Flowers from other gardens thanks to ten-year-old EuroTech

The joint postdoc program is one of the first big projects within EuroTech. The end of this year will see the start of its second round, coordinated by TU/e.

Khulan Sergelen and Peter Cossar. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

The Technical University of Munich, the Technical University of Denmark, Eindhoven University of Technology, the Swiss École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the École Polytechnique in Paris and the Israel Institute of Technology are the six partners who within EuroTech have clustered their strengths in research, education and innovation.

One of the first big projects in which the partners are collaborating in this way is the EuroTech Postdoc Programme. Researchers take up a position at one of the above-mentioned institutions and also enjoy a secondment lasting a number of months at another EuroTech partner (the co-host). Peter Cossar and Khulan Sergelen are two of the researchers selected to participate in EuroTech Postdoc 1. Among the total of seventy fellows, twenty have TU/e as their host.

    “I have become a better scientist here”

    Peter Cossar works in the Chemical Biology group (Biomedical Engineering). He is researching the modulation of interactions between proteins and its application in the treatment of disease.

    Eindhoven? No, that was not somewhere this Australian-born academic had ever heard of until three years ago, as he admits, laughing. His girlfriend, lending her help in the hunt for grants for which Cossar might be eligible after completing his doctorate (at Australia’s University of Newcastle), chanced upon EuroTech online – more specifically upon the website of EuroTech partner DTU in Denmark. “But none of the groups there were a good match for my particular research interest.”

    Scanning the other universities he soon spotted the Eindhoven-based group led by Luc Brunsveld and Christian Ottmann (Chemical Biology). “Their work was closely related to what I had been doing, but I also saw opportunities at TU/e to broaden my horizons.” Mails were exchanged, the ground for a collaboration felt fertile and together with Brunsveld and Ottmann, Cossar wrote his project proposal. Just under five months later the Australian heard that he had been admitted to the program; in the fall of 2018 he moved to Eindhoven.

    Skyscraper-style campus

    He was impressed by TU/e, whose acquaintance he had made briefly two months earlier (having attended a conference in Manchester, England). Impressed by Eindhoven’s “skyscraper-style campus, utterly unlike the university I came from”; by the ‘cutting-edge’ research facilities. His first introduction to the group was, says Cossar, warm and welcoming. “Especially on that first occasion, before my girlfriend arrived here, they really took care of me.”

    Peter Cossar. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

    For his postdoc-research Cossar dived deeper into the workings of the human cell, more specifically in the role played here by proteins, and into how cellular systems can be deployed in the development of new medical therapies. The researcher likens proteins to employees, each with their own role or tasks, but who also need to cooperate and communicate with one another to get those tasks done.

    “Traditional drug research is concerned mainly with blocking a protein’s functioning. But then you automatically shut down other functions. Our research aims to stabilize proteins, by using small, custom-built molecules with which we can stick two proteins together. Think of this molecule as a manager that singles out two particular employees: ‘I want you both to focus on this task’. These small molecules will soon become drugs, which could be used in the treatment of, say, cancer patients.” This approach was new terrain for Cossar, whose background by his own account lies in more traditional chemistry. “I found it very interesting and innovative. As a technique it was already much more in use here in Eindhoven.”

    At the TU in Munich, Cossar’s co-host during his postdoc period, the plan was to field-test the specially developed molecules. “TUM is affiliated with a hospital, with a wealth of experience in oncology, and was able to carry out more specific screenings, with a view to cancer treatments.”

    Zooming with Munich

    The period of three to six months he was supposed to spend in Munich as part of his EuroTech experience was scrapped however due to the worldwide corona restrictions. “A shame, of course; it meant that the collaboration I had envisaged didn’t really get off the ground.” But, he says with a sense of perspective: “The exchange of ideas with the group there (under Günter Schneider, ed.) was perfectly possible over Zoom and the molecules were simply sent by post.”

    Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

    What’s more, as Cossar says: “I’ve already been able to get such a lot from my experience in Eindhoven; I’ve really become a better scientist here. You learn new research techniques, develop an entirely new, varied set of skills. This is something EuroTech really promotes; they don’t want you to do your doctoral research all over again, with just a change of scenery.”

    He praises TU/e for its decidedly interdisciplinary approach to research, “within the department, too, expertise from various places comes together. This is really valuable. It makes you a more creative scientist, you don’t get stuck in your own narrow-minded bubble.” Likewise, the supervision within the program wins his approval: “The way it is structured and delivered are extremely professional.”

    This structure includes several gatherings and workshops – during the pandemic unavoidably online – with all the participants in the EuroTech Postdoc Programme. Patents, marketing a scientific idea, presenting your research to camera – these are a few of the lessons Cossar says he found useful to learn.

    New insights

    The EuroTech Postdoc Programme also has plenty to offer the participating universities and research groups, he believes. “As an institution you are bringing on board highly qualified individuals, people who work not only for themselves but who also act as mentor and supervisor for young doctoral candidates. And you gain new insights, new ways of thinking that would perhaps pass you by if your own backyard is the only place you ever look for talent.” What’s more, as he says, “The cohort of people completing their doctoral research is large but then fellowships are few and far between. A program like the one run by EuroTech helps young scientists take that next step in their career.”

    Continuing for the time being in Eindhoven is how he hopes to see his own career developing. “My girlfriend is in the middle of her doctoral research (with Ilja Voets of the TU/e department Chemical Engineering and Chemistry – ed.), so come what may we’ll be here until 2024. My contract runs until October 2022. I’m still working as a postdoc although I have a slightly more senior position; at the moment I’m writing a proposal for a Veni grant. What I’d really like is to become an assistant professor and it would be fantastic if TU/e were to hire me.”

    The professor: ‘Putting the individual first’

    A more robust shared stance in political dialogue, greater prominence in international circles, extra financial resources. Luc Brunsveld certainly won’t dispute the conspicuous benefits of alliances like EuroTech – nonetheless for this Full Professor of Chemical Biology the individual researcher and his or her academic ambitions come first. “I always look at the person, not at the broader connections. What does a postdoc need, what would he or she find most valuable, can this person work here optimally on their development? But there’s also this to consider: what expertise does someone bring?”

    First and foremost, therefore, Brunsveld seeks the best match in terms of the science, “as was the case with Peter. Rather than people from abroad eager to come here on a fellowship but who might not be the most interesting choice in terms of their CV. Or a researcher in Utrecht, because that institution and TU/e happen to be strategic partners – while the best person for us may be in Nijmegen.”

    But of course, as he is aware, finance is also important and an alliance like EuroTech with its postdoc program decidedly improves the opportunities and financial resources for cooperation. Certainly in the Netherlands, a country not overflowing, he says, with the kind of “foundations available in England, Switzerland and Germany” that offer researchers with a fresh doctorate a bridge to the future. “So the more possibilities there are to offer people a postdoc position in the Netherlands, the better. When Peter approached us, we didn’t have a vacancy for him. So it worked out well for us that we could work with him in this way.”

      “The freedom to focus on research that I myself have proposed is truly wonderful”

      The freedom to explore her own research questions – for postdoc Khulan Sergelen this is perhaps one of most valuable aspects of the EuroTech Postdoc Programme. In addition, she is convinced that alliances like EuroTech can help young (upcoming) scientists to ease themselves out of their first institutions.

      Singapore, Taipei, Melbourne, Vienna… Yes, compared with the cities where she has previously lived Eindhoven was pretty small, says Khulan Sergelen. But this modest city held plenty of appeal for Sergelen, who had already started a postdoc at the Molecular Biosensing for Medical Diagnostics group before she submitted her research proposal to EuroTech.

      “In the area I want to do research there are not that many research groups worldwide. This group in Eindhoven had just entered the field, I was interested in the methodology they were developing here, and there was a vacancy for a postdoc, possibly leading to a tenure track.” Whatever happened, she wanted to stay in Europe, Sergelen explains; partly for her nine-year-old son, born in Vienna. “Eindhoven felt good, safe.”

      A fellowship was high on this researcher’s wish list: “Extra funding and visibility for your research are always good. But my application for a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship was turned down.” At the same time as this disappointment, Sergelen heard about the EuroTech Programme. One of the five focus areas within this alliance, Health & Bioengineering, matched perfectly, she says, with her own research questions, “and it offered a nice opportunity for a secondment at another institution. I had long been interested in a particular group at EPFL (in Lausanne, Switzerland – ed.). So I saw this as a great chance.”

      Khulan Sergelen. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

      Sergelen discussed her plan with her group leader in Eindhoven, Menno Prins (Department of Biomedical Engineering) and got in touch with his colleague Hatice Altug at EPFL in Lausanne. “We started looking for common ground and wrote a proposal. This, I’m glad to say, was well received.”

      Biochemical changes

      In her research Sergelen focuses on the capacity to monitor in real time biochemical changes in a patient’s body. “All kinds of techniques are already giving us a great deal of information, for example about a person’s body temperature, oxygen level and blood pressure. But in many medical situations they are not conclusive. And then, in clinical diagnostics you might have to wait days, or at best hours, for the results of, say, blood tests you have sent to a central lab. In the meantime all kinds of circumstances can arise that may put a patient in acute danger.”

      With her colleagues in the group she is working to develop biosensors able to trace, for example, proteins, DNA and other molecules in the human body, “everything in fact that says something about the patient’s health status or their disease. I’m developing the biological tools needed to identify these.”

      She is still in the midst of her research; midway through this interview she takes her laptop and leaves her office for the lab, where she puts her allocated time slots to best use. Sergelen has another six months ahead of her as a EuroTech fellow, during which time she hopes she might still travel to her co-host EPFL and carry out the other part of her research. Originally she was due to go in April of last year, then it was put back until September – before being postponed indefinitely.

      Khulan Sergelen. Photo: Bart van Overbeeke

      “I know that some other fellows have travelled despite the restrictions imposed due to COVID-19, but my personal circumstances mean I’m not so flexible that I can pack up my things and go. I’m on a tight schedule too, so I can’t afford to spend long in quarantine. Then there’s the fact that TU/e is currently still advising against foreign travel and I’m following that policy.”

      Freedom

      Fortunately, as she emphasizes, she is able to get more than enough out of her postdoc, despite this travel restriction. And she counts herself lucky that fairly soon after the re-opening of the first TU/e labs, in early May of last year, she was allowed onto the campus to continue her research. “If that had not been possible it would have been disastrous.” Aside from that: “The freedom to focus on research that I myself have proposed, the flexibility to explore things, is truly wonderful. And I have learned to build networks, to maintain contacts.”

      Building strong bridges, seeking synergy: an important task lies ahead for the universities of Europe, so Sergelen believes, not least to make it easier and more appealing for students and young researchers to see how things are done across the border. “You have the world at your feet and ongoing alliances like those within EuroTech can remove the barrier to taking a look somewhere else.”

      The EuroTech community is, believes this Eindhoven-based researcher, “very committed. The coordinators here at TU/e are doing great work, are always available to you and let you know often that they are thinking of you. That keeps morale high. As a EuroTech postdoc fellow you belong to a community, aside from the research group you’ve joined. That’s a really good feeling.”

      /TU/e Public Release. This material comes from the originating organization and may be of a point-in-time nature, edited for clarity, style and length. View in full here.