When excellence comes home

Read time: 7 mins

Two aspects remain etched firmly after a talk with Andrea Lunardi and Graziano Martello, two "made in Italy" brains that have decided to return to work in Italy after years of research abroad. First, go abroad tout court is not an essential step; the difference is choosing centres of excellence abroad. Second: a PhD in Italy is a great resource, not to be missed, as long as you choose a good group to work with.

These two young men, 43 years old Lunardi and 34 years old Martello, are certainly not the rule in our country. Two researchers that decide to bring their skills in Italy thanks to two grants from a private foundation, the Armenise Foundation, plus a Telethon grant for Martello, after spending years in centers of excellence worldwide, Lunardi at Harvard Medical School and Martello at the University of Cambridge.

Let us start from the end. What is the focus of your researches and why did you decide to come back?

AL: I am a biologist and in recent years I was involved in research on cancer, particularly prostate cancer, under the lead of Pier Paolo Pandolfi, Director of the Cancer Research Institute at the Beth Israel deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School of Boston. Together with a team of American colleagues, I developed the Co-Clinical Trial Approach, a new translational platform based on the enrollment of faithful genetically engineered mouse models of human tumors in specific treatments that perfectly mirror the clinical trial in human patients. I worked in the United States for years, knowing that I would be back in Italy after a few years, and now I had the opportunity to do so, bringing in my country the skills acquired in a center of excellence like the Harvard Medical School. I then tried to obtain funding and I won the Armenise scholarship, which allowed me to come back. Trento seemed to be the best destination for me at the moment, since it is a dynamic reality that is recruiting many new resources focusing on quality.

GM: My research combines experimental and computational methods to understand what controls the behavior of embryonic stem cells. I decided to return to Italy after four years in Cambridge because it was my desire since I started my activity abroad, and I think that if you want to return, once arrived at a certain moment you should try.  I was very lucky because I had the opportunity to go back to the University where I studied, which is an excellent research center at both Italian and international level. The funding I have obtained have been obviously fundamental: I got both the Armenise and the Telethon Scholarships, which will cover my project for five years.

Both of you have obtained your PhD in Italy, and only after PhD you have gone abroad. What were the keystones of your professional success?

AL: Right, my training has taken place entirely in Italy, starting from a degree in Biology and Ph.D. in developmental biology at the University of Pisa. In 2004, however, I began to feel the need to concentrate my research on something more practical and I decided to opt for cancer research. I then moved to another Center in Italy, the LNCIB of Trieste, where I worked from 2005 to 2009 alongside talented researchers as for example Giannino Del Sal and Licio Collavin. During this experience, I learned several techniques that allowed me to begin to think of going abroad.

GM: After graduation, in 2005, in Medical Biotechnology, I did a PhD in the laboratory of Stefano Piccolo at the Department of Histology, Microbiology and Medical Biotechnologies of the University of Padua, where, together with basic research in developmental biology, I joined a parallel project on breast cancer.  This work has led to the two publications, the first in Nature and the second in Cell, which in turns led me to Cambridge.

How did you take the decision to go abroad?

AL: In Trieste, I began to feel the need to try to take another step, and in this sense, I had arranged with the University of Singapore. But luck was just around the corner [laughs]. In 2008, I went to Trento for the Pezcoller/AACR symposium, one of the most important international meeting on cancer that takes place in our country, and there my poster was selected along with two others to be presented the next morning. So I did my talk and I was noticed by Pier Paolo Pandolfi, who at the end of my presentation simply said, "you will go to Singapore to say that you will don't go there. You will come with me to Harvard." It has been like for a mechanical engineer working in Ferrari! Sometime later I was in Boston and I stayed there for 5 years.

GM: During my PhD, I felt the need to take another step forward in my career, and I thought that the post-doc would have represented a good moment to make the jump and to learn something totally new. The biological question that fascinated me as a student, and is still central to my research, is “how is cell identity established. I realized that stem cells were the most relevant system to address such question. For this reason, I chose Cambridge, in particular the laboratory of Austin Smith at the WT-MRC Cambridge Centre for Stem Cell Research.

What is the most important research you have worked on and what will you bring to Italy?

AL: Certainly, the new approach I mentioned earlier, born from the brainchild of Pier Paolo Pandolfi. What we call prostate cancer can in fact includes 50-70 different types of cancer, genetically different and with different responses to drug treatments. Up to now, we have used only mice in a preclinical phase, while in our laboratory we have tried to use them in co-clinical phase, that is, at the same time to human patients. In this way, by testing drugs on human patients and mice at the same time we can quickly and precisely understand in what kind of tumor genetics a specific drug works better. This would allow to make actionable predictions on the response of patients to the drug, at first, then to rapidly define mechanism of de novo or acquired resistance to the treatment, and, finally, to test new drug combinations in mice in order to by-pass the resistance.

GM: In Cambridge, I worked on embryonic stem cells closely with computer scientists, mathematicians and biologists, in a climate of continuous exchange and comparison. The project is innovative thanks to the fact that a team of people with different academic backgrounds can study a biological problem in a whole new way. In Padua I will apply what I have learned extending my research to human pluripotent stem cells.

Finally, what would you recommend to a young person who wants to pursue an academic career?

AL: Two things: PhD in Italy is not a limiting factor, but you must choose a valid group. In other words, it does not matter where, but with who you work. Second, if you go abroad you have to choose an excellent research center. To conclude, I am very optimistic about the possibility of returning to Italy, and I am a living example of this possibility. In Italy we do have centers of excellence and today, thanks to scholarships such as Armenise or Telethon Careers, it is absolutely possible to go back and do a great job.

GM: The point I would underline is that studying in Italy, even at the doctoral level is a great “business card”, if done in centers of excellence. Personally, I did not find any difficulty once I arrived in Cambridge, compared with my colleagues who came from other countries, and I think that post-doc is a great time for measuring ourselves at an international level. Regarding the possibility to return, surely this it is not a good period for research in Italy, but if you are talented there are many scholarships for funding projects, such as the two scholarships that will support my work, Armenise and Telethon scholarships, which allowed me to get greater funds than those that I would have had in Cambridge.  I am just a positive example, and it is important to pass the message that going abroad is a critical step in the career of a scientist, because it allows to learn new techniques working in a different environment. But when I was abroad I realized that the quality of research at good Italian institutions is comparable to that of good international institutions. This is why I decided to come back to Italy.

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