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Adventures in Funding

In this new article series, “Adventures in Funding”, we get the inside story from analytical scientists who have secured major grants. In each article, the ‘winners’ will talk us through the highs and lows of the process, share the factors that led to the reviewers’ decision, and describe the impact on their work. By publishing their personal stories, we hope to build up a more detailed picture of the funding landscape in analytical science – and also offer some of the secrets to grant success.

To kick off the series, Gert Desmet shares the story of his recent 2.5 million euro European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant.

Tell us about the grant…

I recently received an individual European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant, worth 2.5 million euros. A number of Advanced Grants are awarded every year, and specifically target researchers who have already established themselves as top independent research leaders. ERC Advanced Grants are designed to allow outstanding research leaders of any nationality and any age to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects in Europe – and give them full freedom to develop their idea over a period of five years. It is a very attractive and highly sought-after grant.

What is the funding for?

I applied for a grant to build the perfect chromatographic column, by arranging chemically perfected micro-particles in a minutely ordered 3D pattern. Calculations have proven that perfect arrangements of particles exist that produce up to 10 times more theoretical plates in the same time. This could unlock a breakthrough in the ability to detect low abundant molecules in very complex samples, which in turn could lead to fundamental new insights in the life sciences. In addition, we will be able to perform time-resolved analysis of very rapid processes involving short-living intermediates. It seemed to me that such an ambitious goal was ideally suited to an Advanced Grant so, with some trepidation, I decided to apply.

How was the process?

At first, the procedure to apply for the grant seemed simple enough. The ERC only requests a 15-page project description. Those 15 pages then needed to be reduced into a five-page summary, which in turn was summarized in a 2,000-word abstract. The abstract is then used to select reviewers and get a first impression.

Once the proposal is submitted, the waiting begins...

The applications are reviewed over several phases. During the first round, about 70–80 percent of the proposals are eliminated solely based on the abstract and the five-page summary. The full description is only read during the second round, where typically another half of the first round survivors are rejected. All in all, the entire selection takes around nine months.

As the deadline approached and the perfect proposal eluded me, the stress levels rose!

What tactics did you use to perfect the proposal?

As anyone who has written a grant proposal will know, it’s easier in theory than in practice. The summary and abstract proved particularly difficult, because the reviewing panels are composed of scientists from a broad range of disciplines. In my case, the best I could hope for was that the reviewers had a vague notion of what chromatography is. Finding the balance between an in-depth detailed chromatographic description and a project proposal that would be accessible and draw the attention of non-experts took up many hours. In the attempt to achieve this elusive balance, I must have rewritten the 15-page project description at least four times, not to mention the number of versions the abstract went through.

Needless to say, as the deadline approached and the perfect proposal eluded me, the stress levels rose! The last three weeks before the deadline, I decided to go ‘under the radar’ to ensure 100 percent focus while working full-time on the project application. I found the most effective technique was to surround myself with a small team for brainstorming sessions and to evaluate different versions of the proposal. Furthermore, I also made sure I had good technical support, who could provide me with excellent graphics to enliven and illustrate the text, and – very importantly – a dedicated proofreader to review the text. Often, people hire professional agencies to do this work for them, but I am proud to say that I was able to rely on my own team.

How did it feel to win the grant?

When you get the news that the grant is yours, all the hard work and the stressful waiting are immediately forgotten. Writing the application was a tremendous effort, but the opportunities my research group now has are wonderful. The week after the news of my grant got out, our university rector saw me crossing the campus, and came running across the lawn to give me three kisses and congratulate me in front of a stunned audience of students and colleagues!

I believe I convinced the committee members with my passion for the project and the importance of my goal; it is my life-long dream to make the perfect chromatographic column.

What do you think tipped the balance in your favor?

In hindsight, I believe I convinced the committee members with my passion for the project and the importance of my goal; it is my life-long dream to make the perfect chromatographic column, and I believe that showed in the proposal. By defining the need to realize this dream in layman’s terms, I could also persuade the non-chromatography experts to take a chance and offer me the opportunity to start this scientific adventure.

As with all applications for funding, there is always a significant portion of luck involved. It is always possible that your project proposal ends up in the hands of an ill-disposed reviewer. Fortunately, that risk is limited for this type of grant, as each application gets at least eight review reports, such that these ‘accidents’ can be filtered out.

We aim to develop a nano-precision bricklaying technique, working at high speeds and over large areas.

What’s next for the project?

My goal will require a great deal of innovative science to achieve. First, we will need to develop radical layer-by-layer micro-particle deposition methods, working with nanometric precision over very large areas to address the typical length and width of a chromatographic column in one stroke. In other words, we aim to develop a nano-precision bricklaying technique, working at high speeds and over large areas. The benefit of these layer-by-layer deposition methods is that they should work with many different materials. It will also allow us to develop applications in totally new areas, such as the production of photonic crystals with new bandgap sizes. The latter prospect is really thrilling, as it will allow us to considerably broaden our research activities, acquire new know-how, and set up many new collaborations, including outside the field of chromatography.

What do you hope to achieve by the end of the funding period?

The grant will enable me to hire four PhD students and two postdoctoral researchers over the coming five years. Furthermore, I will be able to expand our lab infrastructure with a whole range of new nano-positioning and micro-optics set-ups. In five years, I not only hope to have achieved my dream to build the ideal chromatographic column, but also hope our lab has become a highly attractive hub for top-level scientists – junior and senior – from many different disciplines.

If you have a story to tell - positive or negative - about your Adventures in Funding, or would like to nominate a colleague to be featured, contact the editor at: [email protected]

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About the Author
Gert Desmet

Gert Desmet is Professor of Chemical Engineering at Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Belgium.

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