International Grants Awareness Program (iGAP) | 01 Being an Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Fellow

International Grants Awareness Program (iGAP)

IndiaBioscience brings to you the International Grants Awareness Program (iGAP) which aims to help Indian Life Science researchers seek and acquire international funding. Here we explore the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) Fellowships.

In the first episode in this series, Zill-e-Anam, PhD student at JNU, talks to two MSCA fellows- Amey Redkar, Postdoc at University of Cordoba, Spain and Mahipal Ganji, Postdoc at Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany. They share their experiences of being an MSCA fellow and tips for applying.

[00:00:00] — Intro

You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one-stop resource for science news and careers.

[00:00:15] — Shantala Hari Dass

Hello, and welcome to today’s podcast. This is a part of our international grants awareness program, or iGAP for short. This initiative was born out of a desire to increase the number of Indians seeking and acquiring international funds. We do so by one: spreading awareness of international funding schemes by creating resources with the funding agencies, two: imparting skills to craft a successful application via workshops and other skill-building resources, and three: inculcating the confidence to apply by sharing access to a network of Indian mentors. We bring these resources to you in a variety of ways, such as webinars, podcasts, workshops, informational articles, et cetera. Now let’s continue to today’s conversation.

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[00:01:22] — Zill-e-Anam 

Welcome, everybody. I am Zill-e-Anam, a final year Ph.D. graduate student at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a science communicator. As I am nearing the completion of my doctoral degree, I am at the crossroads of looking for post-doctoral fellowships that not only provide exciting new learning opportunities but also add a sparkle to my CV. Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions is one of the top-notch fellowships that completely fits the bill. What better way to discuss this than to hear from some successful awardees themselves and get firsthand advice and tips and tricks for success? Today, I virtually sit together with two Marie-Curie fellows, Amey Redkar and Mahipal Ganji, with whom I will discuss various aspects of the fellowship and their personal experiences as Marie-Curie fellows. Welcome, Amey and Mahipal.

[00:02:20] — Amey Redkar

Thank you for the invitation. It’s a pleasure to be here on this platform and share my thoughts.

[00:02:26] — Mahipal Ganji

Thank you for the introduction. I’m glad to be here. I hope to provide some useful information to the listeners.

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[00:02:34] — Zill-e-Anam

Mahipal and Amey, let’s begin at the start. With your journeys from being a master’s student in India to Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Fellow, which I will henceforth refer to as MSCA fellow in Europe. Can you walk us through this journey, Mahipal?

[00:02:55] — Mahipal Ganji

I did two masters. So the first master’s was in physics from Osmania University in Hyderabad, and then I did another master’s that was from Tu Dresden in Germany. The second master’s was in nano biophysics. From there, I moved to the Netherland, where I did my Ph.D., at TU Delft. That was more interdisciplinary science, working on single molecule biophysics. And then, I also did a short postdoc there within the same department where I did my Ph.D. Now I’m a Marie Curie fellow at Max Plank Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany.

[00:03:29] — Zill-e-Anam

And what about you, Amey?

[00:03:31] — Amey Redkar 

So my academic career started in India at the University of Pune, where I did my Master’s of Botany in plant science. Thereafter, I decided to do a two years research experience as a junior research fellow at one of the research institutes. Following that, I actually applied to a DAAD Ph.D. fellowship, where I was successful in getting a position at the Max Plant Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Germany, where I did my Ph.D. for three years. After my Ph.D., I decided to pursue a post-doctoral research in England and hence, join the Saintsbury lab in Norwich with an EMBO post-doctoral fellowship. So following my research stay in Norwich, I actually decided to apply for an MSCA post-doctoral fellowship and am currently an MSCA fellow at the University of Cordoba, Spain.

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[00:04:36] — Zill-e-Anam 

Thank you for sharing your journeys. Could you tell us how you decided to apply for this particular fellowship? What about it appeals to you in specific?

[00:04:48] — Amey Redkar 

Since my Ph.D., I was fortunate to have a multidisciplinary training in different European Research Institutes, where I was impressed about the infrastructure and the research facilities and the opportunities for networking across these dynamics labs in my research field; and hence, I actually decided to try developing my own research line by applying for an MSCA fellowship.

[00:05:19] — Zill-e-Anam

And what about you, Mahipal? Were the aspects that drew you to the MSCA Fellowships the same as Amey’s?

[00:05:26] — Mahipal Ganji 

First, I wanted to get an experience of writing a fellowship and managing the grant myself. Second, I thought that having my own fellowship gives me more freedom to explore my research interests. Moreover, you see, you know, around you, you have your friends working for writing for different grants, and then you also get motivated. That also motivated me to write this particular fellowship, actually.

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[00:05:55] — Zill-e-Anam

This is really inspiring. Now that both of you are the benefitors of the MSCA fellowship, what do you think this has meant for your post-doctoral career so far?

[00:06:06] — Mahipal Ganji 

It really helped me to attend conferences where I could actually network with the scientists from India who are actually like sort of recruiters in the institutes right where I wanted to go. So when it came to applications like having the fellowship in my CV, I think it actually gave me an upper hand, like gave me a recognition basically, that’s what I mean.

[00:06:25] — Zill-e-Anam 


[00:06:26] — Amey Redkar

I agree with all views mentioned by Mahipal. In addition, I’m currently in my transition from postdoc to PI position, and hence, I think that this fellowship has allowed me to lay a foundational path to create my own niche in academia in the years to come.

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[00:06:58] — Zill-e-Anam

Being one of the most topnotch fellowships, Marie-Curie or MSCA Fellowships are highly competitive, with a success rate of 10 to 20%. I’m very curious to know what have been your challenges while applying and how did you overcome them.

[00:07:14] — Mahipal Ganji

For me, the biggest challenge was to lay down the key idea for the project proposal. Initially, I had a completely different idea of doing like a project for my postdoc research but then I quickly realized that my host PI is not an expert in that field. So I and my host PI sat together, had several Skype calls, and discussed what could be done, like, you know, together. So we came up with a project plan that was actually the major issue. Once we had that one, then like basically writing and then taking the feedback, like, you know, back and forth between my host PI and also from my colleagues. So that helped me a lot. It also helped me to get the feedback from grant managers in my institute, also in my host lab institute.

[00:07:58] — Zill-e-Anam 

So, Amey, were your challenges the same or different as Mahipal’s?

[00:08:02] — Amey Redkar 

For me, the biggest challenge was to draft the impact as well as implementation section of the Marie-Curie proposal. I feel that everyone is good at their own science. However, these areas of the proposal are also equally important. Certainly, it’s also advantageous to have feedback from someone outside your research area to get an impression of how strongly your idea and vision percolate to a general audience, which is extremely important in any Marie-Curie proposal.

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[00:08:45] — Zill-e-Anam 

One of the challenges that I feel personally is finding the right host lab. It is one of the most crucial factors, not only for one’s application but also for overall career progress. Can you tell us how you approached your present PIs and came up with a proposal that aligned with both of your interests?

[00:09:07] — Amey Redkar 

I met my PI at a conference when I discussed my interest to initiate a research team to build my future lab. Upon discussing, we came up with a topic that was of high interest to both of us and which would allow me space to emerge independently. This is how I actually found my host lab where I’m currently pursuing my MSCA project.

[00:09:33] — Mahipal Ganji 

I attended a presentation from my host PI earlier, and I thought his science was interesting. When it came to applying for postdoc positions, I was thinking of going to a lab where I could cash on my previous experiences while gaining more diverse knowledge. I contacted my PI to discuss the possibilities in his lab for a post-doctoral research. And when we met together, we were both excited to work together on the common interest.

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[00:10:09] — Zill-e-Anam 

Wow. This means we have to be open and always ready. In terms of inclusivity, what kind of possibilities does MSCA provide to its applicants? For example, some applicants may have a career break, age boundations, or be restricted to not-so-common themes for the proposals. Can you shed light on that, Mahipal?

[00:10:31] — Mahipal Ganji

Yeah. The fellowship has no age limit, but I suggest the listeners to check their website for their eligibility criteria. Also, I want to mention that the duration of the fellowship can be anything from 12 months to 24 months.

[00:10:46] — Amey Redkar 

In addition to the age limit relaxation, the Marie-Curie action also has a career reintegration panel called as a CAR panel, which is especially for researchers with a career break of 12 months or more. Although this evaluation is independent of the research area, you have exactly the same benefits as that of the MSCA standard fellowship and hence, a great opportunity for researchers who have a career break.

[segue music]

[00:11:23] — Zill-e-Anam 

I would now like to shift my attention to the future. Being Marie-Curie fellows, where do you see yourselves in the next four, five years? Mahipal, let’s hear from you first.

[00:11:43] — Mahipal Ganji

Well, I am actually moving to India in the coming days to start my own lab in the Department of Biochemistry in IISc Bangalore. So I hope to continue doing more exciting science there.

[00:11:57] — Zill-e-Anam

This is wonderful Mahipal. Congratulations. As you’re on the cusp of returning to India, can you think back of what being able to do research in Europe has meant for you?

[00:12:08] — Mahipal Ganji

So, one thing I could say is that the amount of independence that you get to do your research was really different than I think what you can do in India. So there, I could actually develop my own program line of research that helped me a lot.

[00:12:22] — Zill-e-Anam

What about you, Amey?

[00:12:23] — Amey Redkar

I am currently in the process of applying for PI positions. So I see myself as a group leader in the years ahead, continuing on the research foundation that I have initiated during this MSCA project. Research experience in Europe has really been enriching, making it more accessible to networking opportunities. So overall, this MSCA fellowship has given me the best of both of the worlds, the European world, where I am currently pursuing my research as well as I am continuing to engage myself with the Indian science community. And India is also one of the choices for my return back.

[segue music]

[00:13:12] — Zill-e-Anam

As the deadline for this year’s call, the ninth of September is approaching, what did the last mile before your application submission looked like for both of you?

[00:13:22] — Amey Redkar

I would say read, read, and read. It is extremely important to polish your text to have the wow factor in it for a general audience. Also, make sure to coordinate your proposal well with the administration team of your institute to give you any last moment comments, which are crucial in shaping your proposal.

[00:13:46] — Mahipal Ganji

I think it helped me to have the draft ready in advance, sort of in a week of advance, so that I could sort of like sleep on it and then start to edit again. So, after that, I got feedback from several different people within the department where I was working, those are my colleagues, also from my mentors, as I said previously, also from the grant managers who are like experts in looking at the grants. One thing is that I want to suggest to all of you that submit your proposal well in advance. It might be that the server gets slowed down, and then you could not submit if you wait until the last minute. So once you submit in advance, you can obviously submit again and again.

[segue music]

[00:14:33] — Zill-e-Anam

This is quite encouraging and helpful. What message do you have for the listeners, many of whom will be aiming to apply for the fellowship in the near future?

[00:14:43] — Mahipal Ganji

One thing is that communicate with your host PI in general. Also, for the writing proposal part, the PIs usually are very helpful, that’s what I see in Europe, and they want you to be successful, so they will definitely give you useful information if there is anything that they can give you. Also, when you write your proposal, write sort of your, like, you know, bigger ideas, like those game-changing ideas. Of course, you want to write the narrowed down proposal, but showing that you have this sort of a big idea helps the reviewers to think that you have future plans, like you know, much bigger plans than just doing the proposal that you’re writing. And also don’t forget to emphasize your achievements well. That also helps them to review positively. Altogether, you want to convince the selection committee that you will be the most deserving candidate for this grant.

[00:15:34] — Amey Redkar

I second all thoughts that Mahipal just mentioned of starting early, receiving feedback, conveying your ideas well, but one particular point that I want to emphasize to all applicants is that don’t be afraid to discuss with your PI to have the full right to take the work forward. Do choose your host lab wisely because you have to integrate yourself well in a country away from home, and hence, it’s very important to utilize this opportunity to the fullest.

[segue music]

[00:16:21] — Zill-e-Anam

Thank you, Amey. Thank you, Mahipal, for joining us and sharing your stories and suggestions for applying to the Marie-Curie fellowship. It has been immensely helpful for me to gleam these in-depth insights.

[00:16:33] — Amey Redkar

Thanks. I would be very happy to have more interaction with prospective applicants and to discuss in shaping the prospective MSCA proposals.

[00:16:44] — Mahipal Ganji

Thank you for interacting. Yes, the listeners are always welcome to reach me for more suggestions in shaping their fellowship application.

[segue music]

[00:16:58] — Zill-e-Anam

To all our listeners, thank you for listening. For all those who are in the process of preparing the application, I hope that you found this podcast helpful. Good luck with your applications.

[00:17:11] — Shantala Hari Dass

Thank you for joining us today in this conversation. If you found this podcast helpful and or are interested in more resources on international funding opportunities open to Indian Life Science researchers, please head over to our website and go through the other iGAP resources and keep on the lookout for future announcements.

[00:18:08] — Outro

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