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Francesca Spagnoli: Ideas, not consortia

MDC scientist Francesca Spagnoli reprograms liver cells to become cells of the pancreas, which may one day help diabetics. Here, she describes how European funding helped starting her own lab.
Francesca Spagnoli. Image: David Ausserhofer/MDC

How did the ERC grant help you at the start of your career?

Before ERC, you would either have to get national funding (like from the DFG ) or international funding programs like the FP7 program of the European Union and you would have to be part of a large consortium. But when you are in the middle of starting a new lab, it is very difficult to be in a consortium or initiate one yourself. Nobody knows you yet, since you’ve just started and you neither have the connections nor the time. I've just recently started a consortium, almost eight years after I applied for the ERC grant. It is extremely time-consuming and just not possible at the start of a career.

What do you like about the ERC funding?

What I personally like about the ERC, is that it funds innovative ideas. You don't need a lot of preliminary data for your application which you may not have as a young scientist starting a lab. This is really cool! Plus, your lab is funded for five years. You don't have to permanently write applications and pile up smaller grants.

The ERC is also very straightforward and light on administrative overhead. It is probably 80-90 % science. Other programs are much more complicated. And for poorer institutions or poorer countries like Portugal or Greece the grant is a tool to attract people.

What encouraged you to apply?

When I applied I was already at the MDC with a Helmholtz junior group and grant. I saw how friends successfully applied for an ERC grant while I still was in the US. When I got the funding, this was a great success: Essentially, the grant doubled my budget, which gave me a lot of freedom.

Background: The research of Dr. Francesca Spagnoli is funded by an ERC Starting Grant and an ERC Proof of Concept Grant. Her research group “Molecular and cellular basis of embryonal development” at the MDC focuses on different aspects of developmental biology.

Further information on the ERC Grants at the MDC