Interview with Juan Manuel Toro, Colombian ERC Starting Grant awardee

You have recently been awarded an ERC Starting Grant. Could you tell us about the research you are conducting with this grant? How can the general public benefit from it?

The project explores what is uniquely human and what is shared with other species in language. The starting point for this project is that humans share with other animals many cognitive capacities, but the ability for language has only developed in us. Of course, other animals have pretty complex communication systems, but none seems to share key features with human language. So why does human language seem so special? This is a question that generates much debate and there several lines of research trying to answer it. My proposal was to focus on how different species might focus on separate aspects of the signal to extract information. This involves the characterisation of constraints humans face while processing language and the mapping of the different cues other animal species might use to discover linguistic regularities. Thus, I am currently doing research with human adults and infants and also with animals. Hopefully, this research will provide information about the different elements involved in language learning. In more general terms it will be telling about what is uniquely human.

How did you find out about the ERC selection process? Can you share any tips with our readers on how to apply for an ERC grant successfully?

Our centre has a research office that gave me all the information about the grants and the application process. It really helped me to have people with experience with previous successful applications to guide me during the process. During the application process, a lot of emphasis was put on the idea that, of course, scientific excellence is the starting point for any successful ERC grant. But there are many excellent researchers applying for ERC grants. So, besides being scientifically strong, a proposal should be innovative. It should not be just a follow-up of existing research. Rather, it should approach a given topic from a different angle. If funded, your proposal should make a qualitative contribution to your field of research, not just a quantitative addition to the already-existing knowledge. It is also important to keep in mind that members of the scientific panels have to make difficult decisions among the projects they review (as, again, there are many excellent projects). So, you should be able to easily convey why your project really presents a novel approach, or why it will be able to make a significant contribution, to the issue you are tackling. Finally, I was awarded a Starting grant. For these grants, it is very important to show that you are able to lead a project and that you are an independent researcher. That means that you can carry on your own research beyond your previous work with, for example, your PhD supervisor or the head of the lab where you did your postdoc.

Young researchers from everywhere in the world can be recruited to work in ERC teams as PhD candidates, post-docs or researchers. How would you encourage Latin American and Caribbean researchers to look for these opportunities as team members?

All the positions that I offered to participate in this project were advertised through the EURAXESS job portal (https://euraxess.ec.europa.eu/). This is a pretty good place to start looking for available positions in the different ERC projects. Also, ERC grantees are usually very active members in their area of research. It is thus likely that available positions will be advertised in the specialised mailing list for their research field. Finally, it is important to know which are the labs that are working on the questions that you are interested in. Checking the information on available positions in these places could provide you with the opportunity to join their teams.

How has mobility influenced the direction of your career? In your opinion, what could be done to further enhance the mobility of international researchers between Europe and Colombia / Latin America and the Caribbean?

Mobility has been very important for my career. I did my undergrad studies in Bogotá (Colombia), then moved to Barcelona (Spain) for my PhD and then to Trieste (Italy) for a 3-year postdoc. To advance in your research career, it is key to work in the labs that are tackling the issues that you are interested in. And this necessarily involves moving to new places. Once you have a scientific question you want to answer, going to the relevant labs and institutions is a great way to develop your own research project. Regarding what could be done to enhance the mobility of international researchers to and from Colombia, I think there are two separate issues (one is easier to solve than the other). Firstly, more information is needed regarding the collaboration opportunities. This is a problem that can be solved, and the ERC initiative is a great example of how to do it. Secondly, unfortunately, my impression is that there are still many bureaucratic problems for people interested in doing research to move to other countries (for example, very difficult visa applications). This is definitely a problem that is harder to tackle, and I am aware of steps being taken in the right direction. But my impression is that there is still work to be done on this issue.

One final piece of advice or insight?

The ERC grants are great to advance your research. They provide you with the resources needed to create a team, set up your lab and develop your own lines of study. The ERC grants are also highly appreciated in the scientific community, many times helping the grantee to hold prestigious positions in research institutions. It is thus really worth the effort to take an interesting research idea you might have and prepare a proposal. In the worst scenario of not getting the grant, just writing down the proposal will help you to organise your ideas and plan your research for the next five years.

Juan Manuel Toro is from Pereira (Colombia) and moved to Bogotá to study in the Universidad Nacional de Colombia. Later, he got his PhD from the Universitat de Barcelona (Spain) with a doctoral thesis on language evolution. After a postdoc at SISSA (Trieste, Italy) he got a position as ICREA Research Professor at the Centre for Brain and Cognition in the Universitat Pompeu Fabra.

ERC Myths vs Reality:

Researchers sometimes have certain incorrect ideas about the ERC grant application process – "myths" that discourage them from applying for funding.

In this article, Giulio Superti-Furga responds to some common misperceptions he has encountered over the years.  Professor Superti-Furga, a molecular and systems biologist, has experience from both sides of the fence: he won several ERC grants from 2009 to 2015 and became a member of the ERC's Scientific Council in 2017.


Useful links:

  • Interviews with Brazilian and other LAC ERC grantees and team members
  • Short guide on ERC specifically for LAC here
  • For any queries, contact your local NCP (National Contact Point for ERC) here by selecting your country under „Third countries“ then select „European Research Council“ in the right-hand column
  • European Research Council website with call details, facts, figures, interviews etc. here