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Interview with Dr Albert Quintana - ERC Starting Grantee


Dr. Albert Quintana is a Starting Grantee at the Institut de Neurociències, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain. EURAXESS Links North America conducted an interview with Dr. Quintana at the Destination Europe event in Boston, MA last February 2016.

Since EURAXESS Links is an initiative to promote researcher mobility, we are particularly interested in finding out more about the stages of your research career so far. Could you tell us a little more about your experience?

I obtained my PhD (Neurosciences) in 2007, at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain. I then moved to Seattle, WA (USA) for my postdoctoral research at the University of Washington (UW), under the supervision of Dr. Richard Palmiter. After 5 years, I was hired as an Assistant Professor at the UW and the Seattle Children’s Research Institute in 2013. This allowed me to get my feet wet as an independent researcher, managing both funds and personnel. In 2015, I was awarded an ERC Starting Grant and that was a great incentive to move my lab back to Spain.

How did you find out about the ERC selection process, and which aspects of the ERC grants encouraged you to take part in the competition, after spending 7 years in the US?

I knew about the ERC from talking to colleagues and checking the ERC website. The fact that these grants provide competitive funding and the flexibility to carry out excellent research, combined with the possibility to fund my entire lab in Barcelona were the main reasons to apply.

Could you tell us a little bit about the research you are conducting with this grant, tell us about the composition of your team, and what you expect from it personally and professionally?

In the lab we are interested in determining why some neurons die when their mitochondria, the powerhouses of the cell, are dysfunctional. It was known that even if every single neuron has the same mutation, only some of them die and cause a fatal disease, whereas some neurons are able to cope with this deficit. However, the tools to dissect what is happening in the neurons and mitochondria that will die compared to healthy ones, were not available. In this project we are developing novel tools that allow to look at these mechanisms with unprecedented resolution. My team is composed of me, a senior scientist, 2 postdocs, 2 graduate students and 1 lab technician. I expect my team to be

highly motivated, highly committed to our research and to create a good and fruitful work environment both inside and outside the lab. I am extremely happy with our team.

You were awarded an ERC Starting Grant (StG) in 2014, in which ways is the grant influencing your research career?

First of all, the funding and flexibility provided by the ERC StG allows us to perform the experiments required to carry out cutting-edge science. It also allowed me to recruit the lab members from Seattle to Barcelona. Furthermore, it has significantly increased the lab’s (and my own) visibility, being invited to many seminars and talks, which has been instrumental to establish new and fruitful collaborations.

Can you share some tips with our readers to apply successfully for an ERC grant?

I believe the most important piece of advice is to believe in oneself. That is the only road to write (and defend) a successful proposal. Regarding the proposal, it is key to know the cutting-edge science in your field of research so you can identify the big open questions that need to be addressed. Then, take your time to get up to date with the bibliography, articulate the proposal and let your colleagues (especially from outside your area of expertise) read and critique it, until you have the most synthetic, yet clear, proposal. And during the interview, just remember that is the moment to show the panel the importance of the project, and last but not least, that you are the right person to carry it out.

In your opinion, how important is the mobility of international researchers between these two regions (USA and Europe)?

I really consider it essential, as it allows to experience different ways to approach research, from big fundamental questions to how to undertake and design the experiments.

Having conducted research both in the USA and in Europe, what are the main aspects of each of these countries’ research landscape? If you could suggest improvements, what would you recommend?

In the USA young labs usually depend on start-up funds (which can vary quite a bit depending on the institution and the negotiation abilities of the candidate) until one is awarded with an NIH R01 grant, with a really low success rate. This creates a great amount of pressure on young investigators. Furthermore, it is not intended to fund high risk/high gain projects. On the other hand, the ERC programs provide an incredible opportunity for your investigators to establish themselves and for high-risk/high-gain novel projects to be funded. However, if I had to improve something, I would create other funding programs aimed to both cover excellent science that does not secure ERC funding and to help consolidate ERC-awarded labs.