Dr. Sebastian Glatt receives the first Polish ERC Consolidator grant in the life-science panel

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Three Polish scientists have been awarded in the 2020 European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grants call.  One of them is Dr. Sebastian Glatt, who is the first scientist in the field of life science to win this prestigious grant in Poland. The project titled “Deciphering the role of RNA modifications during ribosomal decoding and protein synthesis” received a funding of 1 997 500 euro. During this call scientists of 39 different nationalities received Consolidator Grants, the success rate reached 13% and the projects will be carried out in 23 different European countries. We talked with Dr. Sebastian Glatt about his project, the process of writing a grant, preparing for a grant interview and future plans for his laboratory.

What are the goals of the ERC funded project?

The project allows us to study the basic functions of cellular mechanisms that regulate the production of all proteins during health and disease. We already know that alterations of these pathways play a key role in the development of cancer and severe neurodegenerative diseases. Therefore, our work in the next years will allow us to provide mechanistic insights into the unfortunate link between patient derived mutations of the underlying pathways and the onset of severe human diseases. Ultimately, we hope to deliver new diagnostic and therapeutic tools for currently incurable diseases.

What was the most critical factor that lay the foundation for you to receive the ERC Consolidator Grant?

I believe that the key for successful and competitive research projects is to find a reasonable balance between crazy ideas, ambitious research goals and thoroughly executed experimental studies. In addition, the ERC programs require yet another level of professionality, effort and determination. For instance, I prepared myself 4 weeks full time for an 8-minute presentation followed by a 22-minutes Q&A session. Here, I would like to highlight the support of numerous colleagues from Krakow, Poland and the whole world, who helped me tremendously to shape the presentation of the proposed project. Last but not least, I am lucky enough to have a great research team behind me that has not only produced great results over the last years, but is also fun to work with – it is the people I work with, that have laid the foundation of this success.

Why the success rate of receiving the European grants is so low in Poland?

This is a really hard question and I am sure that many people in Poland (and other EU13 countries) would like to know the reasons behind these low numbers. I do believe that old hierarchical structures and too narrowly defined career paths at traditional teaching Universities inhibit many young thriving scientists at the time that they would be most productive and creative. Even if it might sound counterintuitive, I think that Polish researchers are publishing too many publications. I have seen many young Polish scientists work on an unproportionally large number of low impact publications that would often require just a bit more time and patience. An ancient evaluation system that favors quantity over quality and the need to obtain relatively small research grants to finance one’s own position, limits many young Polish scientists to ask the big questions and to publish papers with huge impact.

How receiving the grant will change your laboratory and its future course?

We will continue on our defined path and the grant will mainly help us to address (and hopefully answer) the most interesting research questions in a shorter time. We have already published several seminal papers in the last years from MCB and I think we are on a clear track to consolidate our role as one of the leading structural biology labs in the field of tRNA biology and translation regulation. I don’t see any reason to fundamentally change our course, but we will continue to ask the big questions and let the experimental data guide our next endeavors.

What this European grant gives you that the other polish grants do not provide?

European grant initiatives typically allow us to pay slightly better salaries to the involved team members. ERC grants provide additional visibility and might help attracting some international top young scientists to join my research team – of note, we will be recruiting soon! I would like to highlight that I have received several national grants from the Foundation for Polish science (FNP) and the National Science Center (NCN) and I am very happy with the polish funding agencies – they are very supportive and the evaluation processes have been transparent and very professional.

Do you have sufficient infrastructure to successfully execute the grant in Krakow?

We are in the very lucky situation that MCB and the neighboring Solaris synchrotron provide a world class environment for ambitious research projects at the Jagiellonian University. We have access to several central core facilities, a vivid scientific community and state-of-the-art structural biology facilities. We installed the first Titan Krios microscope last year and we are currently commissioning a Galcios microscope for sample screening. Both microscopes are equipped with state-of-the-art direct electron detectors and we have two fantastic microscopists that support the users to collect the best possible data. The center is complemented by our Structural Biology Core Facility (SBCF) at MCB that provides support during project planning, sample preparation and data analyses. In detail, the SBCF provides all necessary instruments to prepare cryo-EM grids and to conduct high-throughput screen for macromolecular crystallography. Both, the National cryo-EM center and the SBCF, are accessible for academic and industrial users from Poland, Europe and the world – just contact us.  

What was the most difficult in writing the grant?

As usual, the most difficult moment is pressing the submit button – it is the point of no return and the ultimate moment of truth. At the time when you finally have everything ready, you just want to open all files again and go through every detail again from the start – then you intuitively just press the button and the grant is submitted. After receiving funding, retrospectively it is a great moment of relief, but I also know how it feels on the other side – I experienced a less favorable evaluation of my ERC application 2 years ago. I also spent quite some time thinking about the acronym, which should summarize the whole project in only 10-15 letters. The final choice “tRNAslation” combines the words “tRNA” and “translation” in a quite creative way – I am very happy with it and many people seem to like the wordplay.

When the idea for the project crystallized and how long did it take for you to write a grant?

I have to admit that writing was easy this time – in fact, I started early enough and was able to refine the application over a period of almost 2 months. The ideas were there all the time, but I did have a “Eureka moment” during my interview for the EMBO Young Investigator program in October 2019. One of the panel members asked me very directly, why we are only interested how tRNA modifications are synthesized and why we are not studying their role during translation. In the end, I did not get the EMBO YIP grant, but ended up with a clear idea for the ERC Consolidator grant application, which just got funded – not so bad after all.  

Dr. Sebastian Glatt