Interview with Dr. Matthew DiFranco – Chair, Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA)

Born and raised in New Jersey, I did my undergraduate degree in Materials Science and Engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. After 3 years as an IT consultant, I moved to London in 2003 with the intention of completing a 1-year master’s program in Computer Science at University College London, and then going back to the US. But then life happened, and after 2 more years at UCL as a research assistant, I moved to Dublin for a PhD program in Computer Science at University College Dublin. During my PhD, the economy crashed in Ireland (and pretty much everywhere else). I spent two months in Vienna for a summer school and lab visit in 2008, where I developed a collaboration at the Medical University of Vienna (MUW) which would lead to my application for a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship to move to Vienna. Last year I left my job as a scientist at MUW to work independently as a researcher and consultant.

EURAXESS North America: Could you tell our readers a bit about your research background and what are you working on right now.

Matthew DiFranco: I originally studied Materials Science and Engineering as an undergrad at Drexel University in Philadelphia. After working for 3 years in IT consulting, I moved to London to pursue a master’s in computer science (and do something adventurous in moving overseas). Professionally, I was motivated to work more closely to the cutting edge of computing, rather than working in corporate IT.

My research from that point until now has focused on image processing in medical imaging: I spent 3 years in London at UCL, then obtained my PhD in computer science in 2010 at University College Dublin, where I investigated machine learning in digital pathology.

I have lived in Austria since completing my PhD, working at the Medical Universities of Innsbruck and Vienna, the latter in part during my MSCA Intra-European Fellowship.

I’ve recently become self-employed in order to work as a research scientist with a neuroscience lab based at the University of California San Francisco.

You received the Marie Curie Individual Fellowship as an American researcher moving to Europe. What motivated you to apply and how have those two years impacted your research and more broadly your career development?

Although I was born and raised in the US, I completed my PhD in Ireland and applied for a Marie Curie Intra-European Fellowship to carry out a research project in Austria. My motivation came after spending two months in Vienna during my PhD visiting a lab and attending a summer school. I met some researchers who were working on similar topics to me, and also enjoyed the quality of life and general vibe in Vienna. Carrying out the fellowship, I was given responsibility for managing my budget and setting my own research goals. The experience can be seen as very good preparation for starting one’s own research group. 

Would you encourage your fellow American researchers (or any non-Europeans for that matter) to apply for the MSCA fellowship? Why?

Yes, of course! I have often encouraged colleagues and friends in research to consider an MSCA fellowship. Some have reservations due to issues related to mobility, including close family and community ties, the impact to a significant other, and on family life. These concerns are real and meaningful: mobility is not for everyone. However, carrying out an MSCA fellowship can have a profound impact on your career, and often yourself. You are challenged to adapt to a new culture and work environment, but also given the independence to develop your own research ideas in a setting which should ideally enable you to achieve your goals.

As you know, many of the European Scientific Diaspora members in North America are very interested in the topic of mentoring and EURAXESS North America provided the platform for members to come together and establish the Joint European Mentoring Initiative [JEMI], which you were kind enough to join and lend your extensive insights and expertise, particularly since MCAA also launched its own mentoring platform: MCAA Academy. Can you elaborate on both experiences

MCAA has been developing a mentoring program titled MCAA Academy which is designed to match mentees and mentors within MCAA. When the MCAA Board became aware of JEMI in early 2017, we were eager to participate in the workshop in Washington, D.C. Although I had just returned from a summer vacation in New Jersey in early September, I booked a 2-night trip from Vienna to D.C. to take part. What struck me about the JEMI workshop was how motivated the participants were, how dedicated and enthusiastic the organizers were, and how much we accomplished in a single day. For MCAA, I took home many insights into what considerations a mentoring scheme needs to be successful. I envision MCAA Academy becoming an integral part of JEMI, in that we can contribute our own experience in helping to develop JEMI, and our mentors can also volunteer to take part in JEMI.

In February, EURAXESS Worldwide was awarded the MCAA Honorary Membership during the 2018 Annual Meeting and General Assembly in Leuven, Belgium. EURAXESS North America’s Regional Representative, Ms. Viktoria Bodnarova, was there to receive the award on behalf of the whole team. Not that we’re complaining, but why did the MCAA decide to honor EURAXESS Worldwide with this prestigious award?

EURAXESS Worldwide has a clear mission – to support the mobility of European researchers abroad and raise the international profile of European research. MCAA and EURAXESS Worldwide have partnered on a number of events over the last few years. The organizations have formed a synergetic collaboration. EURAXESS benefits from the publicity generated by our regional chapters, and MCAA members benefit from the support that EURAXESS Worldwide offers. MCAA wants to strengthen this relationship, and our Board was strongly supportive of the nomination of EURAXESS Worldwide to become an MCAA Honorary Member.

Congratulations on becoming the Chair for Marie Curie Alumni Association (MCAA) this February for a two-year period. Can you tell us what the MCAA is and what your goals/visions are for your tenure

MCAA is a network of researchers who share a common experience: participation in an MSCA research project. That participation includes early-stage researchers in International Training Networks (ITNs) and experienced researchers carrying out Individual Fellowships (IFs). In addition, MSCA COFUND and RISE participants are also eligible for membership, as are project leaders from all calls.

The newly elected MCAA Board is dedicated to improving the internal governance of the MCAA, which is a lot of behind the scenes work, but which we hope will ensure the sustainability of MCAA. In addition, we are committed to raising the profile of MCAA, and of research careers and scientists in general, through our career development workshops, career fairs, networking events, original content, and science policy activities. Ultimately, we want academia and industry alike to recognize the value of the MSCA experience when searching for new staff, and we want to use our collective experience and knowledge to impact and shape European science policy.

EURAXESS Worldwide and MCAA have been collaborating on many fronts now. What areas of collaboration do you see as potential in the near future?

We are already seeing close collaboration between EURAXESS Worldwide and MCAA Chapters in North America, ASEAN, Brazil, China, and India. We hope that EURAXESS Worldwide can leverage its MCAA Honorary Membership to establish similar collaborations with MCAA in Latin America and the Caribbean and Japan.

Since its launch, MCAA has been rapidly growing in number of members as well as chapters in Europe and beyond. Could you update our readers on some statistics (number of members, chapters, male/female, European/non-European, etc.)

Back in 2013 when the MCAA was created we had just over 1500 members; this has steadily risen over the past four years, and we will reach 11 000 members any day now. We are a youthful organization, with nearly fifty percent of members under 35, and only about 6% over fifty; this reflects in part the strong growth of the Marie Curie program over the years of successive EU research framework programs. Gender-wise, the network is about 60 percent male, which is probably a reflection on persisting lower participation of women in many science fields. Nevertheless, many of our most active members are women.

Given its namesake, how does MCAA contribute to improving the situation of women in science?

Actually, the MCAA has long recognized the vital role of women in research; one of our earliest, largest, and most active working groups is the Gender Equality and Diversity for Mobile Researchers in Science working group. They organize or take part in events focused on levelling the playing field so that gender becomes less and less relevant, and career development becomes a result of competence and commitment. I emphasize that gender diversity is a key element for the working group, and the MCAA strives for gender equality in research, and society in general.

Thank you Matthew for the interview!