Beaming proudly, biochemist Agnieszka Dobrzyn (pictured left) shows off her newly renovated lab, including her latest expensive toy, a gas chromatograph. She has reason to be proud, and not just of her lab. Hired as a lab director in 2006 at the Nencki Institute of Experimental Biology in Warsaw, Dobrzyn has won several prestigious grants in the past year, and her five-person lab is publishing their research on obesity-related diabetes regularly. “I really believe that I will be able to do something” to contribute to the field, she says, her smile wide and self-assured.
Dobrzyn, 35, was not as confident two-and-a-half years ago, when she took a gamble that could have scuttled her career. After a successful postdoc at the University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, she ignored several job opportunities in the United States to return to Poland, a country with significantly less funding and fewer top research positions. She wanted to be part of the changes she was seeing–or at least hoped she was seeing–in the Polish scientific community, even if it meant taking on some career-related risk.
“The quality of science in Poland has suffered from two main, mutually related problems: catastrophical level of funding over the last few decades and brain drain of young, talented scientists seeking careers in North America and Western Europe,” says Adam Szewczyk, the Nencki Institute’s acting director. As in many other post-Communist countries, Poland’s strong economy and ongoing political reforms are reversing those trends, creating the potential for a world-class science infrastructure. One of the keys to realizing this potential is attracting and supporting pioneers like Dobrzyn, promising researchers who are willing to demonstrate that a career in Poland can be as rewarding as one abroad. “I have this kind of patriotic thinking that if we won’t come back and if we won’t make a change, then who will?” Dobrzyn says.
Dobrzyn grew up in Bialystok, a city in the east of Poland. When she was a child, her father, a chemist, worked as a food-safety tester for the government, and she learned to love science by visiting his lab. Later, she attended Warsaw University’s Bialystok campus and then earned her Ph.D. in 2001 at the Medical University of Bialystok, studying the effect of exercise on muscle metabolism. She met her husband, Pawel Dobrzyn, also a biologist, while in graduate school.
James Ntambi says he “tried hard to persuade [Dobrzyn] to come and work in my lab as a postdoc” at UW Madison. Dobrzyn knew she wanted to work for Ntambi when she saw him give a conference presentation on his work in diabetes, which is as major a public health problem in Poland as it is in the rest of the world. Ntambi also made an offer to Dobrzyn’s husband, Pawel, persuading him to switch from his focus on environmental biology. They accepted.
Ntambi’s group was working on answering a burning question: Why does obesity lead to diabetes and other diseases? In particular, they wanted to know which molecules play critical roles. Dobrzyn was “thoughtful and thorough” in her experiments, Ntambi says–and they soon hit on something that was potentially groundbreaking. She and her colleagues found that the enzyme stearoyl-CoA desaturase (SCD) causes fat buildup in muscle, liver, and other tissues that don’t usually have much fat. Mice without this enzyme build up less of that fat and are more sensitive to insulin–that is, less likely to be diabetic.
This single enzyme, they realized, could be a target for new treatments for diabetes and other diseases of obesity. “It was at that time a huge discovery,” Dobrzyn says. The American Heart Association (AHA) agreed: They gave Dobrzyn a 2-year grant to study the effect of the enzyme on heart disease. It was an auspicious start to her career.
When her postdoc and the AHA grant ended in 2005, Dobrzyn faced a big decision: Should she follow promising prospects in the United States or return home to Poland? “It was pretty tempting to stay,” she says–indeed, some Polish colleagues didn’t understand why she would give up opportunities in the United States. But together, she and her husband decided to go back. Partly, they wanted to raise children in their home country, but they also wanted to participate in the changes that were taking place at home: Poland was becoming more integrated into the European Union, meaning more funding and more opportunities to interact with international colleagues. The Dobrzyns also heard rumors that young, successful scientists might soon be offered their own labs and larger grants.
Her worries were short-lived. In 2006, Dobrzyn learned that the Nencki Institute was running a competition to hire Poland’s best young biologists–demonstrating, Dobrzyn says, that it’s “one of the very few Polish institutes trying to change this very old-fashioned way that science is organized.” Part of the institute’s strategy is to hire young scientists through international competitions, then make them group leaders with the same independence and flexibility that they could expect in the United States or Western Europe. Habilitation isn’t required. The institute gave Dobrzyn €100,000 in start-up funds, in addition to salaries for herself and four lab members. “It is one of the best [packages] you can get in Poland,” she says.
Dobrzyn’s husband is a member of her lab, her partner in research as well as in life. “I wasn’t sure that [working together] would work for us,” she says, “but once we started it was pretty nice.” Nonetheless, he hopes to finish his habilitation and get his own lab, in which he too would work on lipogenic enzymes such as SCD, which have become a passion for them both. Feeling secure for the first time in years, she says that children may be in the picture soon. “I am pretty confident that I would be able to share the PI [principal investigator] duties and the mother duties,” she says.
All has not been perfect. Just after she started at the Nencki Institute, Dobrzyn was emotionally floored by the hassles of ordering office furniture from an uncooperative provider. She saw it as typical of the indifference that remains in many Polish bureaucracies. And although her small group is close and colleagues have been welcoming, she still feels like a rookie and misses the camaraderie developed in Wisconsin.
This makes her all the more grateful for the networking opportunities offered by EMBO, which held a conference for grantees in June. “Scientists at the early stages of their careers frequently feel isolated,” says Gerlind Wallon, program manager for the EMBO program. “Meeting others in a similar situation creates a special atmosphere of belonging and trust.”
Today, Dobrzyn is certain that she made the right decision by returning to Poland. She hopes that her success will serve not only herself but also her country–by helping to lure other scientists back to Poland.