We talked to Katerina Sam, PhD. about her experiences with ERC Starting grant. Despite her young age, Katerina achieved a status of distinguished scientist in the field of ornithology and community and behavioural ecology. She studied zoology and ecology at the University of South Bohemia (Czech Republic) and she did her research fellowship at the Griffith University (Queensland, Australia) and the University of Copenhagen (Denmark). Currently, she works at the Biology Centre, Czech Academy of Sciences and the University of South Bohemia. In 2018, she received as the third woman in the Czech Republic ERC Starting grant, which is called BABE.
At the beginning, can you please introduce us the scientific problem you want to explore in your ERC project BABE with a full title “Why is the world green: testing top-down control of plant-herbivore food webs by experiments with birds, bats and ants”? What do you wish to achieve in it?
Our aim is to show and calculate the importance of predators as the top down control agents for the functioning of forest ecosystems, while we consider the bottom up forces, i.e. the abilities of the plants to protect themselves against herbivorous predators. Specifically, we exclude predators individually (birds, bats and ants) and in combinations from forest, understories and canopies in different forest from Japan down to New South Wales (Australia), and we investigate what happens to the insect communities and to plants when the predators disappear. At the same time, we survey the diversity and biomass of the predators excluded, we study their food, calculate how much insect they eat and match it with the results of the exclosure experiment.
If I am not mistaken, currently, you are in the first half of your project implementation. Can you already sum up what the success in ERC competition brought to you except the funds?
We just finished second year of the project, and we have four more to go. Originally, I received the funding for 5 years, but I will get a year extension because I had my baby born last year. So far, we are mostly focusing on fieldwork, which takes a year to finish to team of four people at each location. We focus on shipping of the samples to the Czech Republic and their processing here. Therefore, we did not get to any robust analyses yet. We finished work in Japan, Queensland and New South Wales and we received all samples from there. We also finalized work in China, but we are still waiting for samples to arrive. We have 3.5 freezers full of samples and about 50,000 insects identified. Finally, we are half-way with the experiment in Papua New Guinea and we expect to finish the experiment there in early 2022. From the preliminary results, we observe the effects of the exclosures, we see that herbivorous damage increases when birds are missing in system, but we also detected interesting changes in functioning of mesopredators. Lot of work is ahead of us.
Do you remember the moment when you decided to apply for ERC StG?
Yes, very clearly. It was the day when I received the grant reviews from GACR (The Czech Science Foundation). I was trying luck with a similar project there for the second time. That day, I was reading my evaluations stating that the proposed project “is very challenging for me” and I should maybe try luck in ERC. Therefore, I tried.
Did you succeed in ERC StG the first time or is your winning project BABE a second or third attempt?
For the first time, so I cannot actually say whether it is difficult or not. I just tried and got it.
"I was little bit surprised by the details they asked in their questions, but as I was “living my dream project” for several years already, it was easy to answer."
What other funding opportunities are typically used to finance research in your field? Can you make a brief comparison of research funding schemes you have personal experience with?
Currently and in recent few years, it is mostly GACR (The Czech Science Agency). I know about several other smaller funding agencies but for my current team consisting of 22 employees and for my carrier stage, it is not worth trying it anymore. However, my students are successful in obtaining funding for their smaller projects supported by Tropical Biology and Conservation, British Ecological Society, National Geographic or various grant schemes of University of South Bohemia or by Biology Centre of Czech Academy of Sciences. Such grant usually covers their side projects, additional field or lab work. When I was in Australia for my postdoc, I was trying their Australian Research Council, which is very similar to GACR but way more competitive, and I collaborated on writing several grants with my colleagues via National Science Foundation in America and Danish ERC Scheme.
How long did the ERC proposal preparation take to you? Who or what helped you the most with writing the grant?
It took me very long. As I mentioned, I tried twice in GACR, so I was developing the core idea for over two years, planning and testing some methodologies. Of course, it was not intensive work. In total, I think I spent six months by intense writing. There are many people who helped me, namely the professors with whom I stayed during my postdoc in Australia – Nigel Stork and Roger Kitching, and to whom I presented the ideas several times. Then Vojtech Novotny and David Storch who were reading the more solid pieces of texts. I repeatedly presented the whole idea also at our department where my colleagues were pointing out some weaknesses. Finally, my two PhD students, which I had at that time, helped me greatly with proof-reading, keeping me awake, and polishing the tiny details. For the last part of the competition, the interview in Brussels, I got help from a graphic designer who checked my slides and a fashion stylist who helped me to dress up appropriately.
What recommendation would you give to other colleague scientists considering submitting ERC StG.
Take your time to develop your core idea and justification for how ground-breaking is the idea. Then pay attention to every single detail. You will be competing with very good people across Europe, and they all will be trying to be better than you are, so you need to stand out. You need to show that you are independently working, capable of leading a team of people and the project by yourself. Be professional but be also yourself.
What impressions did you get from your interview in Brussels? How was the meeting with your evaluation panel?
It was actually wonderful experience. I was little bit surprised by all the security measures, which stressed me out at first. However, waiting for the interview was in very friendly and relaxed mood. In the waiting room, we had a security, which did not allow us to talk about research, so we ended up speaking about skiing and our kids. The interview itself was unpleasant for me because both – the timer and my slides were behind me and about 15 people were sitting in front of me. I had to focus a lot on whether I actually keep pace, and whether the pointer in my hand really changes the slides. Yet, I felt very confident. I was feeling wonderfully in my high heels and suit, and I managed to make a smooth joke in the first minute, which led to smiles in the faces of many people. I was little bit surprised by the details they asked in their questions, but as I was “living my dream project” for several years already, it was easy to answer.
"Then pay attention to every single detail. You will be competing with very good people across Europe, and they all will be trying to be better than you are, so you need to stand out."
Can I ask about the size of your research team and its composition in terms of nationalities? Do you prefer to select your team members from students or postdocs you already know from your institute or do you also hire people who you do not know personally?
Currently, I employ 22 people but not all of them work full time for me. Out of that, 8 are full-time working PhD students and the rest are mostly part-time working technicians who however all have PhD. I also have one postdoc. Before I got ERC, I had 2 PhD students and 2 technicians. I have one person to manage our database, one project manager, one lab manager and several other people helping with specific aspects of the project. About 70% of the people were newly hired, yet some of them are my earlier female colleagues returning after maternal leaves. Only six PhD students were selected internationally via open calls and interviews. They are from Colombia, England, China, Papua New Guinea, Malaysia or India. My technicians are from Latvia, Germany, and England. I hoped to have a student from each country I work in to provide local research expertise, and I wanted to give chance to ladies with kids too. My lab thus consists of 11 women and 11 men, and total of 14 kids. To go for a lab retreat, I am usually booking whole guesthouse.
Was it easy or rather difficult to hire people with necessary specialization for your ERC project?
It was rather easy and fun. I received more than 140 applications. Thus, my only problem was that I liked more people than I was able to hire, and that I wanted people from specific countries. Unfortunately, the project is very demanding both physically as well as intellectually. We are working long days in the field, from 3-4 AM to 8 PM daily, in groups of four people, for several months. It was quite difficult to guess if all of them will manage it. I even flew to Papua New Guinea and to China to make the personal interviews and confirm my selection in person. I believe that the fit to the team, compatibility with me, and mental stability and drive, are the most important aspects of our success. Luckily, all proved to survive in the field, and they are making nice team to work with.
Have you ever tried to apply for MSCA IF either in the role of applicant or supervisor? If so, what impact did the fellowship have on your scientific career?
No. I never tried it because I did not need it, I was continuously shifting from my PhD to postdoc and I managed to succeed with other funding schemes. In 2023, my nearly finishing PhD student (now on maternal leave) will be applying for MSCA IF for her postdoc, so we are slowly gathering information about how to do it.
Among the successful applicants, you were the only woman in the Czech Republic and overall you are the third woman in the Czech Republic to receive the ERC grant. How do you feel about it?
Thanks for telling me. I actually did not know it. To tell the truth, I am trying to avoid the topic of genders in science, as I sometimes got into unpleasant discussions with my female colleagues. The think is that I do not experience any discrimination for being women and I receive full support at my institution in terms of being able to combine my personal life with work as I wish. In addition, both grant representatives as well as social workers always worked out the way to combine my work and maternity leaves legally.
Statistics show the huge difference in both – number of submitted ERC proposals and success rate in East European countries and our western counterparts. Why do we observe this trends and what can be done to change it?
I talked about this just few days ago with representatives in Brussels. We came to conclusion, that people still believe that they are not competitive or/and have little information about the ERC as such. They might be also lacking the examples of successful grants and colleagues who would show them how the successful projects look like. This might be a real issue. For example I am now a little bit scared of MSCA IF of my student, because all I heard about it is that it is not easy, and I do not know people in my surrounding who would get it. It will be like stepping in new waters. That is why we are starting with preparations early. Another truth is that to write ERC takes significant amount of time, and there is this threat that if your project is not funded, then you block yourself from further possibilities to submit. It would be important to spread awareness among younger scientists, to teach them how to build a competitive CV, how to get themselves ready for ERC early in their carrier, so they have a chance to submit once and maybe resubmit later. Also direct connection to people who already have the ERC is very good and I believe that there is a program where you can offer to host an East European applicants at your already awarded ERC grant and you get extra funding for it.
I learned you are mum of two small children. What is your recommendation to not to lose yourself in so many different duties home and in the work?
I am practicing my stoicism and admittance that I am very often lost. I also have to say that this skill came with practice and thanks to many students surrounding me. Besides having my own lab, I am also deputy of the department, which sometimes accumulates to crazy days. Check, maybe I have a bit of rhino skin growing somewhere? During ideal workdays, I usually work from 8AM to 3PM in office and I aim to write research papers daily for the first two hours. After that, there is time to check on my technicians who work part-time and on students. Afternoons and evening are devoted to family and garden, and then I usually work again from 11 PM to 1AM. As I have often activities going on in different time zones, it is time to make calls with them. I like to solve the issues and tasks as they come, I cannot handle perfectionism and I am always optimistic.