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Foto: Universiteit van Amsterdam

These three UvA researchers got the Rubicon Grant: ‘In Canada you have to be extremely polite’

Sija van den Beukel,
16 november 2021 - 15:32

Three times a year, scientists can apply for a Rubicon Grant: a grant that allows recently promoted scientists to spend one to two years gaining experience at a top foreign institution. What is that like? Three UvA graduates share their experiences.

According to the NWO, the Rubicon grant is an important stepping stone for a scientific career. The grant, with a annual budget of seven million euros for sixty warded grants, is named after the river Rubicon that Julius Caesar crossed prior to his series of victories that led to his famous statement: Veni, vidi, vici. The grant is for any recent PhD student with a good research proposal, who can get an appointment at a top foreign institution. In 2019, three recent UvA graduates crossed the great rivers and oceans to do two years of research in Berlin, Toronto and San Diego. What did they experience and what will they bring back to the Netherlands?

Research Torrents de la Peña: How does the flu vaccine work?

Alba Torrents de la Peña studied how people of different ages react to the flu vaccine. ‘We take blood from patients who have received the flu vaccine and isolate the antibodies. The antibodies are the protein molecules that the immune system produces in response to the virus. Under the electron microscope, we look at where the antibodies bind on the flu virus. Some patients have a lot of antibodies binding, others zero. We have developed a method to detect the antibodies that are low in the blood. With patients’ genetic information and medical history, we can discover why people do and don’t respond to the vaccine. That information is used to design a new vaccine. Then we’ve come full circle.’

In order to qualify for the Rubicon Grant, one must submit a research application. Of the annual roughly two hundred applications, around sixty are accepted. ‘It is a grant that is quite accessible to apply for’, says neuropsychologist Marie Deserno. ‘It’s a good way to practice raising your own funding after your PhD. For the academic resume, it's sort of a quality stamp.’


For the Rubicon, you design your own research project, says microbiologist Alba Torrents de la Peña. ‘You can apply your research design anywhere, no matter where you go.’ That’s the great luxury of the Rubicon, agrees Deserno. ‘You have complete freedom in the research you've applied for. And they pay for your full appointment, so you can focus entirely on your own research.’


‘Arranging your own funding is not a luxury here in Toronto,’ says neurologist Sylvie Lesuis who moved to Toronto with her family. ‘In Europe you have a good salary as a scientist or postdoc; it does not make you rich, but you can make a good living. In America and Canada the situation is completely different, the salaries are miserably low. The conditions of employment are also worse. I only get ten days off each year.’

Foto: Marie Deserno

Research Walhalla

To build a career in science, experience in research abroad is usually indispensable. Deserno: ‘During your PhD, you mainly get to know the research culture in which you grew up. The Rubicon gives you the opportunity to get to know a completely different research culture, and to further develop yourself. That is unique.’


Using the grant, Deserno was able to conduct her research on self-reinforcing effects in autism at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. ‘I wanted to go there because of the research culture, it’s a kind of research walhalla there. Researchers don’t have to worry about money at all, and just get to think about the ideas and theories. I wanted to experience the luxury during by postdoc of fully focus on the develop of my own vision.’

Foto: Universiteit van Amsterdam
Sylvie Lesuis

Lesuis wanted to use the Rubicon to continue her doctoral research on stress and human memory at the Josselyn Frankland Lab, the neurobiology laboratory at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. Lesuis: ‘This lab is the largest in the world that investigates how memory works at the cellular level. The level of ‘good’ they have here is a much better ‘good’ than in the Netherlands.’


Torrents de la Peña also chose a lab in North America, but at the sunny south coast in San Diego. ‘After my PhD, I wanted to deepen my knowledge in structural biology. I wanted to see how immunology and biophysics communicate with one another. The Scripps Institute was the best lab I could go to.’

Research Lesuis: Can you be predisposed to stress?

Sylvie Lesuis discovered that people who are extremely affected by a traumatic event have a different stress regulation. That process takes place in the amygdala, the fear center of the brain. Lesuis showed that when stressed, the inhibitory cells in the amygdala no longer function properly. Lesuis: ‘It’s like driving a car with defective brakes, that’s difficult to drive. Then those activating cells become much more active and jump on at the slightest thing. This causes an extreme fear reaction. More and more drugs are being developed, including drugs that act specifically on the inhibitory cells of the brain. You can’t administer this medicine to the entire brain; then it’s like driving with the handbrake on. But if in the future we know better how to deliver a drug very specifically to the fear center of the brain, then this knowledge will come in very handy.’

Harry Potter

Once abroad, the researchers discovered different customs and manners. ‘I always thought Canada was more or less the same as Europe,’ Lesuis says. ‘I was proven wrong. Canada is very American.’ She noticed big differences in manners: ‘In the Netherlands, we are very direct, but that doesn’t help you in America. Here you have to handle everything with great care, and you have to be polite. It took me a while to get the hang of it. When I had been at the lab for a month I sent everyone a message, ‘hey, does anyone feel like having a beer to get to know each other?’ I was rapped over the knuckles, that it wasn’t inclusive enough to have a beer, because the people who don’t drink alcohol would feel left out.’


Temporarily immersing yourself in another culture makes one humble, says Deserno. ‘After my PhD, I knew the unwritten rules of the UvA and had a network. I thought I knew how it worked. Until I came to Berlin. In Germany, it is more hierarchical in many places, you really address the professors with ‘professor’ and use their last name. There are rules about who can ask what question, and when, and who cannot. I can now much better understand the value of a diverse research team.’


‘America is just like in the movies,’ says Torrents de la Peña. ‘If you’ve seen Baywatch, people running into the sea: it’s actually happening there.’ According to Torrents de la Peña, when you travel a lot, the trick is to the best from each country. ‘Here in America I read Harry Potter in Dutch, so I don’t lose my Dutch.’

Foto: Jonathan Torres
Alba Torrents de la Pena

Mice sacrificed

The Rubicon experience of all researchers was marked by the pandemic. Toronto is the city that has been in lockdown for the longest time in the entire Western world. Lesuis’ lab was closed for four months. ‘I found that very difficult. When we heard the news, the lab had to close in 72 hours. We had hundreds of mice that people had already put hundreds of hours of time into and they all had to be sacrificed. A bizarre amount of work and animals were lost.’


Torrents de la Peña was luckier, because she had to do a lot of computational work on the computer around that time. ‘I was actually able to start new projects during that time. My boss, Professor Andrew Ward, made sure the group was connected, even when everyone was at home. I felt privileged, so many people lost their jobs, in Barcelona they couldn’t leave their homes and we could just work from home. And besides, in San Diego the sun shines every day, so after work we could still go outside. It was as good as it could have been.’

Research Deserno: Self-reinforcing effects in autism

‘The question of how autism arises, is still unanswered,’ says Marie Deserno. In the 1940s there was the refridgerator mother theory of theorist Leo Kanner. Autism was ‘caused’ by the lack of warmth from the mother during the upbringing. ‘A bizarre idea, fortunately we are very far from that now. Over the last eighty years we have been looking for not one, but multiple causes.’ Deserno’s preliminary results suggest that early differences in motor skills can lead to a delay in social interaction and language. Deserno: ‘For example, grabbing and giving toys or pointing at something is a kind of social training that makes children engage in language and interaction.’ When early motor skills develop more slowly, children miss out on this social training, and social and language deficits develop. Deserno calls this a self-reinforcing effect, also known as a snowball effect. Thus, people with autism do not have fewer social interests, but possibly a different ‘wiring’ in the brain and behavior, which makes differences during childhood and adolescence increasingly pronounced.

Still, it was strange to be ‘at home’ abroad. Deserno: ‘If you consider that the goal of the Rubicon is to build up a network, it is a shame that I spent 21 of the 24 months working from home. It would have been a bit more dynamic without the virus.’ Fortunately, there was still some social life left. ‘My little brother and some friends live in Berlin. We held the weekly meeting with my supervisor, during a walk in the park with coffee and a croissant, even in winter with snow.’


Working from home in Berlin was arranged flawlessly. ‘The whole online infrastructure was set up within two weeks. Everyone had laptops and I even had an office chair delivered to my home. The ‘Max-Planck-Gesellschaft’ has its own drivers who normally drive important visitors around the city. They delivered a fancy chair, so I could sit comfortably.’


Stepping stone to more funding

How important is the Rubicon for an academic career? According to Lesuis, the Rubicon is important because it is a stepping stone to other funding. ‘Almost every fund I apply to now, I get awarded because of the Rubicon.’ Lesuis wants to stay in Toronto for one more year, preferably two, to finish the research. After that, she wants to return to the Netherlands. Although she does wonder what it will be like to come back. ‘Right now I’m at the FC Barcelona of research, where there are unlimited opportunities. If I go back to the Netherlands now, the question is how long it will be fun in a lesser team, where the existing possibilities and infrastructure are more limited anyway, so I have to try that out.’


Torrents de la Peña is also thinking about returning to the Netherlands. ‘I am completing the research here and have also kept in touch with my lab in Amsterdam, where I did research on the HIV vaccine, and where I am now collaborating on the Hepatitis C vaccine. I am investigating the possibilities of coming to the Netherlands as a group leader.’


Deserno has just returned to the Netherlands where she has a new job as an assistant professor, in clinical psychology at the UvA. She has also submitted a research application for a Veni grant, the next step in funding from the NWO: a grant worth 250,000 euros. She is now awaiting her interview and will learn if she’s granted the funding in April. ‘In this round I have two hundred competitors for sixty grants.’