“The ability to attract and retain top talent on your team is critical to a researcher’s career.”
We interviewed Gilles Gasser, winner of an ERC Consolidator grant in 2015, recent recipient of the EuroBIC Medal 2018 and head of the Inorganic Chemical Biology team at Chimie ParisTech.
PSL: You joined PSL two years ago to establish the Inorganic Chemical Biology team at Chimie ParisTech. What have you learned from that experience?
Gilles Gasser: When I completed my contract at the University of Zurich, I had several options for continuing my academic career, but the one from Chimie ParisTech really won me over. A position like that, in a city like that, with that kind of network – you can’t turn it down! With hindsight I really see how lucky I was. With help from the PSL endowed chair and the ERC grant money, I was able to get my project off to the best possible start by immediately hiring five excellent doctoral candidates and a post-doc. That was key, because for a researcher, the quality of your initial team plays a critical role in your future success. If you start a project with the right people, everything else proceeds much more smoothly.
PSL: The research team that you head as Principal Investigator is very strong: a stack of scientific publications, 13 current researchers and nearly 59 alumni (interns, doctoral candidates and post-docs). Where does that energy come from?
GG: The Gasser Group and the website date from 2011, which is when I began my research as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. It’s definitely very American to start a website named for yourself, but it’s a fairly common practice these days. And fortunately the name is very easy to remember. With the website I’ve been able to maintain some continuity in my research, and in particular it’s a powerful tool for recruiting brilliant doctoral candidates from all over the world. At the moment, young women researchers make up a majority of my team, and they hail from France, Poland, Switzerland, China, Germany, the U.K., Australia and India. For me, that cultural mix is really rewarding, it creates an effective team experience and in particular it offers a great opportunity for expanding your intellectual horizons, in the same way science does.
PSL: Can you briefly summarize your group’s research?
If I had one word of advice to give to students, I would say: always be very careful when choosing your Master’s degree, your lab director, your dissertation supervisors and so on. Those are critical decisions that have major implications for both the students and the supervisors.
GG: Our field of research is “inorganic chemical biology.” We’re especially well known in the scientific and industrial worlds for developing metal complexes for biological or medicinal purposes (such as treating certain forms of cancer or parasitic diseases such as schistosomiasis). Just to give you some background, in recent years doctors have been using a new therapy, known as photodynamic therapy, to treat some forms of localized cancer (tongue cancer, prostate cancer, etc.). It involves injecting a photosensitizing agent that reacts with light to produce a substance (singlet oxygen) that kills cancerous cells in targeted fashion. It’s an effective therapy – it has fewer side effects than current techniques like surgery – but it could stand to be refined even further. The metal-based complexes we’re working on have some notable properties and could replace the current photosensitizers for more specific treatment of certain cancer cells. We’re conducting that work in collaboration with researchers from Chimie ParisTech, the Institut Pasteur and Paris Descartes. And thanks to PSL’s international partnerships, we’ve been able to do some extremely valuable research residencies at New York University and Stanford University over the past year. Recently we were able to use our findings to submit an ERC Proof of Concept proposal.
PSL: Can you tell us a little more about that project? Do you have other E.U. projects in the works?
GG: The ERC Proof of Concept grant is awarded to ERC recipients (Starting, Consolidator, Advanced or Synergy) to help them explore the commercial or societal potential of their research findings. Getting that funding would be a real milestone, because we could use it to conduct the market studies we need in order to outline a strategy for marketing our components. Because our long-term objective isn’t to create a start-up, but to pass on our technology to an existing manufacturer.
Of course I’m also considering competing in other calls for proposals, like the FET-Open, and some colleagues and I will soon be applying for an ITN (Innovative Training Network) project and a COST (European Cooperation in Science and Technology) Action, which involves building networks across Europe. That’s it for the moment. There’s only 24 hours in a day, and I have to set some priorities!
PSL: You’re the recipient of an ERC Consolidator grant, and over the summer you were presented with the EuroBIC Medal 2018, which is awarded to young scientists conducting “exciting” top-level research. How does that recognition, and especially the ERC grant, affect your research?
GG: I’m very proud of those honors but in particular I’m very, very grateful to all of my students and collaborators, both present and past. More broadly, my feeling is that those awards help generate a virtuous circle. The ERC grant made it possible for me to create the lab I have here. The recognition from the awards has helped to raise my profile among international students, so I receive some excellent applications and I can hire some very talented researchers. That’s essential. The first doctoral candidate, the first recruit for a research group – they each carry considerable weight. You can’t afford to make a mistake. It may seem like I’m putting it strongly, but I’m convinced that it’s a critical decision that will affect the rest of your academic career.
Many of my former trainees, doctoral candidates and post-docs are now pursuing amazing careers in the industrial sector. And among those who’ve chosen to stay in academia, one just landed a position as an assistant professor, another was just awarded a Marie Curie European fellowship at Cambridge and a third has won a Von Humboldt scholarship at a Helmholtz Research Centre in Germany. Not bad for a team that we only started seven years ago! I’m very proud of the paths they’ve taken.
PSL: You’re also on the faculty of PSL’s Master’s program in Chemistry , where all the instruction is in English. How does that work relate to your research? Do you recruit students from there?
GG: It’s an excellent Master’s program – a real gem! The teaching focuses on where chemistry and biology intersect, the class sizes are small – I really enjoy teaching there. It’s actually a good gateway into research. Last year, for example, one of my students who originally came as an intern from the Master’s program went off to do a dissertation at the Institut Gustave Roussy, and beginning in February we’ll be hosting another student from the Master’s program for a six-month internship.
PSL: What would be your advice to a student who’s interested in joining your research team?
GG: Apart from their academic backgrounds, I always look at all the little things that tell you a lot about their curiosity and their work habits – like hobbies, student jobs and so on. But the fact is, most of my new students are recommended to me. So if I had one word of advice to give to students, I would say: always be very careful when choosing your Master’s degree, your lab director, your dissertation supervisors and so on. Those are critical decisions that have major implications for both the students and the supervisors.
European Research Council Grants
Established in 2007, the European Research Council (ERC) is part of Horizon 2020, the European Union framework program for funding research and innovation. Each year the ERC awards individual grants to scientists from around the world for a five-year period. The ERC funds original exploratory research with the potential to yield scientific, technical or societal discoveries in any discipline.
There are five types of ERC grant:
- Starting Grant: for early-career researchers with two to seven years of post-PhD experience (up to €2 million)
- Consolidator Grant: for researchers with seven to 12 years of post-PhD experience (up to €2.75 million)
- Advanced Grant: for established researchers (up to €3.5 million)
- Synergy Grant: for groups of two to four researchers (up to €10 million for six years)
- Proof of Concept: for existing ERC grant holders, to support their efforts to transfer their research findings to the market through a further grant
PSL has established an office to assist researchers interested in responding to E.U. calls for proposals. To learn more, write to firstname.lastname@example.org.