Poland, here I come!

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They’re foreigners and they come to Poland especially to work in science. Or they are Poles who have lived abroad for a long time but choose to return home for the next stage in their scientific career. What are their reasons? What are they involved in? How is it to work here? What do you like about Poland—or not? We hear from five laureates of FNP programmes.

Prof. Jonathan Heddle came to Poland in 2015 to direct a project at the newly established Małopolska Biotechnology Centre at Jagiellonian University. His research was funded by FNP under the TEAM programme.

Heddle is from the UK. Before coming to Kraków he worked in science for 10 years in Japan. There he also met his wife, Ting-Yu Lin, who is Taiwanese.

They met on professional ground. Heddle was one of Lin’s mentors. She was working on human topoisomerase (topoisomerases are enzymes responsible for the degree of twisting of the double helix of DNA), and he on DNA gyrase (a type of topoisomerase occurring for example in bacteria).

They were married in 2015. Heddle had just finished a 5-year contract and was intensively looking around for a new place to work.

“First we looked in Japan,” said Lin, “but it’s not that easy. For a person from the outside it’s hard to break into that circle. Then he found an announcement from Poland.”

Heddle was excited. “Oh, a totally new centre,” he said. “That usually means good opportunities and smart people. I think I’ll try it.”

Lin said, “Neither my husband nor I knew Eastern Europe. I remember that we checked the cost of living in Poland and decided things were cheaper there than in the UK or the US, about the same as in Taiwan.

“Jonathan arrived in Poland and quickly reported that he liked the new place. The life and work didn’t differ much from what we had known in other countries. I joined him a month later.”

Beloved Kraków

Kraków is the favourite city of Dr Alicja Babst-Kostecka. She studied and spent half her life here.

First she pursued her master’s in environmental protection at the Faculty of Chemistry of Jagiellonian University, after the first year doing parallel studies in economics at the Kraków University of Economics. Then a doctorate in population genetics and habitat ecology in the cotutelle system, i.e. at two locations: the Institute of Botany of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Kraków and Lille 1 University, with mentors from Poland and France. Finally she pursued a postdoctoral fellowship in Switzerland, where she not only blossomed scientifically but also fell in love and married the Swiss scientist Flurin Babst.

For his own postdoctoral fellowship, Dr Flurin Babst, a specialist in forest growth and productivity, chose America, so the couple found their way to the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Alicja Babst-Kostecka says, “I very much enjoyed our time in the States. Initially we planned to stay there for a year and a half. But the stay was working well for both of us scientifically, and we successfully applied for an extension. Ultimately we spent nearly three years in Tucson.

“During that time I gave birth to our daughter. I spent a year on maternity leave. But in our profession maternity leave fortunately does not switch off our brains from thinking about work.”

Babst-Kostecka used this time to prepare an application for an FNP grant in the POWROTY/REINTEGRATION programme. “My husband and I, Swiss and Polish, felt we were being called to Europe,” she said. “But why didn’t we try to return to Switzerland? It’s an enchanted place, and science is practised at a fantastic level. But there is one problem: Switzerland is a small country, and the odds that we would both find scientific work in the same city were really small.”

But in Poland they did. Flurin Babst received an excellent grant (also from FNP) for his own research, which he began three months ago.

dr Alicja Babst-Kostecka and dr Flurin Babst / photo. OneHD

An offer he couldn’t refuse

Dr Jan Kołodyński, quantum physicist, age 33, has spent 9 of the last 14 years away from Poland. First there was 5 years studying theoretical physics at the University of Cambridge, then a doctorate at the Faculty of Physics at the University of Warsaw, followed by 4 years as a postdoc in Barcelona, at the outstanding Institute of Photonic Sciences.

Near the end of his stay in Spain, an offer from Warsaw appeared: an excellent place in the nearly established Centre of New Technologies at the University of Warsaw and an International Research Agenda funded by FNP with a budget of nearly PLN 35 million for research on quantum optics technology.

Kołodyński didn’t hesitate, but immediately applied to head the Quantum Information and Inference (QI2) Laboratory.

“It was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says. “It provided the opportunity to create my own group, with a 5-year contract. Meanwhile, the typical path for a scientist at my age in the West is to drift from one postdoc to another, always seeking a better opportunity and looking forward to something just like this. It worked out for me—and in Poland. Undoubtedly one of the bargaining chips was that I am a Pole, and thus it would be easier for me to find my place here.”

Cage of proteins and gold

Prof. Jonathan Heddle is the head of the Bionanoscience and Biochemistry Laboratory, a unit of the Małopolska Biotechnology Centre at Jagiellonian University.

“Various definitions are used to explain what bionanoscience is,” said Heddle. “I would say it is building artificial structures from natural biological molecules like proteins or DNA.”

What is the aim? Nature itself has created numerous microscopic, precision nanomachines, such as enzymes, that control specific processes in living cells. Bionanoscience attempts to create artificial versions of biological nanomachines, potentially better and more efficient.

“We could say, for example, that an airplane is an artificial bird,” Heddle explained. “In many respects an airplane exceeds the capabilities of a bird, for example achieving greater speed. And we dream of creating such nanomachines which can do what natural enzymes cannot.”

Heddle is most interested in biological applications of nanomachines. One of them could be to deliver medicines to a narrowly defined site in the organism, e.g. directly to a cancerous tumour. The aim is for the drug to act only on sick cells, sparing healthy ones.

“For now all of this is at a very early stage of research,” Heddle said. “We are building uncomplicated static structures, and also structures that move, but only in very simple ways.”

A recent achievement of Heddle’s team is an article published in the prestigious journal Nature. The researchers succeeded in building a protein cage with a diameter of just 22 nanometres, in which fragments of proteins were “stapled” together with gold ions. Perhaps in the future such gold cages will be useful for delivering drugs or other substances to cells.

dr Ting-Yu Lin and prof. Jonathan Heddle / photo: OneHD

Too small isn’t good, neither is too big

When coming to Poland, Dr Ting-Yu Lin knew that she would not only be accompanying her husband abroad, but would be pursuing her own scientific growth, thanks in part to a stipend from the Taiwan government for exceptionally talented young researchers. She found a place at the Max Planck Laboratory at the same Małopolska Biotechnology Centre as her husband. Her boss, Dr Sebastian Glatt (originally from Austria, and also an FNP laureate), encouraged her when she got to Poland to apply for another grant, suggesting the Foundation for Polish Science and its HOMING programme. “It was a great idea,” said Lin.

Lin is involved in the biosynthesis of proteins, and more specifically the transcription of information coded in mRNA onto a sequence of amino acids—the building blocks of proteins. The medium carrying the amino acids in a cell is tRNA. Until recently it was thought that tRNA is involved only in delivering amino acids for production of proteins. Now it is known that its role is much more important, as any chemical modifications in the tRNA molecule impact what type of cells are ultimately produced by the protein.

Lin is especially interested in the protein complex known as an “elongator.” This complex is highly conservative, occurring in viruses and bacteria as well as eukaryotic cells (including human cells). The consequences of improper functioning of the elongator can be very serious. “If there is a shortage of a protein, problems arise with the nerves,” Lin explained. “This can result in neurodegenerative diseases. But if there is too much of it, it may lead to cancer.”

The theoretical research conducted by Lin may prove useful in the future in designing new drugs.

Instead of a new zinc mine

Dr Alicja Babst-Kostecka’s greatest scientific fascination is trying to understand the mechanism for plants to adapt to extremely unfavourable habitats. Certain plants are known to display incredible abilities to cope with low or high temperature, salinity, and shortages of water or food. She is interested in how some plants manage so well with heavy metals present in the soil. Lead, cadmium, mercury and zinc are strong poisons, among the most dangerous pollutants of the biosphere. Drawn from the soil by the roots of plants, they often become part of the food chain, thus also posing a threat to human health and the environment as a whole.

dr Alicja Babst-Kostecka / photo: OneHD

It turns out that certain plants not only tolerate the presence of heavy metals very well, but indeed really “like” their company, accumulating these metals in huge quantities in their leaves and stems.

As Babst-Kostecka explained, “While tolerance for stress—in this case the presence of a toxic metal—is entirely normal in nature, such hyper accumulation of metals seems totally absurd.”

What is behind this? How are plants able to retune their genome, alter their physiology, to become “reservoirs” for zinc or lead? Dr Babst-Kostecka is attempting to answer this question in cooperation with geneticists, physiologists, biochemists and ecologists.

She is a theoretician, but as she stresses, the practical aspect of research has also been a strong motivation for her work. She would like her work to contribute at least a bit to repairing the damage to the environment done by humans. In this case, it has to do with industrial use of plants filled with heavy metals and recovering these elements from the plants, instead of opening new zinc mines, for example. “It turns out that the market is very interested in these technologies,” she said.

How to care for the forest

Dr Flurin Babst came to the same institution as his wife, the Institute of Botany of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Kraków. Babst is attempting to answer the seemingly simple question of how trees grow in the forest. “I am studying the growth of trees depending on the carbon cycle,” he explained. “More precisely, we are determining how much carbon is absorbed by the forest in the process of photosynthesis, how much is stored in the wood, and how much returns to the atmosphere. This is strongly correlated to climate change. I seek to understand how much the observed changes in wood growth are an effect of global warming, and how much they result from human care or neglect of forests. My research will involve precise measurements of the movement of carbon from leaf to trunk, and the effect will be to identify the dependence between this movement and the annual growth of wood.”

Dr Babst and his team recently published an article discussing how water shortages are becoming an increasingly important factor limiting the growth of trees. “This is not happening just in the Mediterranean basin,” he explained. “Trees in the boreal zone (taiga) in Canada or northern Siberia also more and more frequently display signs of a lack of water. I wouldn’t raise the alarm yet, particularly in temperate zones such as Poland, but we should already be thinking about how to care for the forests in the future to ensure they are still productive as the climate becomes increasingly warm and dry.”

A crash course in quantum optics

Dr Jan Kołodyński handles matters that are hard to grasp for ordinary mortals. I asked him to explain his work as if he were talking to a 7-year-old.

“It all begins with quantum mechanics,” he said, “which dates back to the early 20th century. Quantum mechanics is the language we use to describe very small things. We used to speak of the first quantum revolution, when the whole theory arose, but now we speak of the second quantum revolution. This time we’re not thinking only about the theory, the science, but we want to apply quantum effects in practice.”

Dr Kołodyński added that the best-known application is quantum computers, which are expected to be much faster and more efficient than today’s machines.

“My doctorate involved using quantum effects for better, more precise measurements,” he said. “This has to do with quantum sensors. On one hand this means measuring physical constants—magnetic fields, gravitational waves—which we can register when they disrupt a very sensitive quantum system—the sensor. Moreover, by monitoring the sensor with light, we can exploit quantum effects, which are also provided to us by light, to capture incredibly weak impulses. For example, gravitational waves reaching us from the impact of black holes or from supernovae, although this is not something I work with every day.”

dr Jan Kołodyński / photo. OneHD

Kołodyński considers himself a theoretician. “But my career is heading more and more clearly from pure theory to theory with applications. Now I am a theoretician who works mainly with experimental groups. I’ll give you an example. In Barcelona my colleagues developed a magnetometer for measuring magnetic fields using atoms in a special vacuum chamber with rubidium vapour. And I, as a theoretician, had to describe these atoms in quantum terms and, together with the experimental physicists, figure out how to shine light on these atoms, i.e. with lasers, in order to prepare the whole device, and later to use the device to make measurements not achievable by classic magnetometers, that is, without these quantum effects. Do you think a 7-year-old would understand that?”

Couldn’t be better

All of my subjects have lived and worked for some time in Poland, but because they have moved around the world, they have to make different comparisons.

Jan Kołodyński said, “In England I was a student. We pursued science in its pure form, and I had no contact with industry. For me, being a scientist in Cambridge meant riding my bicycle in a gown from lectures to dinner with professors.

“At the Faculty of Physics in Warsaw I began to practise science that had some applications. I still handled theory, but alongside colleagues who made experiments in the laboratory.

“But my stay in Barcelona was crucial. There, a decidedly business-like approach to science prevailed at the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO), founded 20 years ago. So the emphasis was on patents and cooperation with business. Our research teams—quantum information theory and quantum optics theory—were exceptional at ICFO, because we did pure science, but in an environment of people handling very useful things, such as cancer imaging for patients.

“When I compare that with the place I am now, we here in Warsaw are only now creating something like ICFO. We don’t teach classes, and we don’t have administrative duties, but stress scientific results. We are more or less at the place where ICFO was 15 years ago.”

The head of the QI2 Laboratory discusses how the new centre arose. “We joke that setting up the Centre for Quantum Optical Technologies was a bit like establishing a company. Building structures, hiring people to help us with administrative matters, constructing a website, devoting attention to PR.”

I add: “The same adventure and emotions as when setting up a company, but you don’t face a risk of failure.”

“Right,” the physicist nodded. “Couldn’t be better.”

According to Kołodyński, “Poland is now an excellent place to work for scientists due to structural funds. For us these are golden years when it comes to the amount of grants. I’ll say it once again, you would have to look high and low in the West to find the opportunities created here thanks to the International Research Agendas programme.”

We’re mistrustful

Alicja Babst-Kostecka said, “I was thrilled to win a grant from FNP, because the funds offered by the Foundation enable me to spread my wings and continue my research at the same level as in Switzerland or the United States. The POWROTY/REINTEGRATION programme is ideal from the perspective of someone who has been abroad, because in a sense it forces you to cooperate with foreign scientists. It also offers great flexibility in how the funds are used, a sense of freedom, and huge dynamics. If you have already made contacts previously—and the competitions are most often aimed at such people—development is greatly expedited.

“What I miss the most in Poland is the mentality found in the world of science in Western Europe and in the US. There is much greater openness to the world there, an attitude of cooperation. Here we are mistrustful, and treat one another more competitively”

Her husband Flurin Babst takes a similar view: “People don’t cooperate with one another. They sit in their offices and work on their own things. At least that’s how it is at my institute. There’s not much sharing of experience. From time to time there are meetings, discussions, but it’s not what I know from Germany, Switzerland or the US.

“It also seems that people don’t cooperate often enough with foreign institutions. They behave as if they were sealed off in a small bubble, and it doesn’t work that way. You can’t achieve real success if you remain on the sidelines.

dr Flurin Babst / photo. OneHD

“Perhaps Poles are discouraged from cooperating by the system of rewards. If you publish a good work, you receive money. But if you publish it jointly, you have to split up the money.”

Today cooperation has become easier in many ways. It doesn’t require travel or money, because so much happens online. Only you can’t wait for others to contact you. You have to make an effort to meet them halfway.

According to Babst, Poles attach a lot of weight to titles. “In the US, you are on a first-name basis with the director of the institute,” he said. “Here it is much more formalized. You have to remember the hierarchy. In this respect Switzerland is somewhere between the US and Poland. It’s not as formal as Poland, but not as relaxed as the US.”

And those pierogi

Jonathan Heddle said, “FNP is a very professionally run institution. I get the impression that if you prepare a research project well, there is a very good chance that they will fund it. Unfortunately, this is not the case today in Japan or in Western Europe. You can prepare an excellent project, but your chances are negligible because thousands of other researchers are applying for the same funds. That’s why it’s really an excellent time to be in Poland today.

“I wasn’t aware of this before I arrived in Kraków, but I figured I had great opportunities, because Poland is building its scientific position, and it’s good to be where people are making serious investments. It turned out that I was right.

“Our daughter was born in Poland. In terms of maternity leave and paternity leave, your country offers excellent conditions, much better than Japan or the UK.”

I ask Ting-Yu Lin, “You weren’t worried about giving birth in a foreign country?”

“At first we were a bit concerned about that,” she said. “But we decided that it was too much trouble to return to Taiwan or travel to England. We found an English-speaking birthing school in Kraków and also a good hospital. We felt comfortable and safe. I was on maternity leave for 6 months, and after that we hired a nanny. The grandparents unfortunately are far away.

“And how is life for me in Poland? I really can’t complain. Kraków has such a beautiful old town. I love it that there are so many great cafés, and that we have so many parks near our home. In Taiwan it’s not easy to find green space unless you go to the countryside. In Japan you also have to travel far from the city to see greenery.

“And then there’s the Polish food. I love your pierogi. I make Taiwanese dumplings at home, but your Ruthenian pierogi are unmatched.”

The Kraków–Zakopane train

All of my interlocutors agreed that Poland now offers good working conditions for scientists. But they also struck the same chord when it came to factors getting in the way of their work.

Jan Kołodyński said, “There’s still bureaucracy. It’s our Achilles’ heel. The institute in Barcelona was built from the ground up by scientists, for scientists, to ensure them the greatest effectiveness. For example, a team of people helped me prepare my application for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie European grant. And to arrange such mundane matters as a trip to a conference, it was enough to send one email, get my boss’s permission, and that was that.

“In Poland unfortunately it doesn’t work that way. But at the Centre of New Technologies we are well on the way to changing that.”

Alicja Babst-Kostecka said, “In the West scientists have much more support on the administrative side, or at least that is how it was wherever I worked. In Poland administrative issues soak up a huge amount of time, and a lot more water will flow through the Vistula before that changes. There is a lot of administrative support here, but people have grown accustomed to following strictly established procedures. Meanwhile, new EU programmes often require an individual approach. Administrative staff regard us scientists as a source of problems. They don’t sense that their work also contributes to our shared success. So despite excellent funds, this issue hinders the growth of science in Poland, because people waste lots of time on non-scientific things.”

dr Ting-Yu Lin / photo: OneHD

Ting-Yu Lin also experiences Polish bureaucracy personally, but tries to be forgiving. “We in Taiwan struggle with the same problem,” she said. “So I understand perfectly well that first you have to file some papers, then the papers have to go ‘upstairs,’ then you have to wait till you get the green light, and only then can you start to act. So there are certain cultural similarities between Poland and Taiwan. Yet there is one difference.”

She laughs. “In Poland the problem is that if I approach person A to arrange something, I learn that I have to bring four documents. I prepare them and return two days later, and encounter person B, who says, ‘No, no. That’s not enough. You also have to bring two other documents.’”

But the list of complaints from the scientists I talked to is not that long.

Prof. Heddle and his wife were taken aback by the efficiency of rail transport in Poland. “We looked at the map and saw that from Kraków to Zakopane it’s just 80 km,” he said. “Imagine our surprise when it turned out that to conquer that distance it takes the train five or even six hours.”

After her return from abroad, Alicja Babst-Kostecka noticed many changes for the better in Poland. “Unfortunately,” she laughed, “I also see lots of things that bothered me before I left remain unchanged. Certainly we still have work to do.”

What’s next?

So what’s ahead? Will today’s beneficiaries of FNP programmes tie their future to Poland?

Alicja Babst-Kostecka and Flurin Babst say they will be wherever they can grow professionally, because that is what drives them and brings them happiness.

Ting-Yu Lin and Jonathan Heddle say that for now they are totally satisfied with Poland. There are various possibilities to seek more grants here, and that is their current goal.

Jan Kołodyński said, “I recognize that the career of a scientist is not static, and if I were offered a professorship abroad, and there was not a place here, perhaps I would leave. It is a problem in Europe today that there are more and more people with experience and know-how but not enough room for them to become professors. But it would be great to stay in Poland.”

Sławomir Zagórski, science department head at Gazeta Wyborcza daily for many years, now an independent journalist.