How to survive the ERC panel

How does a researcher look and behave? Think about it for a while.

If you ask a 10-year-old kid, his perception may already have been tainted by how Nickelodeon and Hollywood portray scientists – a mad lunatic, a vicious bearded guy out to make petty vengeance on the world. Evil geniuses such as Lex Luthor, Dr Evil and others.

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If you ask your grandmother, she is more likely to get a soft expression in her eyes. In her rocking chair, with the quilt in her lap, she sees scientists as part of the prodigious progress of the 20th centaury. Dedicated, honest people of societal status, something to proud of, people that changed the world to the better. People that made computers and medicine. Alexander Fleming, Albert Einstein, perhaps even Stephen Hawking – the beautiful mind in the frail body.

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If you ask your mate (which you likely shouldn’t do), he’ll laugh at you, punch you in the shoulders, and then going back to discuss what that nice lass was wearing at the party last week, or what the local soccer team should have done, but didn’t do.

Or, is Messi really the best player in the world? Really?

Being a scientist myself, it is quite easy. I know that scientists are just as any other folks. Some ugly, some pretty. Some intolerably smart, some absolutely stupid, but most just like you. Normal folks with an unusual occupation. Sure, there will be an excess of A-personalities with a competitive streak, but not more than you will find among physicians, lawyers or politicians.

Thus, normally I don’t care. I go to the university, fiddle around with manuscripts, teach students about virulence, signing invoices (too many) and make the research lab go a-round.

Today however, wasn’t any normal day in the office. I have spent the day in Brussels to attend an ERC Starting Grant interview. The ERC (European Research Council) are kind enough to distribute money to research, ‘making great ideas work’ is one of their slogans. But to be entitled you need to apply, then the application need to be considered interesting enough, and you as a researcher talented enough, to reach the next level. All very meritocratic, with extensive review processes, ranking of candidates by peers.

Normally it ends there. For instance, at the Swedish Research Council (the major funding agency in Sweden) the 10-15% highest ranked applications get funded and the rest are gently declined. At the ERC Starting Grants, however, that is just the first hurdle. If you pass till the second round you are allowed to present your full research proposal and then go to Brussels for an interview with an expert panel. A make or break interview. Either you get 1.5 million euro, or nothing. Either all fame, or utter disappointment.

And this is where you suddenly start to think about how you look and how you behave.

How should you make a significant impression come across to the panel in a 10-minute presentation and 15 minutes question slot? You train your presentation, you work with the figures, and you start to make answers to putative questions. You start to question yourself – are you really good, are you a fraud? What if they ask you ‘that question’? What if you start stutter and blush? What if you forget to tuck in your shirt, or if the zipper is open in your pants?

I am normally quite cool. But this was, I need to confess, rather nerve-wracking. Fortunately, my university sent me on a course – to Yellow Research in Amsterdam that is doing tailored courses for ERC presentations. I learned to not stand as ‘a construction worker’, stand straight, use my hands, give short answers, appear confident (at least on the outside) – simply prepare like I have not prepared before.

We’ll see whether that helped or not. Today it is done. I had my 25 minutes with the panel. I kept to my allotted time, I answered the questions reasonably well – although in hindsight I could have been better on certain aspects. But what the hell, I survived, and I feel fine. I did what I could, and can only hope it is enough.

And guess what? The panel was all very friendly, no monsters, just normal researchers – in short, people just like you and me. Isn’t that quite lovely.

Now I am waiting for my flight home – at Brussels Airport, probably the only airport in the world where there aren’t any decent bookshops. But what Belgium lacks in books, they have in beers! Lets have a second Leffe and wait for boarding.

Jonas Waldenström

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