11. June 2024

The interview was conducted in cooperation with Czexpats in Science.

Structural biologist Gabriel Demo has been studying the molecular mechanisms of biological processes using cryo-electron microscopy and other biochemical and biophysical methods at CEITEC Masaryk University for the fourth year. He has his own research group, he is a laureate of the prestigious Neuron award for promising scientists and a holder of a Czech ERC grant, which the Czech government uses to support research projects that have succeeded in the European Research Council's evaluation with the best rating, but no longer receive funding from EU funds. His career as a scientist was significantly influenced by stays at foreign research institutes, especially his involvement in research at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School in Worcester, USA.

Gabriel, what motivated you to start a research group at CEITEC of Masaryk University?

One of the main reasons was the potential of CEITEC Masaryk University as a dynamic institution that already has a good reputation in the scientific world. Another reason was the desire to pass on the experience I gained during my stay abroad to the next generation of scientists. I consider it a matter of course to give back to Masaryk University, my alma mater, something of what it put into me at the beginning of my scientific career. And the possibility of starting my own research group here fit into that like a piece of a puzzle.

But you had a well-established career at the University of Massachusetts. Weren’t you tempted to stay abroad?

I saw my time in the States as one part of my professional story. I had a great opportunity to study ribosomes using cryo-electron microscopy. For example, I found out how cells make proteins "correctly" without producing incomplete proteins that can be harmful to cells, and I was also involved in finding out how ribosomes recognize and use transfer RNA to make proteins. However, I am glad that I eventually returned to Brno, where there is a high concentration of companies developing electron microscopes and CEITEC has well-equipped laboratories in this respect. This allows us to research at the level of basic cellular processes, and our research group focuses mainly on cellular translation processes. We seek to better understand gene regulation in bacterial cells and virus-infected cells. Being at the University of Massachusetts has helped me take my research to the next level.

You have had numerous experiences in the US, UK and France – how are you now using these experiences in your work at CEITEC?

My time abroad, particularly in the UK and the US, has allowed me to work in leading laboratories and learn from world experts in structural biology. I learned the latest techniques and methods, which I now apply in my work. In the case of my stay in the UK, I learned many techniques to crystallize protein complexes. In the United States, as already mentioned, I got into cryo-electron microscopy before its big boom, so I was introduced to the technology in great detail. My time abroad also gave me the opportunity to make valuable international contacts that are invaluable for scientific collaboration.

How do you think international mobility can contribute to scientists' personal and professional development?

International mobility of scientists is crucial for their personal and professional growth. Especially for those who really want to have their own lab one day. Being abroad opens up new perspectives, gives access to the latest technologies and methodologies, and provides the opportunity to learn from world leaders in the field. It will allow you to build an international network of contacts, learn to communicate with different types of people and perhaps even begin to understand why some cultures think differently than we do. For us scientists, mobility is vital – it puts us in contact with know-how that we would not have learned elsewhere, which we can then pass on as give-back to the scientific community and help advance scientific knowledge.

What specific challenges and opportunities did you experience during your time abroad?

One of the main challenges was adapting to a new work environment and cultural differences. However, these challenges were also opportunities for personal growth. For example, I was able to work on cutting-edge projects with the latest technologies, which I would not have been able to do in the Czech Republic at the time. These experiences allowed me to gain valuable skills and knowledge that I now apply in my work. It was also very challenging to be so far away from home, away from my family, I had to fend for myself. So, it was also a great school of life, not only on the professional side.

What would you recommend to young scientists who are thinking of doing an internship or a job abroad?

To be brave and open to new opportunities. Interning or working abroad can be challenging, but it's an investment in your future. Don't be afraid to cross the border and take advantage of the opportunities the world has to offer. The experience gained abroad is often irreplaceable and can make a big difference to your scientific career.

Is this also true for the scientific expats who are now working abroad – that they should not be afraid to cross the border back home and capitalize on their experience in local institutes, as you have done?

Absolutely yes. I would encourage them to keep a close eye on where science is moving in their home country. Often all it takes is a few years to pass and the situation can change significantly. I myself have seen the CEITEC shift a lot in the time I have been in the States, for example in terms of infrastructure, the extent of administrative support for scientists, or the institutional culture. At the same time, I also see the changes that Brno has recently undergone – it has become an international city, where research and innovation thrive and where it is good to live. All this can be an attractive combination for anyone looking for a job in a top scientific environment and at the same time wanting to return home to the Czech Republic. I myself consider Brno my second home.

As the person responsible for the composition of the research team, what is important to you when recruiting new members?

I look for people who are passionate about what they enjoy about science to join my team. This is best seen in one-on-one meetings, where we talk about what the person has done in the lab over the last week and get into a lively scientific discussion. For me, the discussions are the most rewarding ever. I love our lab meetings, where the debate and brainstorming bring up new topics and paths our research can take. Through this interaction we broaden our horizons and gain new information.

Our team has a postdoctoral position open right now, so I am currently looking for someone who wants to work on mechanisms of translation regulation, is curious and has a lot of enthusiasm for science. At the same time, they must be willing to work on themselves and be open to different opinions and discussions.

Can you give an example of a project or discovery that would not have been possible without your international experience?

I have to say that there are many, as I started building my group in Brno only a few years ago. Our lab is mainly focused on ribosomes and the method that allows us to visualize them in high resolution is cryo-electron microscopy. Crystallisation is no longer used for large molecules such as ribosomes, as we are more interested in the dynamic states of the ribosome, which are very important for its functionality.

What steps should Czech scientific institutions take to promote the mobility of their scientists?

First of all, I must say that not all scientists have the ambition to travel abroad. Some want to stay close to their family or want to feel the stability, which is understandable. However, the mobility of young scientists should be encouraged, already in the context of PhD studies, in the form of short-term stays of several months, and some scientific institutions already have this as a condition of PhD studies. Those who are passionate about science and wish to pursue a scientific career should be encouraged to pursue their PhDs abroad and research institutes should provide them with the necessary assistance in applying to universities abroad.

However, special support should be given to those scientists who have ambitions to start their own research group. Czech scientific institutions should organise events where PhD students can meet scientists who have built up their own group in the Czech Republic after returning from abroad to learn from them what it takes. At the same time, they would also take away tips and recommendations for universities where they could go for at least two years as postdoctoral fellows, where they would fully acquire this know-how and pass it on to the next generation upon their return. This mechanism could play an important role in the development of science in the Czech Republic.

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