Columns Stories from Scientists

Project WHEAT-DR: Securing the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowship

Debabrata Dutta

In this twelfth article, as part of community voices for the international Grants Awareness Program (iGAP), Debabrata Dutta shares his success story and the experience with securing the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowship (MSCA-PF) by Horizon Europe for his project WHEAT-Doctor at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK.

I GAP Debabrata title image
Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowship. Photo credit: Debabrata Dutta, Collage credit: Moumita Mazumdar and Rohini Karandikar

Debabrata Dutta, currently a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, holds the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship. In 2024, he was recommended for funding under the prestigious Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowship (MSCA-PF) by Horizon Europe for his project WHEAT-Doctor (WHEAT-DR) at the Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, UK. This fellowship will be funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) under the Horizon Europe guarantee’.

Hailing from West Bengal, Dutta developed a profound love for plant science and nature, inspired by a local wildlife sanctuary. After completing his PhD on the improvement of the oilseed crop – sesame, from Bose Institute in Kolkata, Dutta’s expertise has taken him to esteemed international institutions such as University College Dublin in Ireland, French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE), and the University of York in the UK. His transformative journey from a small town in West Bengal to a (MSCA-recommended and UKRI-funded) fellowship at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh is inspirational.

The journey to securing the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Postdoctoral Fellowship

In tackling the pressing global challenge of feeding an anticipated 10 billion people by 2050, my project, WHEAT-DR, focuses on mitigating crop losses, particularly in bread wheat plagued by the fungal pathogen Zymoseptoria tritici (Z. tritici). This endeavour seeks to unravel the natural resistance mechanisms inherent in wheat, with a specific emphasis on key defense-related genes—TaSSP6, TaSSP7, and TaSRTRG6. The project involves exploring the genetic diversity within these genes, their contribution to disease resistance and understanding interactions with Z. triticis effectors.

In this way, WHEAT-DR aspires to advance knowledge and potentially revolutionise breeding strategies for disease-resistant wheat varieties, reducing pesticide use and ensuring global food security. Thus WHEAT-DR corresponds with the goal of sustainable agriculture in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs). By striving to develop wheat varieties with disease resistance, the project contributes to achieving Zero Hunger (UN SDG 2), ultimately benefitting vulnerable populations and citizens, including women. Thus WHEAT-DR fits perfectly with the second Horizon Europe strategic plan.

The meticulous journey to the MSCA-PF offer was a substantial endeavour, spanning nearly three months, during which I crafted a comprehensive project proposal. Under the guidance of Angela Feechan, renowned molecular plant pathologist and associate professor at Heriot-Watt University, the application took form. The extensive effort invested in the project was validated when the proposal received an outstanding evaluation score of 98.20%. Despite my foundational background in botany, I ventured beyond conventional boundaries by proposing a multidisciplinary approach that integrated plant molecular biology, applied physics, and computational biology to achieve the project’s objectives. My diverse experience working with various plant materials, including wheat, tobacco, and Arabidopsis, positioned me as a fitting candidate to execute the project successfully. 

My consistent track record of securing research funding and being honoured with prestigious fellowships, such as the Swiss Government Excellence Scholarship, Newton-Bhaba Fellowship, and the French Research Residency Programme, significantly bolstered my credibility and left a positive impression on potential funders. The evaluators acknowledged, 

The researcher has a well-developed educational background, including relevant international experience and collaborations, as well as reviewer tasks and awards/​scholarships. The researcher has highly relevant research experience and previous achievements in relation to the proposal. No weakness identified.

The fellowship will go beyond financial support; the project WHEAT-DR provides me the opportunity to strengthen our collaboration with Cyrille Saintenac, a scientist at INRAE, France. Saintenac specialises in resistance gene mining in wheat against fungal pathogens. Along with his expertise, he also provides valuable resources for the WHEAT-DR project, including a unique collection of Triticum genetic entities at INRAE.

WHEAT-DR provides the opportunity to attend conferences such as the World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London where I can network with Industry and policymakers. As a part of the fellowship I will be participating in various workshops including professional development skills session offered by the Heriot-Watt University. Moreover, I look forward to engaging in communication activities such as the MSCA European Researchers’ Night and the Edinburgh Science Festival to showcase the societal relevance of science and molecular plant pathology for food security. As often said, one grant leads to another. In future, I will think of applying to highly ambitious calls, like the ERC.

Who, what, and where, by what help, and by whose; 

Why, how, and when, doe many things disclose.

-Thomas Wilson, The Arte of Rhetorique (1560)

When applying for the MSCA-PF hold onto those crucial queries Who? What? Where? By what means? Why? How? When?” in mind. Allow these questions to guide your choices, whether selecting a host organisation or composing your proposals. Addressing today’s intricate global challenges requires interdisciplinary science. To ensure clarity, it’s crucial to articulate the interdisciplinary nature of your project. Explain which domains you’re integrating and why, detailing how each contributes to achieving the project’s objectives. 

Clearly and comprehensively convey your project’s objectives, methodology, and expected outcomes.

Remember that MSCA-PF goes beyond the project; it’s about your career development. Adhere strictly to the guidelines and utilise the MSCA guidebook for precision. Achieving a well-balanced score in each category is crucial; avoid overwriting or underwriting any section. The evaluators focus not only on the project’s excellence but also on its impact and successful implementation. Also, strive for clarity and coherence throughout, aligning your proposal with the MSCA’s emphasis on both project quality and your career advancement. MSCA-PF applications undergo thorough evaluation by experts and consider applicants at various career stages, right from fresh PhDs to those with many years of postdoctoral experience. Early career researchers are encouraged to apply with novel ideas, fostering growth and innovation.