From Italy through Ireland to Kazakhstan. This has been the journey of a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship alumnus, Daniele Tosi. Daniele is currently an Associate Professor at Nazarbayev University, Kazakhstan who is spearheading a Biosensors group there. His personal life changed with coming to Kazakhstan as well, as he met his better half in this central Asian country. However, 7-8 years ago things were not the same for Daniele. As a fresh Ph.D. graduate he was about to apply for a prestigious Marie Curie fellowship for performing his research. We sat down with Daniele to understand how applying and winning the MC Individual fellowship influenced his later career and to learn about his insights on the scholarship.
Daniele Tosi in his early experienced researcher days. He was successful in applying and obtaining Marie Curie Individual fellowship 3 times.
Marie Curie (MC) individual fellowship is “one of the best projects you can find in Europe [for any fields], particularly as a postdoc, because you select where you would like to go,” says our guest. As a fresh Ph.D. graduate from Politecnico di Torino, Daniele chose to go to Ireland. He “came to choosing the host university step by step”. Having identified his research field, he looked at universities and narrowed down to 2-3 potential host institutions. Sometimes life works in mysterious ways, as one of the Universities, University of Ireland, happened to be collaborating with another University in Italy exactly on what Daniele hoped to work on - fiber optic sensors.
Having identified the host University for his potential project, Daniele found another appealing aspect of the MC fellowship – proposing his own idea from any field as a project, i.e. in a “bottom-up approach”. He talked about a study from Ireland that showed that best research was achieved not by calls for a specific fixed project, but by open calls when applicants suggest their own proposals. “In the top-down approach, funding agency runs research on identifying hot topics, then they make a call for these topics. By the time the proposals are selected in a year and more, and when the project can start, the field can go already obsolete. The technology cycles are so fast, that field can change in uncontrollable ways,” says Daniele. He thinks bottom-up approach of funding results in the best research and tries to apply it in his research group too. He likes when his team can suggest their ideas and experiments rather than being told what to work on.
While applying, with the freedom to choose the topic, however, came some challenges. Writing the proposal for the MC fellowship was the hardest part Daniele says. “Effectively there are three people involved in the proposal: your supervisor, research office, and the applicant. An applicant prepares the proposal, which consists of two parts. Part A is compiled by the University you are going to and part B includes the proposal which is the hardest part [of the application],” he says. However, when asked what made his proposal successful, he says: “It took me 6 months to write the required 12 pages of the proposal. And every single word was there”. His word of advice on preparation was to start very early and to remember “in MC each word is weighted”. Additionally, an important part in Daniele’s opinion with the MC fellowship for postdocs is “to make a project that fits Marie Curie”. Since the grant is designed for scientists at the beginning of their careers, “training” part should be clear he says. The scholarship’s purpose is to help researchers by giving them training. For potential applicants, “identifying how Marie Curie helps to go to the next level of your career is key” Daniele adds. Once the proposal is crafted, the host university supervisor and research office usually check it for further improvements.
Besides writing the proposal, another challenge of application process is waiting for results. Evaluation process on European Union grants to this day takes long, ranging to 6 months. After 6 months, when the results came out, Daniele was one of the successful applicants, since his proposal earned more than 90% mark. Daniele says the advantage of passing the cut is not only “that you get funded, but also you can decide your starting date”. Usually awardees have about 1 year from the time of application, but also it is possible to defer it further with the project manager’s agreement. For those who have maternity/paternity leaves, the scholarship also “waits” for an applicant. The first time Daniele got awarded the fellowship he was allowed to defer the start date and stay in Torino due to personal matters for a year. Afterwards, his MC fellow years started in Limerick, Ireland.
Daniele’s fellowship in Ireland brought him independence in research, freedom and a good CV. “They treat you as an independent researcher, which you eventually become. And having the budget, which is only for you, is the main advantage,” he says about the fellowship. During his two years in Limerick, Daniele started “working at a completely different level” as he puts it. For example, once he was sitting on Friday night and deciding that he was to fly to the US to a conference on the Monday morning. Freedom of making your decisions and managing your funding is what attracts many researchers in MC fellowships. “During MC fellowship everything happened faster without having had to justify to anyone your decisions. Additionally, the project is flexible, if something is not working, it is not the end of the world” he reminisces. I ask him about the non-professional advantages he saw in MC. He added that “his university was proud of him and his name was even used as an advertising program to research fellows”. Daniele equates MC fellowship in Europe to Royal Society fellowship in the UK, which both of which are good to have on your resume.
When the project ended, however, like many other MC fellows, Daniele had a difficulty in finding a suitable job opportunity due to contrast in offered salaries and the one during his postdoc. He says as a postdoc he was saving 60% of his salary with not so lavish but also not cheap lifestyle in Limerick. The rent in Limerick was about 500 pounds. When the postdoc was ending he was offered to stay. “I liked Ireland, but I did not like the idea that my salary would have been cut by 40% if I were to continue at other offered positions there”. Going through interviews in Australia, Europe, Kazakhstan, Daniele finally decided to go for a faculty job at the fairly new university in Kazakhstan which he is part of up to this day.
Daniele nowadays works on optical fibers, biosensors for biomedical diagnostics, and nanomaterials. He says he is “at his best career years, which he would like to dedicate to research more”. He adds: “I enjoy the people I work with who are very smart and ambitious.” Reflecting on his past MC fellowship experience, Daniele is convinced that he wouldn’t have developed such independence as a researcher without it. Since he has come to Kazakhstan, he has been involved in moving a budget of 1.5 million dollars in equipment and grants. With all the challenges, he was able to build up his laboratory. “Here I was able to buy an instrument which cost was prohibitive for a purchase back in Ireland. The freedom of purchasing and setting up a lab here independently was a major advantage for me here. I saw early how my field was developing and decided to take responsibility to buy whatever I needed to move my research forward,” he says. “Taking responsibility is important,” he adds and looks like his actions are paying off.
Looking back, Daniele is grateful for the MC fellowship and how his career turned out. I ask him to advice to potential MC fellowship applicants, and his advice was to “just apply”. “Many people spend too much time thinking about what they want to do, choosing the field. You should just go for it. The world moves fast. When you decide where you want to go, just go for it, don’t think too much”. MC fellowship is one of the prestigious, but also one of the most competitive ones too. Daniele has embraced failure as part of his academic life. “When you start applying, you fail. But when you fail, you understand how you should apply and you get better. It is a learning process. Even the best project in the world won’t be perfect the first time you put it on paper” he adds.
As Daniele, we also would like to encourage our readers to apply for a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship which is open for scholars and researchers in their early career. More resources below:
Official website: https://ec.europa.eu/research/mariecurieactions/actions/individual-fellowships_en
Marie Curie Alumni Association in the UK: https://www.mariecuriealumni.eu/groups/united-kingdom-chapter