Interview with Dr. Isabelle VEA, MSCA IF Reintegration Panel grantee, Edinburgh University

Isabelle Vea obtained her Ph.D in Comparative Biology in 2009 at the American Museum of Natural History, New York City. She was a postdoctoral fellow for three years in the School of Bio-Agricultural Sciences at Nagoya University before starting her MSCA Individual Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh in January 2017. She is an evolutionary biologist and entomologist.

- Isabelle, can you introduce your research interests to our readers?

As an evolutionary biologist, my research interests surround understanding the evolution of scale insects, agricultural plant pests that possess diverse and fascinating life histories (males and females look completely different) and genetic systems. During my Ph.D., I studied the diversity of fossil scale insects preserved in amber and investigated the relationships between living and extinct groups. Subsequently, I switched to research on how growth hormones influence scale insect development and went to Nagoya University for my first postdoctoral experience. Today, at the University of Edinburgh, I investigate the mechanisms by which males’ paternal genome are eliminated during sperm formation (an unusual genetic system found in scale insects), by examining how accessory chromosomes can actually escape this elimination.


- You were previously employed as a post-doctoral researcher at Nagoya University. Can you tell us a bit about your professional choices, and what particular circumstances lead to your work in Japan?

While finishing my Ph.D. I was thinking on switching fields of research in biology, and had a specific project in mind involving scale insect development. I found a publication from investigators at Nagoya University who were researching juvenile hormone regulation of insect metamorphosis. The PI showed enthusiasm in the project and suggested to apply for a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellowship. We first obtained a one-year fellowship that was extended to a total of three years after obtaining preliminary results.

The Reintegration Panel is  a dedicated, multidisciplinary  panel (i.e. a specific category for the evaluation of porposals) of  the  MSCA IF European  Fellowships, dedicated to researchers who wish to return and reintegrate in a longer term research position in Europe.

More information: MSCA IF guide for applicants


- Anticipating the end of your contract, you applied with success to an MSCA IF grant under the reintegration panel. Congratulations! Can you tell us a bit about the grant, and the reason why you chose to apply for it?

Having spent most of my research career outside of Europe, I was interested in the opportunity to come back, rediscover the work environment here and network with the European scientific community before applying for a position. The reintegration panel allows European researchers who were based outside of Europe for a significant amount of time to come back and reconnect and reintegrate with European research, so this panel exactly fitted my situation and goals.


- How did you obtain the grant? Were there specific hurdles that you managed to overcome in order to secure the position?

The key points I believe allowed me to secure an MSCA Fellowship was: 1) to show the potential Principal Investigator that I had skills and expertise that fit the project goals, and this despite my unconventional research profile (therefore also convince the reviewers in the proposal); 2) to carefully think about the project implementation and demonstrate its feasibility at the same time as being innovative 3) to not neglect the impact section by designing original but realistic outreach activities linked to the research field.


- Would you say that --outside of obvious eligibility criteria that it helped you fill-- your research stay to Japan improved your chances at securing the grant?

For my part, I switched fields of research, so this experience in Japan allowed me to learn new and useful techniques and discover new research literature closer to the subject of my proposal. It may have also shown my flexibility in learning new skills even though I did not have many years of experience in the study of genetic systems. Additionally, securing funding for a novel project in Japan may have shown my potential for research independence and initiative.


- How would you say research environment compare between Japan and Europe?

The difference that I noted was the very hierarchical research environment in Japan as opposed to Europe where younger researchers are more independent.


- While being based in Japan, how did you keep/create ties with your current employer in Europe?

My current Principal investigator and I already knew each other from a previous conference during my Ph.D. We reconnected 4 years after this conference because our interests and methods became closer due to my research topic switch but we never really worked together nor collaborated on research projects beforehand.


- From your perspective, how can/should researchers mobility flows between Europe and Japan (both ways) be improved? Also, what would be the barriers for research cooperation?

From my experience at Nagoya University, I have seen very disparate instances of collaborative work. Although in my former laboratory, European collaboration is not currently undertaken, some other departments have a lot of international (including European) postdoctoral researchers. Because the departments (and even laboratories of a same department) are often completely disconnected from each other, the exposure to Europe-Japan collaboration examples just within the University is lost. I was very surprised to see a clear division between Japanese-only and very international laboratories. So basically, international laboratories continue to have international collaborators, while Japanese-only laboratories stay as such. During my stay in Nagoya University, I founded an international early career researcher association (NUECRA) to help increase communication among young researchers from different departments in the University.

Young researchers who have more opportunity for mobility can be a bridge to build those connections, either by having Japanese researchers come to Europe or European researchers stay in Japan. Although there are already means to create collaborative projects (through JSPS programmes for example), some laboratories might not be willing or ready to break the communication barrier to start these collaborations, or just lack exposure or contacts in Europe. It would be worth providing more exposure to successful Europe-Japan collaborations (e.g., showcasing success stories in a portal available to Japanese/European investigators) to show that the effort in building these collaborations are worth the time. Moreover, because I only have experience from the Japanese side, it is important to provide young Japanese investigators more opportunity to network with European researchers and emphasizing that this activity is almost as important as the research itself.


Thank you very much Isabelle, and best of luck for your continued career in Europe!