November marks the 25th anniversary of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme that has funded the research of about 145,000 PhDs and postdocs in Europe and beyond, and equipped them with new knowledge and skills. Recipients discuss how the MSCA were a stepping stone to excelling in academia and industry.
For 25 years, the MSCA has been training researchers, many of whom have gone on to make great contributions to both the scientific community and society overall. Recipients recognise that the knowledge, experience or contacts gained during their fellowships helped to make them the leading researchers and entrepreneurs they are today.
Preparing for success in business
While completing her PhD in chemical engineering as MSCA fellow under the MAG(NET)ICFUN project, Dr Michela Puddu worked on the development of DNA markers for product traceability. She says her research turned into a commercial success because it supported the transition towards transparent consumer good supply chains to help consumers make informed purchasing decisions.
During my fellowship I focused on acquiring entrepreneurial skills, stimulating my creativity and enhancing my ability to innovate, all of which were useful when founding the company. Dr Michela Puddu, Haelixa co-founder, PhD in chemical engineering from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich
In 2016, Dr Puddu co-funded Haelixa, the multi-award-winning spinoff company of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich where she obtained her PhD in chemical engineering. ‘During my fellowship I focused on acquiring entrepreneurial skills, stimulating my creativity and enhancing my ability to innovate, all of which were useful when founding the company,’ explained Dr Puddu.
Haelixa provides product traceability solutions based on DNA to support supply chain transparency and product integrity. The company and its founders have received over 15 international awards and recognitions, including the 2019 EU Prize for Women Innovators. ‘It’s a great initiative that gives visibility and recognises women who have been able to combine excellence in technology with entrepreneurial activity by bringing innovations to the market,’ noted Dr Puddu.
‘My advice to those thinking of becoming researchers is to follow their instincts and value their talent, both within the course of study and in subsequent career choices,’ said Dr Puddu. ‘Fellows should use the MSCA as a unique opportunity to achieve excellence in research by taking advantage of the support and tools, such as the secondments, and collaborations within the network. I encourage them to view it as an opportunity to get to know many new interesting and inspiring people from different sectors and countries and work together to develop something that can be beneficial to our society and the environment.’
Climbing the academic ladder
During his fellowship at Poland’s Wrocław University of Science and Technology, University of Oxford researcher Dr Nanasaheb Thorat was part of the NANOCARGO project team that won the European Commission’s Innovation Radar Prize 2020 competition for groundbreaking research into nanomaterials, which can improve the diagnostics and treatment of breast cancer. He was the first Indian awardee.
Dr Thorat developed a method involving theranostics, an innovative approach combining therapy and diagnosis that is effective against cancer cells. The innovation could potentially revolutionise the cancer therapy market. For example, it can help to ensure accurate cancer therapy for oncologists or public radiologists and improve Europe’s public health system by introducing new cancer theranostics.
By receiving the opportunity to design new-generation cancer prognosis and theranostics, the fellowship was a critical step towards fulfilling my long-term aspiration of entering a tenure-track academic position in Europe. Dr Nanasaheb Thorat, MSCA fellow at University of Oxford, PhD in physics from D Y Patil University, Kolhapur, India
‘By receiving the opportunity to design new-generation cancer prognosis and theranostics, the fellowship was a critical step towards fulfilling my long-term aspiration of entering a tenure-track academic position in Europe,’ said Dr Thorat. He established new scientific collaborations in Europe, India, South Korea and the US. An industrial manufacturer is currently exploiting NANOCARGO’s patented, high-quality research output for the benefit of cancer patients and clinicians.
Dr Thorat obtained a PhD in physics from the D Y Patil University, Kolhapur, India. He is currently on his second MSCA fellowship at the University of Oxford. Research work involves designing new nanomedicine therapy and Raman imaging techniques for paediatric patients with brain cancer.
He says aspiring researchers should look beyond big-name professors with high-impact journal publications or major grants. ‘Choose an academic environment where you feel motivated, receive career support from the host supervisor and more freedom for research and outreach activities. Communication skills are important to sell your ideas and secure research credits.’
His advice to fellows about to begin their MSCA? ‘Never lose sight of your primary driver, the thing that really got you into science. The fellowship is a means to an end. The overall aim is to advance knowledge and use your creativity to find solutions to problems for societal gain.’
Stopping deadly plant bacteria that threaten olive trees
Dr Maroun El Moujabber is an administrator at the Mediterranean Agronomic Institute of Bari, Italy, who has a PhD in agricultural engineering from the University of Bologna. As coordinator of the CURE-XF project that received funding from a MSCA grant, he organises collaborative research and training activities, summer schools, staff exchange, and awareness and dissemination activities.
CURE-XF aims to improve prevention, early detection and control of Xylella fastidiosa (Xf), one of the most dangerous plant bacteria in the world. Xf is responsible for many plant diseases, and known to cause significant damage to olive trees. The negative socio-economic and environmental impacts across the EU are huge, resulting in annual production losses of €5.5 billion. Ending in 2023, the project brings together 18 partners from countries where the disease is already present (France, Iran, Italy, Spain) and those where the risk of introduction is high (Belgium, Egypt, Greece, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia, the UK).
CURE-XF is the very first project that provides capacity building support to Mediterranean and Near Eastern countries in combatting Xf. Awareness raising activities at different levels and in several languages is creating a critical mass to better establish national contingency plans. ‘Time is very precious in preventing and containing this serious disease,’ stated Dr Moujabber.
He uses a clothing analogy for international networks of universities, research institutions, businesses, small- and medium-sized enterprises and other non-academic organisations thinking of applying for funding.
‘The Research and Innovation Staff Exchange – now called Staff Exchanges – is the tie, so if you don’t have a good suit, it will be difficult to benefit from this instrument. My advice is if you are applying for MSCA funding, be sure to have several other related activities to ensure maximum benefit for and from the secondees.’