COST stays a unique career booster for new generations of researchers

25/05/2021

Networking is undeniably a powerful tool, especially in the Research and Innovation area. Unfortunately, not all scientists across Europe have an equal access to networking – this is particularly true for young researchers, even though they would benefit the most from it. For 50 years, COST Actions have been the main European networking tools dedicated to scientific collaboration, on the occasion of COST 50 years’ anniversary, 5 young researchers from COST Actions gathered around Prof. Luciano Rezzolla to share personal experience and to discuss how participating in Actions was a springboard for their careers:

  • Dr Raquel Conceição, University of Lisbon, Portugal
  • Dr Martin O’Halloran, NUI Galway University, Ireland
  • Dr Tanja Knific, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia
  • Dr Kareem Elsayad, Vienna Biocenter Core Facilities (VBCF)GmbH, Austria
  • Urszula Stachewicz, Krakow University of Science and Technology, Poland

 How research networking produced the first ever image of a blackhole

The online seminar held on the 4th of May during the COST’s Ministerial Conference was opened by Prof. Rezzolla, co-Action Chair of the NewCompStar Action, current Science Communication Manager of the Pharos Action, and renowned for having captured in 2017 the first ever image of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the supergiant elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87).

Prof. Rezzolla explained to the audience how this incredible achievement would not have been possible without the dedication of a team of hundreds of scientists and astronomers, making it a true human adventure. “The first lesson is that break-through results in modern science require scientific networking”, he said. “The results that I have just shown you could not have been done by dozen researchers. It really needed the critical mass of having 200, 300 scientists working together at the same time, not only to collect data and to analyse it but also to extract physical information. So, if you really want to pursue the most challenging questions in physics – or in any science – then you need scientific networking.” Capturing a black hole was a major break-through in Astronomy, and the M87 blackhole image circulated all over the world.

Sharing knowledge and advancing research through COST Actions

Lead by Dr Conceição, the young researchers started to discuss how COST Actions are a great place to learn new topics they are not necessarily familiar with, to share knowledge and best practice with their peers, and sometimes to get out of their zone of expertise by joining Actions from different fields as theirs. “I have joined a lot of Actions since I moved back to Poland”, explained Prof. Stachewicz, “some of them in topics that I am not really familiar with, to explore and learn new disciplines, new topics and new needs in different fields”. She also benefitted from more experienced researchers when writing the proposal for an ERC (European Research Council) grant which started at the beginning of 2021, the first grant to have ever been given to Krakow’s University of Science and Technology: “COST really has been an asset in finding partners (…). All these exchanges with experienced scientists tremendously helped in learning how to write the proposal for the ERC grant”, she adds.

Because they are so easy to join, COST Actions really are where discussions can happen. The regularity at which each Actions’ participants meet and exchange information plays an important role in advancing research, even outside of the Actions’ walls. “We, researchers, know each other from reputation but we never really address any of the deep problems” said Dr Elsayad, “(…) When we started the COST Action, the community was then able to discuss all the details and, since then, publications have gone up exponentially and the field has really established itself. I think it is largely due to the COST Action we all participated in”. A conclusion shared by Dr O’Halloran who explained that when he launched an Action, he realised that out of 200 participants developing technology for breast cancer detection, only a handful had ever tested it on a patient: “That knowledge on how to complete a clinical trial, how to design a device, how to bring it through regulatory approval, all of that came through the COST Action. And I think it shows the power of COST”, he adds.

Caption from left to right: Prof. Luciano Rezzolla, Dr Raquel Conceição, Dr Kareem Elsayad, Dr Tanja Knific, Dr Martin O’Halloran, Prof. Urszula Stachewicz

 COST Actions bring new study fields to Inclusiveness Target Countries (ITC)

Actions can also be crucial for young scientists from ITC by providing them unique opportunities to work with top experts, and resources they would not easily find in their home country. Dr Knific, for instance struggled to meet with specialists in mathematical epidemiology in animal health, a subject she was the first to study and bring to Slovenia. “COST was one of the greatest investments of my time. […] The COST Action I participated in allowed me to stay in constant contact with experts in veterinarian epidemiology, which not only benefited my PhD work and my career, but also had me bring the best expertise and knowledge from abroad to my country”.

Doing Short-Term Scientific Missions (STSMs) is also a strong asset for ITC researchers because it enables them to learn new techniques, new processes, to work on new devices and thus to amass knowledge then can share with their peers or with their students back home. “It really helps in keeping up to date”, said Dr Stachewicz who now works in Poland, “especially by meeting the best scientists in the world”.

How COST creates new professional opportunities for young researchers

During the session, all 5 participants recognised that COST played a key part in advancing their careers. Being active members with leaderships roles within their Actions, such as Chair, Vice-Chair or Science Communication Manager, truly made the difference, as pointed out Dr Conceição: “I truly believe that the fact that I had the leadership of tasks in European projects on my resume helped me with my permanent position in Portugal”.

COST Actions can also be an asset when looking for potential professional collaborations, “If you are building a lab and you are just looking for excellence, having visibility of hundreds of researchers across Europe, having an opportunity to test the waters through short-term scientific missions (STSM) and true visits is a really good way to recruit and retain really excellent people”, explained Dr O’Halloran who also addressed the important transformative effect COST networking had over the years in Ireland. “Members of Actions from 10 years ago are now taking jobs in the western Ireland in small med-tech companies. It is amazing to see the 10/20 years impact a COST Action can have (…)”, he added.

By reinforcing relations between researchers, Actions contribute to creating new networks as well. Dr Tanja Knific, for example, applied for a joint grant with a Switzerland team she met in a COST Action and with whom she shares similar cattle diseases research conditions such as small farms with shared pastures.

Prof. Rezzolla concluded: “I feel particularly privileged of this European model of COST Actions. This is something that does not exist elsewhere, not even in very advanced systems like the United-States. So, everybody envies a tool such as COST. And we should therefore keep it, nurture it and sustain it, and even increased its funding in the future. Long live to COST!”.

Learn more about our 5 participants’ COST Actions

Dr Raquel Conceição:

Management Committee Member: TN1301-Next Generation of Young Scientist: towards a contemporary spirit of R&I (Sci-GENERATION), BM1309-European network for innovative uses of EMFs in biomedical applications (EMF-MED)

Action Chair: TD1301-Development of a European-based Collaborative Network to Accelerate Technological, Clinical and Commercialisation Progress in the Area of Medical Microwave Imaging

Work Group Leader: CA17115-European network for advancing Electromagnetic hyperthermic medical technologies

Dr Kareem Elsayad:

Action Chair: CA16124-Brillouin Light Scattering Microspectroscopy for Biological and Biomedical Research and Applications

Dr Tanja Knific:

Science Communication Manager: CA17110-Standardizing output-based surveillance to control non-regulated diseases of cattle in the EU

Management Committee Member: CA18208-Novel tools for test evaluation and disease prevalence estimation

Dr Martin O’Halloran:

Vice Chair: TD1301-Development of a European-based Collaborative Network to Accelerate Technological, Clinical and Commercialisation Progress in the Area of Medical Microwave Imaging

Management Committee Member: TN1301-Next Generation of Young Scientist: towards a contemporary spirit of R&I (Sci-GENERATION), BM1309-European network for innovative uses of EMFs in biomedical applications (EMF-MED), CA17115-European network for advancing Electromagnetic hyperthermic medical technologies, IC1102-Versatile, Integrated, and Signal-aware Technologies for Antennas (VISTA)

Prof Urszula Stachewicz:

Management Committee Member: CA16122-Biomaterials and advanced physical techniques for regenerative cardiology and neurology, CA17107-European Network to connect research and innovation efforts on advanced Smart Textile, CA17121-Correlated Multimodal Imaging in Life Sciences, CA16119-In vitro 3-D total cell guidance and fitness, CA18125-Advanced Engineering and Research of aeroGels for Environment and Life Sciences

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