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Italy Launches a New Ph.D. Programme in Molecular Medicine

" After the public announcement of the human genome draft in 2000, we felt embarrassed," says Umberto Veronesi, "because Italy had pulled out its effort from the international genome project the year before." This led Veronesi, then the Italian minister of health, and now director of the European Institute of Oncology, to establish an initiative to stand at the forefront of research in postgenomics and biomedicine and help Italy reenter the game. The result was the European School of Molecular Medicine ( SEMM), a new institute with the ambition to train the next generation of scientists in molecular medicine--a discipline that, as Veronesi puts it, has the potential "of clarifying the genetic and molecular mechanisms underlying each disease."

SEMM results from a partnership involving three Italian universities (the University of Milan, the University Vita Salute San Raffaele of Milan, and the University of Naples "Federico II"), two charities [the Italian Foundation for Cancer Research and the Telethon Foundation), and four research institutions (the Institute of Molecular Oncology (IFOM) and the European Institute of Oncology (EIO) in Milan, and CEINGE Advanced Biotechnologies and the Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine, both in Naples]. An initial ?10 million has been earmarked for the institute over the next 5 years by the Ministries of Health and Education, University, and Research, and a further ?2 million will come from private foundations.

To Prepare the Next Generation of Scientists

Italy's wish to become more competitive in the postgenomics era is not the only motivation behind the creation of the new centre. "Italy does not have a real Ph.D. programme," explains Pier Giuseppe Pelicci, molecular oncologist and SEMM scientific director. The Italian academic system has long been deplored by young scientists for its chronic shortage of funding, absence of meritocracy, and difficulties in setting up an independent career--all issues that affect Ph.D. education. The centre aims to improve preparation for the next generation of scientists with the international Ph.D. programme in molecular medicine, and it also plans to launch an M.D./Ph.D. and postdoctoral training programme later on. "The big challenge [for the centre] is to become competitive at the international level, with the final aim to implement an M.D./Ph.D. programme, something totally new in Italy," says Francesco Ramirez, a faculty member at Cornell University in New York and also a professor at SEMM in Naples.

"A strong point of the school has been an extensive and still-undergoing recruitment of internationally renowned scientists, both as group leaders and teachers," says Pelicci. "At the moment, the EIO-IFOM campus counts 350 people, and we are actually planning to expand it to 600 and move to a new building in a couple of years."

Another feature that distinguishes the Ph.D. programme at SEMM is its "multidisciplinary approach, where the traditional and fundamental subjects of biology and medicine are integrated with new disciplines like bioinformatics, proteomics, nanotechnology," and "the acquisition of management skills related to the financial and entrepreneurial aspects of research," to quote an essay on the SEMM Web site. The Ph.D. will last 4 years, and students will have a chance to get familiar with the programme before choosing between two different curricula: molecular oncology, to be based in Milan, and human genetics, in Naples. Mentoring should also represent an important part of the training given at SEMM, with students receiving guidance from two internal supervisors and one external.

SEMM took on the first batch of Ph.D. students last spring. Among them was Silke Gerboth, whose project now focuses on the role of signaling complexes in cell migration. Gerboth came from Jena University in Germany, and to her, the beginning of a new life in Milan was not easy. She thinks that the international character of the school needs to improve in terms of more foreign students and teachers. And although English is the official language in the centres, she has found that the use of Italian still predominates. On the other hand, she is satisfied with the scientific aspects and facilities provided. "The level of publications at EIO-IFOM is high, and this is excellent for Ph.D. students, who are required [by the school] to have at least one first-author publication before the end of the adventure," says Gerboth.

A "Scientifically Sparkling" Environment

Paola Bonetti was an Italian recruit who studied pharmaceutical biotechnology at Milan University and is now working at the bench in Pelicci's lab on nucleophosmin development in cancer. She is enthusiastic about what she perceives to be "a scientifically sparkling" environment and productive networking between different groups. "Not less important is the salary, ?1200 versus the ?800 of a normal doctorate," she says.

Recruitment for the second batch of students is now under way--you need to apply before 2 December 2004 to start the Ph.D. in February 2005--and the school hopes to see a significant rise in the number of international students (currently at 10%). Applicants may be of any nationality but will be "expected to be motivated and qualified young graduates with a national university degree, such as medicine, natural and biological sciences, physics, chemistry, biotechnology, pharmacology, informatics," specifies the SEMM Web site. Prescreened candidates will be invited to spend a couple of days on the campus, where they will be selected by a committee and potential group leaders on the basis of their knowledge and interests.

SEMM feels like an injection of fresh air within the scientific Italian system, but whether this will really mean greater opportunity for this next generation of scientists remains to be seen. "I have seen many attempts in the past years," concludes Ramirez, adding that "The Italian situation is difficult, and science is often poisoned by too much politics. However, we had to start from something, right?"