A French Researcher Falls for Australia


Australia had always been at the top of my list of places to visit–a country of strong contrasts and empty spaces and such diverse and unique flora and fauna. However, I never imagined that one day I would not only live there but would become an Australian citizen and an immunologist at the Centenary Institute in Sydney. My route in getting here, however, was not that straightforward.

In the Beginning

This adventure started back in 1991 when I was looking for a postdoc position. At the time, I was doing my PhD in immunology at the Ecole Normale Supérieure de Lyon (ENS de Lyon) in France–one of the “grandes écoles” unique to France and seen as elite in French society. However, my educational background was relatively modest as I went to a normal university for my undergraduate work instead of a “grande école”. After I had spent 2 years at the University of Grenoble studying biology, I moved to the University of Lyon for 2 more years to complete my university degree. After completing a relatively competitive degree known as the “Magistère”, I was allowed to commence benchwork for my “DEA” (equivalent to an honours degree) in immunology at the ENS de Lyon. I stayed on in the same laboratory for my PhD project.

During the second year of my PhD work, it was time to think about a lab for my postdoc. Do you choose a laboratory on the basis of the scientific project, the supervisor, or the location? If all these criteria were explicitly met, it would be ideal, but life is rarely ideal. I had started to send speculative applications to a few laboratories that were doing good work in my field–most of which were located in the United States plus a few in Europe and Canada. Australia was not on that list.

Adding Australia to the List

Not, that was, until one of the senior scientists in our group mentioned meeting Australian immunologist Jacques Miller at a conference. Miller’s discovery of the immunological function of the thymus in the 1960s laid the foundations for much of modern immunology. Miller, who is French by birth, has built his career at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) in Melbourne (he moved to Australia as a child). I found his work on peripheral immunological tolerance to be fascinating and close to my own interests. I sent Jacques a speculative application letter. Thankfully, he was very keen for me to work with him–provided that I come with my own fellowship, which was also a selection criterion for WEHI.

That is how I arrived in Melbourne for the first time in October 1992. Although I had already made the decision to come to Melbourne to work with Miller, I did not know what to expect. Besides working as a scientist, I also wanted to become familiar and feel at home with the Australian culture, the lifestyle, and the people actually living there. I still vividly remember my first impression of empty space, and Melbourne’s skyscrapers pointing out of the horizon were amazing. However, I soon discovered that Australia was much more than empty spaces and nature–the country enjoys a relaxed lifestyle that seemed quite different from the French lifestyle.

Australians are generally more laid back than French people and this is reflected in their famous expression “no worries”. This relaxed attitude is apparent in all aspects of their life including work. My only problems, at the beginning, were being far apart from family and friends, as well as the difficulty in understanding the language, especially the Australian accent! However, after 6 months, my language skills had improved, I had built a good network of friends. During this time, I travelled throughout Australia and discovered more of its charm.

I also loved my work environment. The WEHI is among the most prestigious research institutes in Australia and the world. The facilities are incredible, and I benefited from working with one of its preeminent scientists. My work was progressing well. Now that the stars had aligned in all parts of my life, my love affair with Australia had really taken off. After a year, I was awarded another 1-year exchange fellowship jointly supported by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM). I also owe thanks to the French government, which allowed me to prolong my stay.

Returning to France

By the time my 2 years were over, I had to go back to France as my visa and funding had expired and I felt depressed about going back to cold and grey Lyon. But I was fortunate to already have secured a position in the lab in which I did my PhD work and that my former PhD advisor, Chantal Rabourdin-Combe, allowed me to continue to work on the same project that I worked on in Melbourne. My goal: a rare (even rarer today) permanent position that the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) and INSERM provide for scientists returning from overseas postdocs. France is one of the few countries that provide permanent research positions following a 30-minute interview (other criteria such as publication record are, of course, also considered). In 1995 when I had applied, there were only two positions available for 100 applications in immunology, thus the chances of securing one of these positions were remote and I wasn’t successful.

One of the comments from the INSERM interview panel that irritated me the most was that “my project was too risky and ambitious!” What is the point–or excitement–in research when no risk is involved? What do you do when you have worked to build a scientific career all these years and suddenly you are told that you need to think about doing something else? I think that the frustration and disappointment I experienced are common among young French scientists. Unfortunately, the situation has now got even worse in France and I feel that many talented young scientists are choosing to stay overseas: the recent protest demonstrations in France have conveyed this feeling of dissatisfaction.

Those experiences and my fondness for Australia convinced me to return there despite being warned that organisations would look more favourably upon a native Australian scientist’s application than mine. While on holiday in Australia to assist at a conference organised for Miller’s retirement in 1996, I visited laboratories and applied for different positions. Ideally, I wanted to go back to work at the WEHI in Melbourne. However, I was offered a senior Research Officer position for 1 year in Sydney at the Centenary Institute and a chance to continue to work on my project with the intention that I would stay after this period and bring in my own funding.

Scientifically, this was too good to refuse and the Centenary Institute was a relatively new institute that nurtured young talented immunologists. In addition, Sydney is a great city to live in. I accepted, but as this position started the following year, I stayed on in Lyon and applied to a new competitive scheme of fellowships that the University of Sydney has established to attract international postdocs. In 1997, I was awarded a 3-year U2000 fellowship by the University of Sydney and this allowed me to gain permanent residency.

French and Australian Systems Compared

The French system–with its permanent positions–is in many ways the opposite of the Australian research system. The latter relies more on continuous performance and a good track record. Although it is relatively objective, the system has its caveats: It does not offer good financial security, and funding is also relatively limited. If you are unsuccessful in getting grants for a couple of years, you might find yourself without a salary mid-career. One of the major sources of funding is NHMRC. Scientists based in Australia can apply for 3-year project grants for both their salaries and research expenses. Fellowships and program grants are also available from the NHMRC, but these are still limited to 5 years. These applications are peer-reviewed by independent experts in the field and reviewed by a discipline panel. Only 20% of the applications are successful. Having previous experience or holding previous NHMRC grants also helps your chances of success.

Although this system is not perfect, it does promote excellent and competitive research and most groups manage to survive difficult funding periods by cutting down on staff. Personally, I have been lucky to continue working on the same project despite being in France between 1995 and 1997. My previous connections with WEHI also definitely helped me to be accepted by the Australian immunology community. The Australian system has allowed me to build my own research group and survive. Although this has not always been easy and my chances of getting a permanent research position in Australia are very remote, it gave me the freedom to perform the research that I want, even when projects are risky.

My story shows how a career can be built upon coincidences and decisions that change the course of one’s life. If I had my time again, I would not change a single choice that I have made. Australia is now home.

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