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European Research Executive Agency
News article17 May 2023European Research Executive Agency

Dr. Martin Schepelmann: the MSCA programme has helped me build a life-long skillset

An insightful interview on the Austrian scientist’s career, cancer research and advice for aspiring MSCA researchers

© European Union, 2023; image source: Ground Picture, Shutterstock

With the ongoing green and digital transitions, new possibilities and challenges arise for EU citizens and markets. Equipping people and businesses with the relevant skills to thrive in an everchanging, competitive labour market is one of the European Commission’s main political priorities.

2023 marks the European Year of Skills, an important commitment towards an increased and inclusive investment in lifelong learning and training. By promoting upskilling initiatives and funding opportunities, the EU helps researchers and innovators level up their skills through its Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA) programme, among others. Part of Horizon Europe, the MSCA are the European Union's flagship funding programme for doctoral and postdoctoral training of researchers.

Dr Martin Schepelmann, cancer researcher and project leader at the Medical University of Vienna, as well as former MSCA fellow, currently embraces a new career venture as an MSCA project coordinator. He shares insightful information on cancer research and his career-enhancing journey as an MSCA fellow. He also has valuable advice for aspiring young scientists.

  1. What sparked your interest in pursuing a career in cancer research?

During my master thesis at the Medical University of Vienna, I realised that carrying out professional work in science is much more diverse than I had thought initially – it is not only about test tubes as sometimes depicted in the media. Scientific work is an immensely creative process, involving fundamental skills such as leadership, communication and experimentation. As each day is different, I came to realise that I enjoy all these various facets of an academic career. Thus, I decided to pursue a PhD and was accepted as a Marie Curie Early-Stage Research Fellow in the EU-funded FP7 project “Multifacted CaSR” at Cardiff University in the UK, where I stayed for six years. The topic of my PhD – the “Calcium-Sensing Receptor” protein, via its involvement in cancer – eventually led me to my current focus on the mechanisms and new treatments for specific types of cancer.

  1. What has been the most rewarding endeavour as an MSCA fellow? What impact has the MSCA fellowship had on your professional skills and career?

Being part of a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Action has pervaded my entire professional life. My career and skillset would be vastly different if I had not followed that path. The MSCA fellowship gave me several opportunities to meet the greatest experts in my field of research. It also allowed me to attend training events and secondments, which helped me grow significantly, both as an individual and as a scientist. Among other essential skills for a successful career in science, I learnt a wide range of technical skills, including teaching and project management.

After completing my PhD in the “Multifacted CaSR”, I returned to Vienna and immediately had the chance to become involved in the Horizon 2020 MSCA project called “CaSR Biomedicine”. As someone who knew the needs of students from my own experience, I was asked to act as a co-supervisor to two early-stage researchers. This enabled me to gain a deeper insight into how projects are managed successfully under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme. These experiences, together with the incredible support by Prof. Kallay – coordinator of the “Multifaceted CaSR” and “CaSR Biomedicine” projects – played an integral role in the success of our most recent project application, the Horizon Europe MSCA Doctoral Network “eRaDicate”, which I have the honour to coordinate. I believe that this concrete example illustrates a success story and showcases the real impact that MSCA projects may have on the career of young scientists.

© European Union, 2023; image source: Gorodenkoff, Shutterstock
  1. As you might be aware, 2023 marks the European Year of Skills, which aims at tackling the skills gap in Europe by equipping people with specific competences. What qualities do you consider indispensable for a successful research career in the future, particularly in your area of expertise?

Learning highly technical skills and cultivating awareness of the latest technological developments is of utmost importance to thrive in research. For instance, the emerging fields of bioinformatics and artificial intelligence will eventually become game-changers in the way the scientific community performs in the near future. I believe that such evolution will be as disruptive to the scientific process as the internet and globalised access to information were in the past. AI may help scientists sift through information and draw conclusive summaries of research results and open questions, a process, which would require several months for humans to complete. This massive technological transition will surely bring about challenges, but I am certain that it will act as a catalyst for a refreshing wave of discovery.

I believe that it will be crucial for all scientists, regardless of their area of research, to become proficient and diligent in the use of new technologies. Adding to technical competencies, soft skills are equally important, despite sometimes being overlooked when working in science. It is vital for researchers to be able to communicate effectively, not only with their peers at scientific events, but also when interacting with students or the general public. Very often, scientific research will receive financial support from charities or public funding bodies, supported by taxpayers. Thus, it is paramount for scientists to be able to explain their research objectives and outcomes to a wider audience, even if studies may not lead to immediate, practical results. For this reason, our “eRaDicate” project consortium will seek to promote these skills among our doctoral candidates through specialised training and outreach events.

  1. What are the main challenges of cancer research today, particularly in the prevention, diagnostics, and therapeutical domains?

In essence, cancer consists of patients’ bodies turning against them. The most challenging aspect of cancer is that culprit cells are still part of patients’ bodies. Thus, the main obstacle of cancer therapy remains the same since the beginning of cancer research: how to kill cancer cells without damaging healthy cells during the process. Severe side effects of chemotherapy originate from this basis since these agents are aimed to kill the cancer faster than the rest of the body, but will of course also affect healthy cells. Therefore, prevention would be the safest way to deal with cancer.

Relapse also remains a difficulty – if one cancer cell survives the therapy, it may give rise to a new cancer or metastasis. Its cells will become even more resistant to therapy. “eRaDicate” will focus on this issue by exploring novel methods to kill cancer cells, which are often unassailable by current therapy.

In terms of diagnostics and prevention, I believe that great steps can be expected from personalised medicine. For example, by identifying individual risk factors and advancing accurate and specific methods to diagnose early certain cancers in each patient. Such process requires a gigantic amount of time, skilled labour, and financial resources.

Despite not having an immediately visible application, basic science may subsequently lead to substantial discoveries that enable scientists to identify targets for attacking cancer. But when innovative cancer therapy approaches reach the key stage of clinical trials, problems arise. Often insufficient financial support is available to fund the necessary studies, given the uncertain nature of efficacy and economic outcomes.

As the private sector seeks profitable and marketable results with a considerable degree of certainty, it is instrumental for public bodies to fund basic science, translational and clinical research. Hence, scientists must explain why their research is relevant and justify the use of public money.

Additionally, working in science has become an even more challenging journey due to the high prevalence of fake news. As scientists, it is our responsibility to adhere strictly and solemnly to validated facts and communicate them to a wider audience. We welcome opportunities to rationally discuss ambiguous results but tend to repel claims that contradict evidence-based facts. The scientific community needs to fight dangerous misinformation to the best of our ability.

  1. Through Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and the Mission on Cancer, the Commission is promoting a better understanding of cancer, aiming at optimising prevention, detection, treatment and quality of life for patients, survivors and their families. How might your cancer research contribute to achieving the Mission’s goals for the benefit of future societies?

I think all goals of the EU’s “Mission: Cancer” are equally important, but of course, I would love to see a treatment regimen or strategy emerge that will allow us to find real cures for more types of cancer.

Some cancers, such as certain forms of leukaemia, are curable nowadays. Others, like colon or ovarian cancer are still only treatable and sadly too often lead to the eventual death of the patient. It would be naïve to believe that we will find a “magic bullet” that will cure all types of cancer in the future. Beating cancer will only be possible through hard work and good basic and clinical science of dedicated researchers.

In five years, I would like to be able to look back at our project “eRaDicate” and see that it has contributed to the Mission by having identified new ways of tackling this disease. And I would like to see ten young, highly qualified researchers emerging from the project who would then be able to contribute to the scientific progress and the European Knowledge base.

In our project “eRaDicate” we will tackle objectives 1 and 3 of the EU’s “Mission: Cancer”. Regarding goal 3 – “diagnosis and treatment” –, we will develop original tools to attack the cancer stem cells, which are the root of several cancers. Simultaneously, we will generate a novel, advanced technology for detection and grading on cancers. We will also contribute to goal 1 – “understanding of cancer” –, as we will expand our knowledge on how cancers “tick” and how they may be attacked in order to prevent relapse and metastasis.

  1. What words of advice would you give to aspiring researchers and potential MSCA fellows?

Embarking on a career in science can be challenging, so it is extremely important to apply yourself fully to your project and to make it “your own”. You should be absolutely convinced that science, with its demanding working hours and challenges, is the right path for you. Do not be afraid to seek advice from experienced colleagues. Also, experiments in your project will often not work on the first attempt, so do not become too disappointed or afraid of failure. As science is not a linear path, approach problems from alternative angles – you will find a solution in the end. Very often, an answer will lead to a myriad of new questions. So, you will need a lot of stamina and determination to get to the root cause of issues – even in the face of staggering challenges!

Being an MSCA fellow means that you will have a busy schedule with schools, training, secondments, presentations of data at conferences, outreach and of course, research. Be aware that pursuing a PhD and a career in research will be a massive shift in gears compared to your time as a student. Nevertheless, you should try to carve out time for reading: in our highly-specialised scientific field, it is easy to quickly lose track of new methods and advances, so it is crucial to stay on top of literature.

Finally, one of the most important tools to acquire during your career is a network of great mentors and colleagues, who will guide you and help you boost your career – sometimes by simply telling you that you are following a wrong direction. The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions, and specifically the Doctoral Networks, are such a fantastic opportunity to build your own professional connections. You will be in contact with a vast network of experts in the field, and you will be working with several peers who are in your same situation – you can help and support each other. Lastly, communicate with your supervisors, mentors, and colleagues as much as possible. With a good network, strong support and dedication to your project, you will successfully reach your goal!

I would like to express my deepest gratitude to my mentors, including my former supervisors Prof. Isabella Ellinger, Prof. Daniela Riccardi, Prof. Andrea Brancale, and Prof. Enikö Kallay, without whom my career would not have been possible.

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Publication date
17 May 2023
European Research Executive Agency