Interview with Dr. Nicola Fameli, experiences of a Marie Curie fellow

Dr. Nicola Fameli, an Italian-born Canadian researcher from the University of British Columbia, who was awarded  a Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship under the European Union Framework Programme 7, shares his personal and professional experiences from his fellowship tenure.

Nicola is a biophysicist, specialized in quantitative physiology in the field of cardiovascular science. His efforts are directed toward building quantitative models of transport of molecules into cells that control functionality of the human blood vessels. His Marie Curie Fellowship-funded work, carried out at the Medical University of Graz, focuses on the cells that control contraction of our veins and arteries, that is, vascular smooth muscle cells. Their ability to contract is controlled by the amount of calcium ions inside the cell. Sodium in these cells helps regulate calcium. During contraction intracellular calcium concentration varies periodically. These variations are referred to as oscillations. His research has helped establish a link between these oscillations and the health of the cell, and consequently of our cardiovascular system. His observations also support the concept that disappearance of vascular calcium oscillations is linked to aging and disease. Since these molecular processes cannot be satisfactorily visualized and measured by available instrumentation, he develops quantitative computational models of calcium and sodium movement in these cells. The quantitative modeling of ion transport in vascular smooth muscle and the understanding of ion transporters helps both to improve our understanding of the underlying mechanisms as well as their link to cardiovascular diseases such as hypertension, coronary artery occlusion and stroke.

This project is highly interdisciplinary as the aim is to build a computational model, based on physical laws and cell biology, to better understand fundamental mechanisms behind vascular diseases. Nicola studied physics at the University of Padua and went to the University of British Columbia (UBC) for his graduate studies. Among various options, he felt that this one was the best one as it allowed him to work and partially fund his studies and Vancouver is a nice place to live in. After graduating with a PhD in physics in 2000, he remained in Vancouver for professional and personal reasons and eventually became a Canadian citizen. After spending a few years teaching physics at UBC, he returned to research and as a postdoc started to work in the field of biophysics.

Years later, as Nicola was discussing different project ideas with his supervisor, he suggested that Nicola should get in contact with Klaus Groschner, a former postdoc with Nicola’s supervisor and now professor at the Medical University of Graz. In December 2011, Nicola paid Klaus Groschner (the coordinator of the Fellowship, who was then at the Department of Pharmacology & Toxicology of the Medical University of Graz) a visit and gave an invited seminar at the local doctoral school. After the visit, “we kept in touch and continued developing our collaboration as well as thinking of ways to fund it. That’s when a seemingly far-fetched funding possibility I had heard of before even meeting Klaus for the first time suddenly appeared worth exploring”. Nicola had previously attended an ERA-Can information session at the University of British Columbia, where different ways to fund research collaborations between the European Research Area (ERA) and Canada were presented. Among them, the Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship was described.

By the time Nicola and Klaus decided to go for the Marie Curie option it was late June 2012 and the application deadline was in the middle of August. After convincing himself that he had enough time, by contacting the person who ran the session at UBC and a Canadian contact point for the fellowships in Ottawa, he began work on his application in earnest. In November 2012 came the good news that Nicola and Professor Groschner had been invited to negotiate the above-mentioned Marie Curie International Incoming Fellowship grant.

This was the starting point of the whole administrative process and negotiations between the coordinator of the fellowship, Klaus Groschner at the Medical University of Graz, and the European Commission, which lasted until February the following year. Nicola was marginally involved in the process of drafting the grant agreement as the university administration took care of virtually every step. Lesson learned: experienced staff at the target university willing to support incoming researchers is an important asset to reduce the administrative obstacles for the fellow.

His fellowship in its final phase, Nicola can draw a positive picture of his experience both professionally and personally. The fellowship not only provided him with an opportunity to fund his research projects, but also helped strengthen the collaboration between Graz and Vancouver, and additionally helped establish  a link between Graz and Edinburgh. He is currently also writing an application for FWF funding, which would allow him to work on hypotheses borne out of his Marie Curie Fellowship funded work in conjunction with his colleagues in Vancouver.

Nicola also emphasizes the positive impact on his personal life. The fellowship gave him and his family the opportunity to experience the high quality of life in Austria in general and Graz in particular, and to live closer to their relatives (near beautiful Venice). His quasi-teen daughter could learn German (her third language!) and make good friends in Graz. He only regrets not finding the time to learn German himself as the pace of his work—and the quality of Austrians’ English—simply did not allow it.

In spite of cultural differences between Canada and Austria (and Italy), given the international character of science, Nicola does not feel that they are as marked in the academic environment as one would assume. Approaches and mindsets are similar in Austria and Canada according to his experience, especially after familiarizing  with the local dynamics, which was aided by a welcoming environment.

Nicola’s experiences can be summarized in a few recommendations for other potential fellowship applicants:

  • If you are not familiar with the bureaucratic procedures of European Commission, try to get a partner who has already been involved in Marie Curie fellowship applications and that is willing to support you in the process
  • Get in contact with Marie Curie alumni (Marie Curie alumni association, there is an Austrian chapter too) – most of them will be happy to share their experience and answer your questions
  • Go for it! Even though the programme is highly competitive, the experience and impact on your carrier are worth the time you spent on the proposal; moreover, if the chances of your application succeeding seem low, your chances if you don’t apply are certainly Null!

If you want to learn more about Nicola’s research visit his blog.


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