28. Mar. 2024

One of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship (MSCA-FP) schemes that supports the training of early career scientists with an emphasis on comprehensive professional and career development helped William S. Morton from Robert Vácha’s research group to fund his research at CEITEC Masaryk University. The new call for MSCA-FP applications opens on April 10, 2024, so we wanted to learn first-hand from both William and Robert about pros and cons of this funding and find out more about this young American scientist’s motivations to do science in Brno, as William travelled across half of Europe from his last posting, and money did not play a major role. 

William, when we met you told me you were doing “fake biology” and “fake physics”. Can you explain what you mean by “fake”?

If we wanted to see what happens when we drop a plate of spaghetti on the floor, we could use pasta. Instead, we could use pieces of string that are the same size, or maybe cut up elastic bands. These wouldn’t be the same as using pasta, but it would be an approximation. We could then control the conditions by tuning the exact length or material. My job is similar. Scientists at CEITEC perform a lot of cutting-edge research on proteins, and I make representations to isolate a specific property. Then we figure out if theories about our fake proteins are comparable to the real thing.

How did your journey to Brno and CEITEC begin?

I came here for an internship in 2022, during peak COVID times. My supervisor had worked with Robert when they were both at Cambridge and thought he would be the expert to help me with some computer simulations. Later, Robert mentioned the possibility of me coming to CEITEC for a postdoc. I was halfway through writing up my thesis when we called for the interview. We talked for a while and eventually I asked when he would like me to start this project. We were chatting on Thursday, and he said, ‘Monday would be great’. I thought he was kidding; he wasn't.

Robert Vácha: Recommendations within the scientific community are extremely important. I always try to find new members of my group through someone I can rely on to recommend a good candidate. At that time, William was working with Stefano Angioletti-Uberti, who was doing simulations with polymers and nanoparticles. William had become interested in nanoparticles in contact with membranes and we have a lot of experience with that. Stefano put us in touch so that William could learn how to simulate such systems and so he came to us for an internship. A year later, we were starting a project in which the experiments were already done but the simulations with a model at the level William was working on were missing. Therefore, he was an ideal candidate and it was also an opportunity for him to get involved in an already running project. But we needed to get the simulations done as soon as possible, so I was in a hurry for his arrival.

What was the one thing that made you decide to come to Brno?

There were multiple aspects: The first one was being able to work continuously with Robert and his group, a collection of fantastic scientists. I already knew that I liked the culture and environment around Brno, everything here is very accessible, and there’s plenty of outdoor activities. The last aspect was that moving here terrified me. To put myself in the middle of a whole bunch of real biologists who are all speaking Czech? But eventually I thought, ‘cool, I think I can do this’.

At what point did the MSCA funding come into play?

It will likely come in May, I've not signed the contract yet, the European Union still has it. But to be precise, my research will be funded by European Research Agency (ERA) as part of the Horizon Wider Area Talents program. The MSCA-PF reviewers give your grant a score from 0–100. If your score is above the cutoff for the category you’ve applied to, you earn the MSCA. This year for life sciences, the cutoff was 94.4%. If you receive above 90% on an application for the Czech Republic (the exact value varies in each area), then your grant will be funded by the ERA as part of the Horizon Wider Area Talents program. And that was my case.

How did you learn about the MSCA grant?

As soon as Robert hired me, he mentioned this. He had so many ideas of things that I could do. He pushes his group to do more for ourselves, and for CEITEC – like developing and teaching courses. It’s a great quality in a supervisor because it's hard to remember to care about all of those things at the same time, so it’s good to be reminded.

Robert Vácha: There were several reasons why I recommended the MSCA-FP grant to William. First, the MSCA-FP grant is a "brand", so in addition to getting funding for his own research, the grant is a visible item on any scientist's CV, and second, it gives a young scientist a taste of what grant writing is like (and writing a first grant is always the most difficult). William and I talked about the time it would cost him, but I knew it would be time well invested because I was convinced that William had a very good chance of getting the funding. In addition to his talent and knowledge, I knew he would be a great fit for the group on a personal level. That's why I'm thrilled that he has received the grant and will be able to work with us here. After all, my goal is not only to have a group of great scientists, but to make a great team that will be a pleasure to work with.

Was it difficult to administer the application?

Actually, I wasn't going to apply for the grant, originally. I didn't have enough time because I started this position while finishing my PhD. I also didn't know if I would still want to be here after a year. Then a week before the deadline, I was applying for a different grant, and thought I was already writing one anyways – so I wrote it up quickly and e-mailed the grant office. Thankfully the grant office wasn’t too mad at me, but I know it put them under extra pressure. But the whole team there is amazing, and I’m still thanking them for helping me out.

What will be covered by the funding besides your relocation?

It covers my salary, which is probably the most important part for researchers considering this grant. But the great thing is you get a pool of resource money for research. With computer simulations, it can be easy to build something bespoke: custom. When it comes time to purchase something, say a peptide, that could mean that it is expensive. Having your own resources allows you to make these purchases, without the fear that your experiment may take away funds from someone else's.

Along the way, we can also help support master students who work for us by giving them some stipend. It's something that we can do to help the community at CEITEC – bring in master students to start learning these skills.

What are the requirements you must fulfill for the funding?

To meet the requirements, I must make good on everything I promised in my application. Writing the grant feels like a fever dream, so I had to look up what I wrote once I got the news. Apparently, I promised to publish three papers but also share my research at various levels throughout the scientific and local community. Reaching out to the local community is much harder but so much more worth it, and CEITEC offers a lot of opportunities for that. I think that is going to be the goal that I care about the most. I'm really excited about the Sip of Science events in TED-talk style here at CEITEC MUNI. Me and my other colleagues were already talking about how to put our research into simple terms because that is the key to a good scientific speaker. And that, I think, is often unfortunately the last thing on anyone's priority list.

I also leaned into one of the stated goals for the horizon project, which is translation to industry. Opening this type of communication can be difficult in practice but is also part of my engineering background, so it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. I’m excited to start a project from scratch with the intention of making it translatable to an industrial field. Usually that’s an afterthought. I think this helped to set my application apart from the others.

Is being “different” an advantage for getting a grant?  

In every example I saw, the focus is always on the scientific part, which intuitively makes sense. But there are other questions to consider: Is the research impacted by any gender issues? Do underrepresented populations have any place in your research? These aspects tend to get marginalized. I tried to produce arguments for how my research could impact and recognize different people. This is the hardest part to write because you want to be genuine but not pandering. I sent this part to most of my friends, academics or not, just to get as much feedback as possible. Getting their feedback won’t hurt, and even if there’s nothing you can change, you can at least be aware.