Crossing Continents

Detlef Weigel, director of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany, recalls how Argentinian scientist Javier Palatnik -- pictured left -- inspired those around him when he was a postdoc in Weigel's lab. Weigel says Palatnik was often the first person in the lab graduate students would approach for advice, not only for immediate experiments but also for more long-term strategic planning. "That is something you don't see in many postdocs," says Weigel. And when the group took on a new line of research--the biology of microRNAs--Palatnik took the lead.

Palatnik studied biochemistry at the University of Rosario in Argentina, earning an undergraduate degree and a PhD. He went on to postdocs on two continents, always demonstrating his prowess in getting new projects under way. His success in America and Europe was a vindication for someone who was trained in a nation that is not well known for its science. During his postdocs abroad, he realised slowly "that my PhD in Argentina is good enough." Now, having proven himself among the world's leading scientists, Palatnik is taking on what is probably an even greater challenge: setting up a lab in Argentina, where he intends to do research that competes with the world's best.

Even when he was a biochemistry undergraduate, Palatnik had a keen interest in research. He recalls using some of his free time helping out with practical classes. He earned his PhD in the lab of Nestor Carrillo studying environmental stress factors in plants. Carrillo's lab had been investigating bacterial stress factors, but Palatnik set up "new lines of research, changing the focus from bacteria to the tobacco plant," he says. He studied how genes related to environmental stress factors--drought, cold, and heat shock, for example--can increase the plant's defences in stressful conditions. "What was enjoyable," he says, was "that it was a challenge."

Palatnik with two of his graduate students working with Arabidopsis plants in Rosario.

When he finished his PhD in 2001, Palatnik decided to go abroad for his postdoc, taking advantage of a Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) long-term fellowship to move to Detlef Weigel's lab, at the time in the Salk Institute in San Diego, California. Moving from biochemistry to molecular biology, Palatnik started investigating the role of microRNAs--tiny RNA molecules that are important in gene regulation in most life forms--in the development of the plant Arabidopsis.

MicroRNAs had been discovered in the worm Caenorhabditis elegans nearly a decade before, but for years most people thought they were junky byproducts of cellular housekeeping. Their role, if any, in plant physiology wasn't known. But Palatnik made rapid progress. "Javier's work with Detlef Weigel was seminal," says Joanne Chory, a professor of biology at the Salk Institute, "because it connected a microRNA to a developmental process in plants."

One-and-a-half years into his work at the Salk, Palatnik moved to Germany when the Weigel lab relocated to the MPI in Tübingen. Some researchers in the throes of experimental work might be unhappy with the disruption, but Palatnik saw the move as a "perfect opportunity." "It was another experience for me. It was nice to be [involved in] setting up a lab," he says.

It was this knack--for setting things up and starting new things--that Weigel particularly noticed in his postdoc. "It became clear very quickly that he was an intellectual leader," says Weigel. In Tübingen, Weigel shared responsibility for his microRNA group with Palatnik.

In the meantime, Palatnik's confidence was growing. Coming from a country that isn't known for its science, he often felt insecure about his academic credentials. But his experiences in two world-class labs convinced him that he could compete with the best. "I gained confidence." And he needed confidence, because he perceived that some people in the scientific community do not take Argentinean science seriously. It is up to young Argentinean researchers, Palatnik says, to change that--otherwise, "I believe many [Argentineans] close the door on themselves."

Going Home

Palatnik managed to open many doors abroad, building up a strong reputation. So some people were surprised--Palatnik says "baffled"--by his decision to return to Argentina at the end of last year to set up his own research group. It was, he says, "a complex decision." He knew there would be many professional challenges, not all of them scientific; science doesn't have a high profile in Argentina, with the government battling serious economic problems. Things are improving for science, though, Palatnik says; the government is investing "new batches of money in the Argentinean scientific system." Anyway, he likes challenges, and going back to Argentina is "more of a challenge than staying outside," he says.

Javier Palatnik at the Iguazu Falls in northern Argentina.

But it was money that got him moving back toward home. His HFSP long-term fellowship provided 1 year of repatriation funding, which he had put on hold while he was in Germany. Then he won another HFSP award--their Career Development Award (CDA). Those two awards meant money to start a lab; they "tipped the balance" toward his decision to go home. The CDA, he says, gives him "great flexibility. I can decide what is the most important thing, what I want it for, and when to spend it."

Staying Connected

International collaborations, Palatnik believes, are vital to his success at his new lab at the Argentinean National Research Council's Institute of Molecular and Cellular Biology of Rosario. International scientific environments are not common in Argentina. It's "one of the difficulties," he says. "But we will compensate by travel."

He will also compensate by forming new research ties. He has already teamed with a fellow CDA fellow, French physicist Jerome Boisbouvier, to submit a proposal for an HFSP grant to collaborate on an interdisciplinary project. If the funding comes through, Boisbouvier will develop a nuclear magnetic resonance technique at his lab in Grenoble, and Palatnik will run the biochemical and genetic side. The two groups plan to work together to look at structural aspects of microRNA precursors. His collaborations in Germany will continue, and new collaborations will undoubtedly follow. To cement these collaborations and provide his students with a taste of the international perspective he got as a science trainee, Palatnik plans to send his PhD students for 3-month stints at the labs of his collaborators.

A Seamless Career Path?

Establishing an international reputation and setting up his own group by the age of 34 is impressive, but Palatnik says his career path was far from seamless. "You can look at the endpoint and think 'nice path,' … but it was hard. I had problems at all times; every step took a lot of energy." But Palatnik believes in determination: "Do what you feel you want to do and try as hard as you can. … If it doesn't work out because of external conditions, at least you have tried." And that's what he is doing.

"Javier could have got a faculty position anywhere but has a noble goal of doing something for his own country," says Weigel. But that doesn't make Palatnik a martyr. "Javier has a good dose of ambition; he wants to do competitive science." And Chory expects him to succeed. Palatnik, she says, is "uniquely positioned to become a leader in the field of epigenetics in plants."

Anne Forde is Next Wave's European Editor, North and East

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