Marie Skłodowska Curie and her actions

Marie Skłodowska Curie, the name known to most people, the first women to win the Nobel Prize, the only women to win it twice and the only person to win it in two different domains! What an extraordinary researcher! What is more: she gave birth to Irene Joliot-Curie who also won a Nobel Prize, which made the Curies the family with most Nobel Prize laureates to date. I would call Marie Curie the most productive researcher ever 😉 Not without any reason, one of the most prestigious grant programs funded by the European Commission was named after her: The Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions (MSCA), the grant program known to most of European researchers.

Initiated in 1996 it has been a huge success and it will continue in the frame of the new Horizon Europe 2021-2027. If you are a PhD student or a postdoctoral fellow in a European institution you have probably thought, at least once, to apply for the fellowship. Do not think anymore, just do it! “Easy to say” you tell me and I tell you: “you are right!” Nothing that is prestigious comes easy but with a good planning and preparations all is possible for people at the end, even a Nobel Prize 😉 Look at me – I got it! Not the Nobel Prize of course, that will come later 😉 But the fellowship! So, what do you need to do if you are not a genius (like me)? Well, first of all you need your PhD. But before obtaining it you can already think about next steps.

Next steps for your MSCA application

So, the next step you would need to do (apart from publishing your results of course!) is to move to another country (as the mobility is a “must”). Thus, you need to find a host institution abroad where you would like to pursue your project. But as you will offer to apply for the MSCA fellowship, all European institutions will welcome you with open arms! If you have just arrived to Germany and been here no longer than a year at the time of the end of the call you can apply too. Does it sound easy?

Well, this is the easier part… Now comes the proposal which you have to write… And the idea which you have to suggest…and both have to be excellent! Bright and innovative that will make a scientific breakthrough with an enormous impact on European citizens but still feasible! And feasible within two years! Not easy? Well, this is not enough! You have to show that the fellowship will advance your career, and that you will actively engage in communicating your research to the general public, and that your host laboratory is outstanding, that you are outstanding… You see, it is not only about your project. It is about you and the research environment of your hosting institution too. Sounds tough? It is still easier than winning a Nobel Prize 😉

“But it is not a Nobel Prize, why should I make such an effort though?” you ask me as you are a smart scientist. Well, it is considered to be a very prestigious award, that boosts your CV, pays your salary, allows you to pursue your own idea, gives you a taste of independence and opens doors for networking (if you join MSCA Alumni Association for example). It is not enough? Then you can stop reading here.

Now that you know what it is all about you can start preparing. But no! Not two months before the deadline! But the latest half a year before! The earlier the better and if I say one year before I am not joking! Also, be prepared that your first application is rejected! Many fellows get it the second time so… saying “cliché”: never give up!

Give it a try!

Kacia in one of her trips.

If you decide to give it a try you would probably seek an example of a successful proposal or you would like to reach someone who did it, the expert! You can look in the internet: you won’t find many proposals there as they are all confidential (I found only one from the field of musicology) or expired (every year or couple of years the format of application changes).

Though there is a bunch of “survival guides” available that are helpful. But where can you find someone experienced in applying to talk to? You can request that information from your host institution whether they have some MSCA fellows (University of Bonn could name only two successful applicants from 2013) or you can ask around in your circle of friends. Or you can ask me! But hey! Do not expect much! I am not an expert! I did it only once… That does not make a person an expert! It is better to ask someone who did it twice, or more times… or who did not receive the fellowship. As unsuccessful stories often teach us more than successful ones. So, based on my own experience of a non-expert (as I have to admit: it was my first grant application ever!) couple of thoughts that might be helpful:

– Think it well through: having a good idea in a good lab is essential, now you see why starting a year in advance is not too early: you need to find a suitable lab, get in touch with and develop the idea together with your host.

– Ask for help, tell people you write it so they can give you an advice. As I mentioned it was my first grant proposal ever so I had no clue how to write it. Now, when I attended a “Grant writing workshop” and I have learned what you should do and what you shouldn’t I still wonder how the heck I managed to get this fellowship!? But I know how: this is thanks to a critical but very constructive feedback of our collaborator Prof. Schultze and my PI Prof. Netea. So, as I said: ask for help.

– If you haven’t attended or written any proposal yet it is a good idea to learn how to do it. Use resources available online or workshops organized by ImmunoSensation Cluster or university. This will help you to write any grant proposal.

– Contact the National Contact Point in the country where your host institution is based. They will help you with administrative tasks (there are some too) and will provide you with further contacts.

– And do not forget to read the most recent official guideline for MSCA applicants. Read it and follow! As obvious as it sounds still some people do not read it carefully enough so they fail even before sending the proposal.

And finally: try to enjoy it! You do not need to sacrify your wellbeing and health like Marie Curie did, it is not a Nobel Prize 😉

Your immune cells remember!

And now if you are curious what was the idea that allowed me to receive the MSCA individual fellowship and that we are working on here in the group of Prof. Netea and Prof. Schultze I will quote another Nobel Prize laureate: Gabriel Garcia Marquez who once said: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” And this is exactly what we are investigating in this project! But not in life and memory of a person but life and memory of immune cells. If you want to learn more about it I invite you to read my next post on the blog.

Author: Katarzyna Placek, a Marie Skłodowska Curie Actions Fellow in the group of Prof. Netea at the LIMES Institute.