Preview interview new department director Nico Callewaert

12 June 2014

In preview, we present you a short extract of the interview we did with Nico Callewaert, the newly appointed director of the VIB Department of Medical Protein Research (DMPR) at UGent.
Read the entire interview in the June edition of VIBnews or online as of 17th June on this website under the news items.

You worked outside the country yourself. How important is a period abroad for a science career?
In my view, it is of utmost importance that scientists gain experience after their doctorate either in another country or in another lab or university here.  This is very important if you want to develop an academic career, and especially in that case. Researchers who decide they would like to go to the industry need to have a different perspective. There the profile and scientific-technical expertise of the person is looked at in function of the job description.  For postdocs who want work in the industry it is much more important that they update their other skills and build a well defined profile. You have to be able to fit into a certain slot. We have to differentiate between these two career paths.

"You can't really choose an academic career. I often compare it to that of an artist."

You can't really choose an academic career. I often compare it to that of an artist. You are financed for a couple of years and you get a subsidy from the government to develop your talent and show that you can do something creative. If you want to continue in that direction, you have to ask for a second grant and prove the same thing all over again, at a more advanced level, just like a theater company, for example. And then you must hope that at a certain moment someone will appreciate your creativity and invite you. And you become a professor or group leader and get to work more long term. 

"The only choice you have is to go ahead with it and make sure you can live with it."

It is therefore not a choice. The only choice you have is to go ahead with it and make sure you can live with it. You have to be willing to pay your dues and believe enough in your own creativity.  This is what most people have difficulty with (including I myself at a certain moment in my postdoc period). Such an uncertain path is not for everyone. 

"By the time you get 35, you have to see a clear path ahead. It can't just be ad hoc anymore. Few people can sustain that kind of life."

I feel that you need to have some prospect of stability before you reach 35. By then, you have to see a clear path ahead. It can't just be ad hoc anymore. It is similar to an artist who has been active 10-15 years. If his next meal depends on the sale of his next painting, he is not ok. Few people can sustain that kind of life.

"There are responsibilities with this job that I would prefer not to have."

You must also take into account that after a certain age or a certain stage in your work, you are expected to provide added value over and above your individual research, train students, transfer knowledge, lead a group, be a director, etc. There are responsibilities with this job that I would prefer not to have. But at a certain moment you have to take this step if you want people to continue investing in you. Otherwise you would be like an artist who says, "Give me money until I retire, but I am going to do whatever I feel like, even if no one else is interested in it."

How easy is it as a scientist to get innovative results?
More difficult than one might think at first. At the university you learn all kinds of things that make it seem like everything in science is consistent and succeeded the first time. Little attention is given to the fact that thousands of people contributed and made many errors. In most talks, it seems as if the research rolled on like a train. Sometimes that's the case, but it is mostly the exception.

"Follow your creativity and take the opportunities when they arise. Believe in yourself but remain realistic."

We should all pay more attention to this when we communicate about research.  Painters must also draw an outline first and often have to make improvements by adding layers of paint over earlier ones. It is no different in science. This is important for understanding a scientific career: the awareness that you are not completely in control.  Sometimes PhD students ask me what you have to do to become PI. My only honest answer is that I don't know. I can only say, "Follow your creativity and take the opportunities when they arise. Believe in yourself but remain realistic."


Read the entire interview in the June edition of VIBnews or online as of 17th June on our website.



Nico Callewaert
©VIB, 2014