Early Career Researchers Interview

Early Career Research: Interview with Two MDPI Award Winners

Early career researchers are fundamental to the future of research. They can bring a fresh outlook to many projects and in some cases can guide and lead future research projects. It’s important to support early career researchers and give them opportunities to share their research internationally. Here at MDPI, this is very important to us.

Being early on in your research career presents unique challenges. Let us take some of the stress away. We’ve got so many articles on the MDPI Blog, with excellent advice about how to advance in your field. Take a look at our overview article on Early Career Researchers to get started.

Opportunities MDPI offers for research

We offer a range of opportunities for early career researchers, including a range of awards such as the early career investigator award. The winners receive an official certificate, CHF 1000, and the option to publish two papers after peer review with a 50% discount. Many journals have also launched Special Issues dedicated to early career researchers to promote their breakthrough work. If you’re interested in more information on the awards for early career researchers, check out our blog post Early Career Research Awards.

We recently sat down with two winners of the Young Investigator Award 2021. Dr. Federico Baltar won the award for the journal Fungi and Dr. Nicholas Heaton won the award for the journal Viruses. We sat down with them both to ask about life as early career researchers.

About the Winners

Dr. Federico Baltar is an associate professor in the Department of Functional and Evolutionary Ecology at the University of Vienna, Austria. His research focuses on the integration of microbial ecology and biogeochemistry into biological oceanography.

Dr Nicholas Heaton is an associate professor of Molecular Genetics, Microbiology and Cell Biology at Duke University, USA. His current work broadly focuses on understanding how respiratory RNA viruses induce inflammation and lung disease. As well as how virally induced damage is eventually repaired.


How did you decide what project/position you wanted to start your career?

FB: I always felt very attracted to the marine environment. I am originally from the Canary Islands, so I was always surrounded by the ocean . On top of that, I have also always felt attracted to biology and all living organisms. In the ocean, microbes are the main biomass and the main drivers of its ecology and biogeochemistry, so that moved me into the study of marine microbes.  I ended up working on marine fungi because there was little known about them and their roles in ocean ecosystems.

NH: I became interested in being a scientist once I learned that there remained so many unanswered questions. Knowing that fundamental questions remained unanswered was a major motivator for me going to graduate school.

For a position, I knew I wanted to be at a university and in a department where my research goals would be well supported. Additionally, one of the things that I found very appealing about the environment here at Duke was the breadth of scientific research going on in the department. When you get feedback from people with diverse backgrounds and training, it allows you to see your own research through different lenses. In terms of projects, when starting in the lab, I knew I wanted to carve out a “niche” for our group that would be facilitated by the skills that I had acquired as a post-doc, but that would be distinct from the work that my advisor was doing. A combination of that and my focus on scientific questions that I thought were interesting was basically how those choices were made.

What are the struggles that come with being an early career researcher?

FB: It’s like when you’re early on in your career in any discipline, you need to develop self-confidence and gain experience. This only comes with doing. But this comes with time. The more mistakes you make the more you learn how to do it right, and that making mistakes is what you need to learn, and this also gives you experience and self-confidence.

It is especially important to gain confidence in applying for external grants to fund the research of your lab. But it is also important to develop personal skills and to continue to develop them throughout your career as I will until I retire. Because this is a people’s job, and you will need to interact with and manage very different types of people with different backgrounds and of different ages. The main struggle is the steep learning curve you face when you have a lot to learn and quickly whilst your self-confidence is still developing.

NH: There are a number of struggles! A major one is that you need to build a team from the ground up. Making sure you recruit people who share your vision. Also making sure that you devote the time necessary to train and support their work is critical. You will also have limited financial resources which makes the selection of projects even more critical.

Do you have any tips for soon-to-be early career researchers?

FB: I think it is very important to be patient with yourself. Realize that this is a long game; you cannot and don’t have to do everything perfectly from the first day. You will need time to do things, make mistakes and learn from them. It is also important to have or develop a close network of collaborators (doesn’t need to be many – here quality is more important than quantity), particularly more senior colleagues that can mentor you but also really peers to share experiences. I also think it is very important to find what is the work-life balance that you want for your life and try to stick to it from the very beginning – don’t leave it for tomorrow.

NH: I think the most important piece of advice I could give is to have faith in yourself and your ideas. For almost all early career researchers, this is the first time that you will be “working without a net” scientifically. It can be easy to second-guess yourself or spend all of your time asking different people for their opinions. While getting input from others can be very helpful, at the end of the day, you have to trust that you earned your position and that you are going to be successful!

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned so far?

FB: This is a difficult question to answer because it can be answered on many different levels. Something important I have learned is that I am going to continue learning about this job until I retire… There are always new things to learn, professionally and personally. But it is also hard to say what is the most “valuable” lesson… I can only say that I have learned that I can do and manage a job that I was not sure I was capable of.

So, maybe an important lesson again is to be patient with yourself. And to keep impostor syndrome in check, which affects almost everybody in almost all stages of their careers.

NH: I would say the most valuable lesson I’ve learned is to not assume that everyone in our group has the same approach/scientific process as me. As a PI, your success is tied to the success of your team, and everyone is different. Understanding how to best support and coach each individual person is critical for overall success.

What is your motivation for research?

FB: I enjoy it. I am curious about how things work. Every time we discover something new, I am already thinking about why or how, or what’s next. I would say the main driver is pure curiosity about how life in the ocean works and how this is connected to the global picture. Besides this, I also like travelling a lot, and in this line of job you get to travel a lot (e.g., for field sampling, conferences, etc.).

NH: My primary motivation lies in the discovery of new things. These discoveries are the rewards from the long hours that science requires. It’s also exciting to think that the things we are learning may help improve human health by limiting viral disease.

Extra Resources

Passion, motivation, and perseverance will get you far. But it’s important to remember that success takes time and experience. It’s important not to put too much pressure on yourself and enjoy the perks of being a researcher. If you’re interested in reading more about early career researchers, you should check out our recent posts: How to Reduce Stress Whilst Waiting for Publication and Remembering Your First Paper.