Interview with Mario Barbatti, the first Brazilian ERC Advanced grant awardee

You have recently been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant. Could you tell us about the research you are conducting with this grant? How can the general public benefit from it?

When we shine visible or UV light on an organic molecule, we trigger a cascade of events, which may change the molecular geometry or induce chemical reactions. These light-induced molecular processes are fundamental for life (think about vision or DNA mutations caused by solar radiation, for instance) and technology (like in an OLED TV).

In my group – the Light and Molecules research group – we investigate what happens to an organic molecule after light irradiation using theoretical chemistry. That means, instead of doing experiments in a lab, we use large arrays of computers to simulate the molecular reaction. Today, we have good methodologies to simulate phenomena occurring up to a millionth of a millionth of a second (it’s called a picosecond). The ERC Advanced Grant will allow my team to develop methods to simulate processes one thousand times longer (up to one nanosecond).

Then, with these new methods, we will investigate how DNA reacts to UV light. Although my main goal is at fundamental research, our findings may impact the understanding of how life evolved on Earth, how solar radiation causes skin cancer, and how to make more efficient phototherapeutic drugs.

How did you find out about the ERC selection process? Can you share any tips with our readers on how to apply for an ERC grant successfully?

Every scientist working in Europe knows about ERC grants. They are the most prestigious grants in the region, and most of the European institutions are organised to support the researchers who are applying for them.

The ERC grants are extremely exclusive, requiring, above all, a robust CV to any researcher aspiring to be awarded with it. Then, they must find an outstanding, unexplored research field with the right balance of risk and feasibility. It cannot be just a simple extension of what they have been doing before. But it can neither be something completely disconnected from their expertise.

When writing the project, the researcher must have an absolute mastery of his or her field. In my case, for instance, my bibliographic research was so exhaustive that I even published two papers on the Chemical Reviews based on them, having surveyed over two thousand references.

Young researchers from everywhere in the world can be recruited to work in ERC teams as PhD candidates, post-doc or researchers. How would you encourage Latin American and Caribbean researchers to look at these opportunities as team members?

I know from my own experience that when you are in a country like Brazil, you are quite isolated from the international community. That isolation, however, doesn’t mean you have no chance of getting a job offer in Europe. But you have to do your homework: develop a good level of spoken and written English, regularly publish quality papers, apply for relevant positions. You must regularly check the websites of CONFAP and ERC. You must also identify the key researchers of your field and follow them in social networks. Finally, remember, even if you are a top candidate, you will most certainly still get many refusals before getting an offer. Do not give up too easily.

CONFAP, CNPq, and ERC signed agreements to encourage young Brazilian scientists to join ERC-grantees’ research teams in Europe for a short-term period. How can this opportunity benefit these Brazilian researchers’ careers and Brazilian science at large?

Such short-term visits are an excellent opportunity to show yourself to the world and to insert yourself into a network of international contacts. At the moment, I have two post-docs in my group who first came for short visits, while they were still students. They demonstrated their potential, and at the first chance, I brought them back for a longer stay.

Moreover, applications for ERC grants (like most of European Commission grants in the framework of the Horizon 2020 programme and the upcoming Horizon Europe programme) are open for people of any nationality. The researcher only needs to look for a European host institution. Therefore, short-term visits may also work as a first step to apply for their own European grants.

How has mobility influenced the direction of your career? In your opinion, what could be done to further enhance the mobility of international researchers between Europe and Brazil / Latin America and the Caribbean?

Moving to Vienna after my PhD in Brazil was the determining step of my career. In Europe, I could develop my potential as a scientist in a way that, most likely, I would not be able to achieve if I had remained in Brazil.

Concerning mobility, if the goal is to enhance it, institutions at both sides of the Atlantic must review their own policies and strategies, especially regarding the English language. In Brazil, for instance, most universities would not accept a PhD thesis written in English. On the other hand, in France, for instance, many universities do not even have an English version of their website. In both countries, to teach a regular course in English is still taboo. Without having a common language – and for science, like it or not, this language is English – mobility is always going to be restricted.

Born in Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro, Mario Barbatti (47) earned a PhD in physics from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in 2001 and a “habilitation” to research theoretical chemistry from the University of Vienna in 2008. Between 2010 and 2015, he was a group leader at the Max Planck Institut für Kohlenforschung in Germany. He joined the Institut de Chimie Radicalaire of the Aix Marseille University in 2015, after being awarded an endowed chair of the A*Midex foundation. Author of about 150 scientific publications, Mario Barbatti is an expert in theoretical simulations of photoexcited molecules. He is the first Brazilian researcher to ever been awarded an ERC Advanced Grant. (www.barbatti.org)

About the ERC

The ERC (https://erc.europa.eu/) is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council. The ERC has a budget of over €13 billion and is part of the EU research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020.

ERC Advanced Grants: These grants are designed to support active researchers who have a track-record of significant research achievements in the last 10 years. The Principal Investigators should be leaders in terms of originality and significance of their research contributions. The call is annual and open to researchers of any nationality.

The call is open until 26 August 2020! More: bit.ly/ERC_AdvG2020

Check the other opportunities open to Latin American and Caribbean researchers in the Guide on ERC we prepared for you.

You can also check interviews with other Brazilian and Latin American ERC awardees.