Interview new department director Nico Callewaert - continued

17 June 2014

After a long and open international search, it was finally one of our own, Nico Callewaert, who was selected as the most suitable candidate for the position of Director of the VIB Department of Medical Protein Research (DMPR) at UGent. Nico started in his new position as head of the
Department on May 1.

This is an important step in your career. Why this switch?
The complementarity with my current research and the technological focus of the Department really
appeal to me. Bio-analytics for proteomics with both wet-lab expertise in the group of Kris Gevaert and datamining expertise in Lennart Martens’ group, the interactomics technologies and expertise of Jan Tavernier, and Mo Lamkanfi’s work around pathogen sensing beautifully complement the expertise around host pathogen interactions, bio-analytics and biological system engineering in the groups of Xavier Saelens and myself. Right away there are a number of projects that can be  identified that will let us work together around a common theme.

It fits perfectly into a plan I had for years about an initiative in medical biotechnology.

It also fits perfectly into a plan I had for years about an initiative in medical biotechnology. I considered myself a bit too young to start something myself but the job opening came up and my ideas were well received by the people in the Department, so I submitted my application.

This means that you are now following in the footsteps of Joël Vandekerckhove. How does that
It is a considerable challenge. Joël Vandekerckhove has a very big track record in protein chemistry. It is also the first time that the Department changes directors. Luckily, I have some experience with this – the transitions from Walter Fiers to Frans Van Roy when I was in my last year as a student, and later on, from Frans to Bart Lambrecht. Both directors did it in different ways and I learned from both.

From a scientific viewpoint, however, I feel quite comfortable since I am a biochemist myself and
have followed the proteomics evolution. But where Joël was mainly focused on the biology of the cytoskeleton, I am more interested in post-translational protein modifications and  biopharmaceutics. From my years at the VIB Inflammation Research Center (IRC), I can follow Mo’s work quite well, but I don’t have an informatics background, so I will have to familiarize myself with that aspect.

Are you setting a substantially different course?
It is more like an adjustment. The activities where we have always been strong will be  strengthened further but some new life will also be injected with the development of new research technologies as one of the main focus points. I have always developed a part of my own research tools. So did Walter Fiers. Just think of the sequencing technologies that were developed and which made it possible to determine for the first time ever the physical structure of a gene. Joël Vandekerckhove developed basic proteomics technologies.

I hope to build on the legacies of Walter Fiers and Joël Vandekerckhove.

I would dare argue that this is as much a part of fundamental research as unraveling a molecular mechanism of a biological process. New research technologies are responsible for major strides in scientific progress.
New disruptions require new ways to look at something. I hope to build on the legacies of Walter
and Joël in the new Department.

What are the main challenges for your department?
Technologies often only have a lifespan of 6 to 7 years. It is very attractive to keep working with
applications of technologies in which you have invested a lot of time, because they can quite
quickly generate exciting scientific data. But as a department we must go a step further and continue to take the risk of developing new technologies. Our glyco-analytics technology is already 10 years old. It should be considered finished. Now we are working hard on biological system engineering, especially for the eukaryote protein secretion system. There are also engineering projects under way for a tuberculosis vaccine as well as new projects around technology for diagnosing inflammatory illnesses and tumors. The same is true for Kris Gevaert’s proteomics technology and Jan Tavernier’s interactomics technology. Neither of them are wedded to their technologies, which were developed years ago, and their teams are working full steam ahead on new ideas. I intend to encourage those types of projects.

As a department we must continue to take the risk of developing new technologies.

The groups of Mo Lamkanfi and Xavier Saelens as well as my own are fascinated by the ways
pathogens circumvent the immune system and how we might be able to outsmart these pathogens with biotech vaccines and drugs. Micro-organisms are another inexhaustible source of inspiration for the development of biotech molecular tools. So this is an obvious field for the Department to be working in. Because of our connection to the research field of IRC, we will collaborate structurally with them. In the long term, we hope to be working in the same research building so that we can, for example, jointly finance expensive facilities that now need to be duplicated and maintained in both departments. This physical integration is one of my main challenges for the near future.

Is basic technological research different from more traditional molecular biological research?
The risks involved in developing new technologies can be incredibly high–it is often all or nothing.
This is quite different from mechanistic biological research, where you posit a hypothesis and collect data and, whether the hypothesis is right or wrong, you can nearly always move forward one way or the other. Fundamentally innovative technology demands a real willingness to take risks. The type of person that is attracted to this while doing their PhD is different. The ‘geek’ component in our Department is quite likely higher than average…

How do you handle the risks for PhD students?
To obtain a doctorate, most departments now require a minimum of two publications. When you
are developing a technology, you risk ending up with nothing, so doctoral students generally also
work on a project that already has its proof of concept or is a little safer. This way they are sure to
have something. Because many scientists remain in Belgium after obtaining their doctorate and apply for direct postdoc funding at the national level, the competition for postdoc funding is tremendous and exerts pressure on PhD students to try and increase the number of publications before graduating. In my opinion it is often better to try and provide an integrated story in a paper that covers numerous aspects of the project. You can take that to the best scientific journals.

That is why I make it clear to doctoral students that their doctorate will succeed if they publish two
good, well developed studies and have a couple of co-authorships. Ideally one of the studies will be based on work for which there is already proof or concept at the beginning of the doctorate, and the other one will be a completely new work that the student built from the ground up. Graduates
who want to continue on the academic track often have to go abroad after their doctorate. But this is a nice part of the training of an academic, who has to be able to function in an international context. In many other countries, the funding system works differently and it is the Principal Investigator (PI) who decides whom to recruit for a project that already has financing. A doctorate with, for instance, two good, well developed publications and a couple of co-authorships are only an entry ticket; the rest depends on whether the applicant clicks with the PI and how enthusiastic he/she is about the project.

What do you think of the Flemish research funding system?
In Flanders, and certainly in the larger European context, there is quite a lot of funding available
for research. We survived the financial crisis fairly unscathed, which should not be taken for granted given the situation in some other countries. To make Flanders still more attractive as a research region, additional investment is probably needed. It seems to me that most of the decision makers are also aware of this. That creates confidence. Because resources are limited, I would like to make a more creative suggestion than asking for more money. Dear politicians: a drastic reduction of the number of funding channels is an intervention that would cost little or no money and would be a great improvement. Financing is too piecemeal right now. To make it more concrete: if you want to start up a new research line, a doctoral student or postdoc has to apply for a grant first; then the prof has to ask for a subsidy for the project costs and a lab assistant, if necessary, and finally, the prof has to apply for the required equipment. It takes three different evaluation panels with often three different sets of priorities. Everyone gets something every year in the current system but almost no large research projects still get financing.

Let us support a system that will allow us to apply for projects that will provide us with research personnel, research spending and equipment for 4-5 years at once. ERC works this way very successfully.

The piecemeal approach to research financing in Flanders forces young researchers into constant
competition with each other, while profs have their hands full with project applications and  reports. Everyone works very hard and no one has a problem with this. It would be amazing, though, if some more of that effort could go towards doing science instead of project administration. Let us support a system that will allow us to apply for projects that will provide us with research personnel, research spending and equipment for 4-5 years at once. ERC works this way very successfully, and in the US, too, most of the funding, including that of the NIH, is attributed this way. You apply for 4-5 years of funding and payment is settled based on the results.
Many of the issues can be solved by combining funding packages into larger packages that profs can apply for every couple of years. It is possibly only a matter of putting more trust in the professors and trying less to manage the details. This obviously implies strict selection of the professors and independent performance reviews. I don’t think anyone would dispute this. This kind of administrative simplification would make the research landscape in Flanders much more attractive for new PIs, especially those coming from other countries. If we want to be more competitive as a region, we should dare to organize a system that is more appealing than that of our ‘competitors’.

And, to finish, what drew you to taking up this new function at VIB?
The main reason is that VIB, because of its major focus on basic technological research and tech
transfer, allows for the kinds of projects that we are passionate about in our Department. VIB’s stable financing over a five-year term also offsets a number of the drawbacks of the funding system outlined earlier. As PI you can decide to invest in a research line over a longer term and get results that would be hard to achieve otherwise. Furthermore, as a VIB PI your performance is assessed by a completely external board whose level is beyond dispute. They don’t just look at figures but also at what you are developing. This way the system gives you almost seven to ten years to develop new concepts before they start producing output while continuing to work on ongoing already productive research. The fact that you receive five years of substantial funding that won’t be adjusted and can be renewed after the assessment is exceptional. I have only seen that in the very best of institutions e.g. in the US and other countries where I worked.

From left to right: Xavier Saelens, Lennart Martens, Mo Lamkanfi, Nico Callewaert, Kris Gevaert and Jan Tavernier
©VIB, 2014