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On the rise

How Embo boosts up-and-coming countries

The European Molecular Biology Organization’s Installation Grants are aimed at boosting fundamental life sciences research capability in Europe’s up-and-coming countries. Grants offer €50,000 annually for three to five years to early-to-mid-career researchers. In the 2021 call, grants were available to those applying to be hosted in the Czech Republic, Estonia, Lithuania, Montenegro, Poland, Portugal and Turkey.

The Embo funding should be used to set up laboratories, and grantees can apply for additional grants of up to €10,000 each year. Applicants must have spent at least two consecutive years outside the country in which they are planning to establish their laboratory in the four years prior to application, and they should have received their PhD less than nine years ago. The 2022 call is yet to open but Embo has said it will update its target country list this month. The deadline is expected to be in April. 

Elin Org is an associate professor at the University of Tartu’s Institute of Genomics in Estonia. In 2016, she won €150,000 over three years to establish and lead a microbiome research group at the institute.

What is your research focus?

I work with the gut microbiome and the understanding that if we want to know the causes of different diseases and other health problems, we need to study not just our DNA but the genetic makeup of the millions of different microorganisms that live with us, since they all have genetic material as well and they affect our health.

Why did you apply for an Installation Grant?

After I finished my postdoc at the University of California, I was invited to join the University of Tartu’s Institute of Genomics, which hosts a huge population-based biobank of more than 200,000 individuals’ DNA. The biobank’s director asked me to establish a group that could enrich these data with the microbiome data. So I applied for an Installation Grant with the proposal to study the microbiome in relation to health and disease in this way.

How did you find the application process for this grant?

The application process lasted about six months, and by the time it was confirmed that I had won the funding, I had to ask if I could defer for a year because I was about to go on maternity leave. Embo was very happy to extend the time period. I received €50,000 each year for three years, and I also received a starting grant from the Estonian government alongside this. I established my lab group and started the project with them the following year in 2017.

How has the group developed?

I’m happy with how it’s all gone, because now I have a successful group. We’ve been able to expand the group to take on master’s and PhD students and they help us to collect a lot of data sets. For the last two years we’ve had some exciting results published, too. The biggest project was one I established in 2019: the Estonian microbiology project. Over two years we collected gut and oral samples from 2,500 people to investigate the microbiome. Now we are beginning to see several new links between health and the gut microbiome, for instance in areas like fertility.

What are your hopes for this project?

I want to hire a postdoc, but this is always a challenge in Estonia because it’s a small country and we have to work hard to attract foreign talent. Embo allows applications for extensions, too, so I’m currently waiting to hear back from an application to extend the funding for another two years.

Beyond the money, how else have you benefited from this scheme?

When you work in a small country, you don’t have the same access to a breadth of experts. The Embo programme gives you access to that community, so you have access to other talented young group leaders across the world, and access to meetings and conferences. It’s so valuable in forming new connections and collaborations.

Additionally, Embo offers a lot of other personal development programmes for young group leaders to participate in courses, such as how to manage a research team. I was lucky to take part in two courses before Covid happened and I found them valuable. During the pandemic we also had virtual programmes, which offered support in terms of how to manage work and teams during Covid. The fellowship is also supportive of women in that it provides free childcare, which means I am able to participate in conferences because I can take my family. Embo sees the full picture.

What advice would you give others looking to apply?

It’s important of course to start with a good idea, and for these schemes where you’re establishing a group it’s important to demonstrate that you’ll be providing some new knowledge—that you’re creating work in an area that was lacking expertise in your field in your country or university. And if you can do some experiments before you apply, to demonstrate the kind of work you will do, that will only strengthen your application. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com