2022 has been proclaimed as the Commission’s ‘European Year of Youth’, and seeks to give back to the generation who have sacrificed so much over the course of the pandemic. The initiative aims to provide young people with exciting opportunities for the future, and to shed light on their role in creating a greener, more inclusive and digitised world.
Under the Horizon Europe framework, the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), through its five programmes, provides funding to many young researchers both in Europe, and around the world. Their projects seek to tackle many of the greatest challenges we are facing as a society today, including climate change and environmental breakdown. As President Von der Leyen stated during her latest State of the Union speech, “Our Union will be stronger if it is more like our next generation; reflective, determined and caring, grounded in values and bold in action.”
We interviewed three bright young researchers to hear more about their MSCA Innovative Training Networks projects, how the programme has bolstered their research careers and their hopes for the future!
Meet our young researchers!
Annika, born in Berlin and educated in the UK, is an early-stage researcher in the inventWATER project. As part of this, she is forecasting changes in water quality and synergies between the food, water and environment nexus, as a result of climate change. Ramón is from Puerto Rico where he now works. His project IGNITE studied the genomics (whole DNA) of invertebrates – which make up 95% of animal species’ diversity and are crucial to our ecosystem. Finally, Claudia is researching changes in land-use, and the effect on both society and the environment as part of the COUPLED project. She obtained her undergraduate degrees in Peru, her home country, and is now a PhD student in Amsterdam.
- What does it mean for you to be funded under the MSCA as a young researcher?
Annika: Being funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions is exciting as it means I’m part of an international community that is also motivated to undertake water sustainability research with real-world application at this critical time. My ambition is to work at the interface of biological and physical sciences. This interdisciplinary method will allow me to address elements of the pressing ecological and climatic crisis by supporting the sustainable use of natural resources. The network of early-stage researchers (ESRs) across Europe will be invaluable now and in the future, in providing opportunities to exchange ideas and to collaborate. Additionally, the mobility opportunities of the MSCA will provide further access to some of the leading researchers within my field. This will be key in strengthening the interdisciplinary elements of my research whilst developing skills relevant to my career aspirations.
Claudia: The Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions gave me the opportunity to boost my professional career and at the same time helped me to try to not only, understand but solve, one of the most complex challenges of our times - anthropogenic environmental breakdown. I particularly welcome the efforts of this programme to support females and people from disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a lot of talented people in the world that, due to historical reasons, face a steeper ladder to climb for their professional development.
Ramón: To be part of an MSCA programme e was a life -changing experience for me. I received specialised training and education in comparative genomics. To be able to learn from experts on various topics is truly invaluable. I also met wonderful researchers from different nationalities that I can proudly call not only collaborators, but also friends. Currently, I am a faculty member of the Department of Sciences and Technology from the Interamerican University of Puerto Rico. I am also directing the Bioinformatics Institute of the Inter Barranquitas Campus. I bring all my experiences learned as an MSCA researcher to the classroom, to actively assist in the education of future generations of professionals.
- What sparked your interest in your current area of research?
Annika: : I’ve always been drawn to interdisciplinary work that addresses environmental sustainability, owing to my research experiences related to conservation across the world, from England to French Polynesia. Upon completing my Masters at the University of Cambridge, I worked at UNEP-WCMC where I was involved in projects that were closely related to the water-environment-food nexus and the impacts on ecosystem services. This has been especially instrumental in cementing my desire to continue working in this area and to understand the complex synergies and trade-offs that arise when trying to support both people and the planet.
Claudia: During my engagement with the Ministry of Environment of my country, I worked with many rural communities that relied on subsistence agriculture. Peru is one of the world’s five centres of agrobiodiversity in the world. However, many of our domesticated crop varieties that have outstanding nutritional and adaptive capacities, are at risk of extinction due to many factors. I realised that by trying to solve local problems, we lost sight of the large scale phenomena that affect these local systems. I wanted to deepen my understanding of these local-global linkages and the COUPLED project was designed exactly around these questions. My goal was to gain a better understanding of the factors determining local land-use changes of agricultural systems; whether these were global or regional or had economic, cultural or historical motivations.
Ramón: I am from the tropical island of Puerto Rico where the marine ecosystem is very important for us. I have always been fascinated with this ecosystem and decided to do undergraduate research in this area. Later during my time as a Masters student, I had the opportunity to do a bioinformatics project. From that moment on, I always looked to combine two of my favourite things: the marine ecosystem and bioinformatics.
- What impact might your research have for young generations in the future?
Annika: I think it’s important to highlight how adaptation goes hand in hand with mitigation, and that in our current stage of environmental decline, we require both to face the climate crisis. My project is trying to contribute towards supporting water security in some of the most water insecure regions in the world, which will be worsened under current climate change projections. During my PhD, we’re hoping to work closely with stakeholders within our case study regions, to ensure the real world application and policy relevancy of my research. As I will be working on modelling water quality in the context of climate change, it would be fantastic if this could contribute towards water management decisions at a local scale. Ultimately, I hope that I will in some way, no matter how small or large, use my interdisciplinary research to support livelihoods, food production, biodiversity, and water security during a critical time when these may be under threat.
Claudia: My research underlines the unaccounted impacts which occur at regional level, and highlights the need to build inter-institutional collaborations in order to address these. The impacts due to land-use in the case of cocoa in Ghana (my case study) contradict or surpass the impacts calculated by current practices. I therefore hope to first establish a rigorous framework of regulations which hold large corporations to account within agricultural trade. My second hope is to bridge science and practice by building up collaborations that will allow large corporations to have solid and timely information for robust sustainability action planning. Young people are at the centre of this transition and are therefore key to ensure that the policies supporting this ongoing transition do not create unmanageable and imbalanced burdens on other people and ecosystems. Companies that will soon be legally bound to clearly disclose all the negative impacts of their activities, can use my research to expand the scope of their regulatory tools and start building institutional collaborations that will allow them to quickly calculate and foresee the land-use change impacts of their sourcing strategies.
Ramón: Through the results of our research, we can now explore how changes in the microbiome could result in the expression of new pathways with the potential of being used in biotechnological processes. We also developed various genomic pipelines that will help in the study of non-model species. Our research highlighted the importance of policies that protect and restore invertebrate diversity, and the vital need for research policy to support genomics research and training.
- What words of advice would you give to other young aspiring researchers?
Annika: My advice would be to try out as much as you can and speak to as many researchers as possible, both within and outside of your field. Scientists will always be delighted to work with motivated young researchers. Even if they are not in a position to host you, they will be happy to talk about their experiences and signpost further resources and relevant researchers. It’s also important to remember that research is for everyone and the most important thing is to be enthusiastic. I always felt out of my depth at university but I came to see how valuable my willingess to learn and develop as a researcher was, and that my grades or the schools I went to didn’t determine my path or abilities. The world needs more inspired and motivated researchers to explore the unknowns of the world and tackle the challenging knowns!
Claudia: Never doubt the power of science. A research career is challenging but it is immensely rewarding. However, never forget about the importance of maintaining a strong connection with the practice field. Theorization is powerful but operationalisation can perfect it. Try always to think about who could benefit from your scientific exercises and contact them, frame your research questions in a way that could be useful for these actors.
Ramón: I have the conviction that collaborations are vital in science. Talk with scientists from your field. Engage in activates of groups with similar interests as yours. As young researchers, we need to start developing and expanding our network of collaborators. Also, take the opportunity to teach others what you have learned and share your experiences.
We at REA, are truly glad to share the experiences of these inspiring researchers through the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. These young researchers are indeed ‘grounded in values and bold in action’ and we look forward to seeing the positive impact of their timely research on future generations to come!
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- 28 sausis 2022
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