

Nonetheless, networking is, and has always been, an essential part of any scientific career in any part of the world, so cutting connections needs to be interpreted carefully. Wannabe returnees still need to establish and grow home contacts throughout their years abroad--if you're going to strike it lucky like Scita, you'll need to know where new openings are likely to occur.

But in the short term, all the researchers Next Wave spoke to agreed that deciding which foreign lab to join is ultimately far more important than any immediate arrangements for the return. D'Adamio sums up the most basic advice given by all: For the laboratory, "make an educated choice, based on projects, resources, and abilities of the group leader, noting that sometimes a young investigator can be a better choice than an established one. It is important to know the boss there from different sources, from present and past students and postdocs." Andrea Urbani, an associate professor at Chieti University, stresses "never to go to a laboratory with more than three postdocs, unless you are looking for a 'research factory', with all the consequences." But make sure the lab is productive. Sala highlights that "freedom of choice (in terms of career and location) crucially depends on publications; a postdoc without publications is like a bank with no money!"

So does all this mean that the U.S. is the only choice? Many of the scientists Next Wave spoke to do feel it is, due to its highly competitive research culture. But as Urbani, points out, "competition is everywhere." He himself spent 3 years at EMBO and a further 2 years at the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ), both in Heidelberg, before returning to Italy, although, "there is no reason for a second postdoc [before returning] if the first one is well-addressed to a specific project." D'Adamio notes that, as there are increasing problems with U.S. visa policy, it is worth remembering that there are "institutes in Europe [that] are excellent too."

But with "more than 400 Italian biomedical researchers currently working and/or studying at the National Institutes of Health alone," according to Professor Enrico Garaci, president of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità in Rome, and just a handful of positions available "back home," how realistic is the hope of return? Schemes like the Telethon Career Development Program, while laudable, cannot possibly provide solutions for everyone. Providing money to entice well-known, but aging, Italian researchers back to Italy really only serves to gain media attention, without supplying the many positions that are needed for those younger Italian brains that are looking for a future in their own country, note the returnees. An increase in funding is definitely needed, but meanwhile maybe more Italian researchers could take a leaf out of Sala's book and begin to widen their horizons. After all, as Urbani points out, air fares within Europe are now so cheap that maintaining contact with Italy is a lot easier. You could almost consider Europe as home.

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