Daniella Ottosson (second from left), together with the other members of the research team (Andreas Bruzelius, Srisaiyini Kidnapillai, Christina-Anastasia Stamouli and Efrain Cepeda-Prado).

The key to becoming an independent researcher

Svenska 2021-02-16

Competition is fierce among researchers at the beginning of their careers, and the dream of becoming independent and leading your own projects can feel very distant. Tenacity is one of the most important characteristics for success, in the opinion of Daniella Ottosson, who has passed through the eye of the needle.

Three years ago, Daniella Ottosson was awarded a starting grant from the Swedish Research Council, in fierce competition. Only around ten per cent of the applicants were awarded the four-year grant of 1 500 000 SEK per year.

“Receiving a large grant that can function as the foundation is absolutely necessary if you want to establish yourself as an independent researcher.”

Started her own research team

With the help of the starting grant, she was able to start her own research team, and to employ a doctoral student. The team at Lund University now also includes two postdocs and one master’s student. Together, they conduct research in the field of regenerative neurophysiology.

“We are investigating how you can produce new nerve cells by re-programming other cells, such as skin cells,” says Daniella Ottosson.

Their hope is that the research may contribute new therapies in the long term, for conditions such as schizophrenia, epilepsy, autism, and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, by re-programming cells in location inside the brain. This lies at least ten years into the future, but even now the research team is contributing new knowledge.

“By studying the cells, we can understand the diseases better, and also what has gone wrong, and possibly also generate new nerve cells for the brain, like some type of cell therapy.”

It all began with a failed experiment

The research team is investigating a specific type of nerve cell, known as an ‘interneuron’. Interneurons work as a type of break on the brain, preventing it from becoming over-stimulated. These cells are involved in many types of neurological diseases.

Interneurons in particular have played a key role in Daniella Ottosson’s path to becoming an independent researcher. She became really aware of the cells during her second postdoc visit at a research team at Lund University.

They were trying to re-programme the cells into nerve cells producing dopamine, but things did not turn out quite as planned. Instead of developing the dopamine-producing cells they were aiming for, the result was interneuron.

“This wasn’t at all what we wanted. This result was of no interest to this particular project, but it was through this that I found my own niche.”

Difficult to get funding for salaries

Solving the funding problem is the hardest nut to crack as a newly independent researcher, in her view. The greatest problem is to get funding that can be used for salaries, as many grants can only be used to cover running costs of the research itself.

“As a researcher, you need lots of external funding these days. I know that many junior researchers want to see more faculty-funded lecturerships, so that you can avoid having to fund your own salary for such a long period. It would have made a big difference if you could have got part of your salary from the university.”

In eighteen months, her starting grant from the Swedish Research Council will end, and then she will have to find new funding.

“This causes some pressure, but at the same time the application process is an opportunity to show what you have done, and to test your ideas. If you get funding, then this is proof that you have been thinking along the right lines.”

Great benefit from former supervisors

Besides stable funding, Daniella Ottosson highlights mentorship as being important for improving the preconditions for junior researchers.

She has a large network herself at Lund University, because this was where she was a doctoral student, and also had her second position as a postdoc.

“When I established my own research team here, I benefitted greatly from my former supervisor and other researchers that I knew. If you arrive at an entirely new university, and start up your own research team, then I think it is harder to find mentors.”

Building networks with other researchers

For Daniella Ottosson, being an independent researcher is about breaking free from your supervisor, running your own projects, and applying for your own grants. In order for junior researchers to increase their chances of managing this career step and becoming independent, she thinks it is a good idea to build networks with other researchers and to be visible, for example by talking about your research on social media.

She also thinks that it is important to think strategically when applying for postdoc positions. For example, it is a good idea to learn a technique during your postdoc time that not many other researchers have mastered. Daniella Ottosson learnt about electrophysiology, a method of measuring the electric function of nerve cells, during her first postdoc position in Rome. This knowledge was very important when she then applied to return to Lund University.

Another thing that she thinks you should consider when applying for postdoc positions is that it is not necessarily the most prominent laboratories that always provide the best merits.

“Many want to join world-famous research teams, but don’t consider how difficult it is to make a mark in such a team. It can take eight years before your name is included in a published article. In the end, it is publications that count, so if you include that in your calculation and think a bit strategically, then I think you have a greater chance of success,” says Daniella Ottosson.

Text: Charlie Olofsson
Photo: Johan Persson

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