Interview with the coordinators and participants of Europe-Japan MSCA-ITN project REP-BIOTECH

Categories: News

Tags: MSCA | ITN | PhD

Rep-Biotech Joint Doctoral Project is a European Network created to train the new generation of excellent researchers in the Biology and Technology of Reproductive Health. It is a Marie-Skłodowska Curie Innovative Training Network funded by the European Commission under the Horizon 2020 Programme and is composed of 12 leading academic research groups and 3 companies from 9 different countries: Spain, France, Ireland, Italy, Belgium, Germany, USA, Japan and The Netherlands. It started on November 2015 and will end in October 2019.
In this piece we get insights from both the coordinators‘ point of view (Prof. Pilar Coy Fuster, University of Murcia, Spain for the European side & Prof. Hiroaki Funahashi, Okayama University for the Japanese side)  and the PhD candidates‘ point of view (Ms Hashimita Sanyal & Mr Dmitry Nikiforov, who visited Okayama University as part of their PhD programme).

Innovative Training Networks (ITN) drive scientific excellence and innovation. They bring together universities, research institutes and other sectors from across the world to train researchers to doctorate level.

All research areas can be funded – from molecular biology to urban development. Proposals should:

- reflect existing or planned research cooperation among the partners;
- involve the researchers through personalised research projects;
- explain how the recruitment of the researchers, who must come from another country, will be open and transparent.

Grants cover:

- recruitment and training of each researcher for up to three years. The researcher is hired under an employment contract and benefits from a monthly living allowance, social security cover, plus a mobility and family allowance.
- research costs including the organisation of joint activities and conferences.
- management and indirect costs.

The maximum duration of an ITN project is 4 years. Candidates interested in a PhD position funded by ITN can check available offers directly on the EURAXESS Jobs platform.

More information: MSCA ITN

Prof Pilar Coy Fuster is Full Professor of Reproductive Physiology in the University of Murcia, Spain, where she leads the Physiology of Reproduction group. She has developed pre and postdoctoral research activities in the University of Bologna (Italy), University of California at Davis (USA), The Babraham Institute in Cambridge (UK), University of Tennessee (USA) and The Institute of Zoology (London, UK). She has supervised 10 PhD students and has got national and international grants to develop her research during the last 20 years. Her main research goals are focused on the study of the physiological environment in the oviduct during the fertilization and on the identification of oviductal factors affecting gamete interaction. pilar_coy_fuster.png
Professor Hiroaki Funahashi is Dean and Full Professor of Graduate School of Environmental and Life Science in Okayama University, Japan, where he leads the Reproductive Biotechnology lab and also Assisted Reproduction Center. He has developed pre- and postdoctoral research activities in Okayama University and University of Missouri-Columbia (USA). He has supervised 9 Ph.D. students and is an associated editor of two international journals. He has also got national grants in USA and Japan to develop his research during the last 25 years. His main research interests are focused on the study of interaction between oocyte and cumulus cells during maturation (meiotic resumption) and on the interaction between oocyte and sperm during the fertilization. hiroaki_funahashi.png

- First of all, congratulations for the success in getting your project, REP-BIOTECH, funded under the 2015 MSCA ITN call. Now that the project is coming to an end (October 2019), can you describe to us what actions were implemented under this project from the European and Japanese side?

Prof. Coy Fuster: REP-BIOTECH network aims to train a new generation of 15 excellent researchers in the field of Biology and Technology of Reproductive Health (both human and animal), gathering the expertise and efforts of 12 leading academic research groups and 3 companies from 9 different countries in Europe, USA and Japan. To fulfil this objective, all the 15 early stage researchers (ESR) are developing projects in at least 3 different institutions and 2 of them have done secondments in Japan. All the projects were designed taking into account the synergies between the different research centers and group leaders and, for this reason, the 2 ESRs trained in Okayama developed projects related with Dr. Funahashi background and current research, taking advantage of his wide knowledge in the field. REP-BIOTECH network has funded the lab, travel and living expenses, as well as the salaries of the ESRs during their stays in Japan and both of them have enjoyed a cultural and scientific experience of the utmost importance in their career and their life.

Prof. Funahashi: As Professor Coy Fuster mentioned, Okayama University has been included in this REP-BIOTECH project from the interview stage for the selection of two ESRs candidates for this program who have done secondments research activities at Okayama University for about three months from last spring.


- How did the idea come to put up with a proposal for an ITN call involving Japanese partners? What would you say is the advantage of this programme, from the European and from the Japanese side?

Prof. Coy Fuster: The idea came from the previous collaboration established between Dr. Funahashi´s laboratory and my own laboratory more than 15 years ago. In 2005, I designed and launched a MSc program in the University of Murcia entitled “Biology and Technology of Reproduction in mammals” and soon after this date, we invited Dr. Funahashi to participate in the teaching of different MSc subjects. Since those days, the exchange of students, teachers and researchers between both laboratories has been continuous, as well as the publication of articles in common and the establishment of an specific agreement between both Universities. Every time a person has visited Okayama University, the experience has been fully satisfactory at the personal, cultural and scientific level.  Therefore, when I decided to apply for REP-BIOTECH ITN, I immediately thought that Dr. Funahashi´s lab would be an ideal partner because the quality of the research and hosting was guaranteed.
The advantage of this program from both sides is that it allows people involved in to know new methods, manners, ideas, ways of thinking, etc. that contribute to their human formation in every aspect.

Prof. Funahashi: A long and active exchange with Murcia University has led to the creation of this project. 10 master students and 7 Professors have been exchanged from Okayama University to University of Murcia under an agreement between the two institutions during the 2006-2019 period; while conversely 15 Master students, 3 PhD students and 7 Professors from University of Murcia were visiting Okayama University. The advantage of the current program is that is does not only allow receiving students, but also discussing with many involved professors and coordinators about doctoral education and research. I also think that it is a great advantage participating students can learn about different cultures and ways of thinking and learn about diversities in knowledge, skills, and approaches.


- In view of potential candidate projects to next year's upcoming call (expected deadline in January 2020), could you give us a quick feedback on the preparations that were necessary to setup the project, and the hurdles to write the proposal; as well as, from the Japanese side, if you had any plans for matching funds beforehand?

Prof. Coy Fuster: Preparations started several months before the deadline and we didn´t get the project approval the first time we applied, but the second. In general terms, I would say that at least 6 months of preparation are necessary and the coordinator must be focused in the writing of the proposal at least 2 months full time. Hundreds of emails between the different partners are necessary and it is highly advisable that the members of the consortium know each other’s previously because mutual trust is needed.

Prof. Funahashi: We had to put up with significant efforts explaining the project to officers and administrators of our university. At that time, unfortunately I did not have any information about the presence of matching funds for our application. If we have future opportunities, I will apply to available matching funds.


- Finally, are there any plans, on both sides, to continue the cooperation? If yes, though which means?

Prof. Coy Fuster: Yes, right know we are working in the preparation of an Erasmus Mundus Master program with 3 European universities and 2 Japanese Universities.

Prof. Funahashi: Yes, we are preparing for EMJMD-IUEP with 3 European universities. We would like to continuously contribute to the exchange of graduate students and researchers between Japan and EU.

Hashimita Sanyal: I received my Bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering in 2013 and completed my Master’s in NanoScale Engineering from Ecole Centrale de Lyon-INSA de Lyon-Universite Claude Bernard Lyon 1, France in 2015. I had for a brief period worked in Canada on Drug delivery and Bacterial detection. In April 2016 once again I moved back to Europe to start my PhD researching on Stem cells, during which I participated in three successful collaborations, including one with Okayama University, Japan. hashimita_sanyal.png
Dmitry Nikiforov: My first independent research was completed as a part of degree at the University three years ago and since that time I am really glad to be a part of projects in fundamental science. I have a wide experience in human reproduction as a clinical embryologist, which gave me priceless comprehensive understanding of importance assistive reproduction technologies for the society.

- Hashimita, Dmitry, can you quickly introduce your research interests to our readers?

Hashimita: Currently I’m in the last leg of my PhD (as an MSCA-ITN fellow). During my PhD my primary focus of research has been on Stem Cells. I have been extensively working on Amniotic Epithelial Cells and trying to study their regenerative potential.

Dmitry: My main scientific interest is female fertility preservation, with deeper specialization in ovarian tissue cryopreservation, oocytes in-vitro maturation and creation of a prototype for a human artificial ovary. Apart of that I have many satellite scientific interests in the filed of human reproduction, but they are part of a bigger conversation.


- You are now under an MSCA ITN mobility grant in Europe. Can you tell us a bit about your professional choices, and what particular circumstances lead you to work in Europe under this grant?

Hashimita: Frankly, I had been actively looking for a suitable PhD position on stem cells. I had been suggested by a friend to look up positions on the EURAXESS platform. And that’s how one day I came across the advert of REP-BIOTECH. I applied for it, and participated in 3 interviews before finally being selected for the Project #13 of the programme.

Dmitry: I am a researcher and embryologist with clinical experience in human assisted reproductive technologies since 2013. During these years I was always deeply interested in all aspects of human reproduction and at one point I decided that I would like to go beyond clinical practice and try to improve treatment procedures for infertile couples with difficult diagnosis. Thanks to the Rep-Biotech project I got involved in academical research in the field and got to know many brilliant researchers from all over Europe.


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

Hashimita: There weren’t exactly any such big hurdles, just the basic routine of recruitment. I had to prove myself as an eager budding scientist, who is ready to take up the challenge of working on a 3-year project.

Dmitry: As the project to which I applied was very relevant to my previous experience, I did not perceive any hurdles during the selection process.


- How and why was taken the decision to come for a few months to Japan as part of the PhD? What was the main objective of your research stay here?

Hashimita: At the very beginning of the PhD it had been decided that I would be working for a few months at Okayama University as part of the ITN-funded secondments. With the progress of time and the status of experiments, it was determined that I would be working at there for 2 months, in April and May 2018. We decided to translate our experimental work into another species, and that would be a great opportunity to create a positive collaboration between my home institute and Okayama University. This and also gave me an opportunity to understand the scientific ecosystem of Japan.

Dmitry:             In the field of assisted reproductive technologies Japan merits special recognition for investigations in many areas. One of such is the cryopreservation of cells and tissues by the technique called vitrification. Thanks to the secondment in Japan I got an opportunity to learn deeper aspects of vitrification from world famous scientists and performed series of experiments on human oocytes, which we matured in-vitro - it was quite a great scientific experience and I took many interesting ideas back home.


- How would you say research environment compare between the different countries you worked in and Japan?

Hashimita: Every country has its own working culture. Since prior to working in Japan I had worked in other countries; hence being well adaptable, I quite enjoyed the work culture in Japan. The research environment is very progressive and researchers are always ready to explore new topics. 

Dmitry:             From personal experience I would say that Japan certainly has quite different research environment compared to Europe. It has special cultural and traditional aspects which shape communications between people and work habits in a different manner. It was fascinating to learn about work and life culture in Japan and I enjoyed my stay there.


- Now that the grant is almost coming to term, what would you say was its impact on your career?

Hashimita: The opportunity to work in different countries, create a big network, learn more about the research environments of different countries. Learn the local language and the culture. And more over, get a chance to do quality science and travel at the same time. Thanks to this exchange with Okadai, I can speak a little bit of Japanese too.

Dmitry:             In our project we have a wide network between different institutions in European countries and beyond. Thanks to that, we became involved in activities of great research laboratories. In my project I stayed at the facility of one of the world leading institutions in the field of fertility preservation, which had enormous positive impact on my future career. During such fruitful collaboration we obtained valuable results regarding unknown aspects of female infertility and presented them at leading conferences and in trending journals. So I cannot be happier about taking part in this project and I look forward to continue my career in the same field as I am involved in now.


- A final, more personal question: how do you envisage your career and where?

Hashimita: I still don’t have any such concrete plans, since my priority is to graduate. But I would like to continue to do research work. As for the country, its yet to be decided!!!

Dmitry:             As of previous question, thanks to the collaboration with the top institution in the filed of my research I got quite a few offers to continue my career as a post-doctoral researcher in Italy (my host country) and in other EU countries. By the way, when I stayed in Japan I got an offer to work as an embryologist in the city where I stayed, which was just great, although unfortunately relocating to Japan seemed a bit unexpected for me. In the end, I think I will continue research in the field of fertility preservation in Europe.