A top research group is like a start-up

He lived and worked in top research institutions in the US, Japan, and Singapore and after twenty years, Martin Pumera returned to the Czech Republic. Despite intense international competition, he received a 200 million crown grant from the EU. He is now building a team of top scientists at University of Chemistry and Technology in Prague, which includes researchers from Portugal, Peru, and Iran as well as the Czech Republic.

Nanorobots. Artificial microscopic organisms that can distribute anti-cancer drugs in the body or clean up the environment. And it is their capabilities that Martin Pumera’s research team will be focusing on. “A research team is like a start-up. It’s a steamroller that’s slow to start moving, but then you’re running downhill in front of it hoping it won’t catch up and run over you,” says one of the top international chemists who once received – and returned – the prestigious ERC grant, the “Oscar” awarded to scientists.

The Czech Republic is quite advanced in nanotechnology research. But how do they see us in the US and Singapore?
These countries think of Czechia similar to how we think of nanotechnology research in New Zealand – which, by the way, is actually very good. In other words, it’s not even on their radar.

You enjoyed a successful career abroad for two decades. Now you have received 200 million crowns from an EU operational programme to run a six-year research project. Would you have come back, if it was not for the grant?
Absolutely not. Moving back to the Czech Republic meant breaking up my perfectly working team in Singapore that had 15 members and leaving my tenured position.

What will be the focus of your research in Prague and what is the desired result?
The research focuses on nanorobots: these are independently moving nanoparticles that can carry active substances on their surface. These might be drugs or decontaminants that help protect the environment. In short, they are tiny robots that are able to move independently and obtain energy from their environment, like bacteria, while fulfilling their designated tasks.
When you say nanorobot, I imagine tiny insect-like robots running back and forth on the ground carrying something, like ants. How far is that from the truth? Is this what nanorobots look like?
My children imagine them the same way. You are almost right, yes. They are running back and forth carrying something, except they don’t have any legs.

What else do you think nanorobots could do in the future? How else they could be used?
Our imagination is our only limit. A lot of the research into nanorobotics focuses on biomedical applications and environmental protection. There are also military applications, applications in food analysis, discovering natural resources and so on. Nanorobots could be useful in all those areas.

You are currently building an international team in the Czech Republic that has aroused high expectations. Where are your colleagues from?
I poached three of my former team members from Singapore, who are – according to their passports – from Portugal, Peru and Iran. The new members – again, based on their passports – are three female researchers from Ireland, Iran and Colombia and three male researchers from Germany, Sweden and China. The team will be completed in the autumn by a female colleague from Spain. Out of the 17 team members, 70% are foreigners. The Czech team members all have international experience and the whole team speaks English.

This is a wild mix of nationalities. Are you sure it is going to work?
The whole of Singapore is based on a similar system and it works very well for them. Teams at good international universities consist mostly of foreigners. Having an international team is the only way to be competitive at a global level. You have to get the best researchers: fifteen excellent scientists, who are just starting their career, have the required know-how and are willing to change their post. These are simply not available in the Czech Republic. It is important for me to have an international team where the individual members have experience from different labs and different systems. It increases creativity. I don’t need fifteen researchers who all think the same way. I need people who can benefit from working with each other. In general, people who are able and willing to move for work are much more motivated to give it all they have and produce excellent work.

What are the specifics of the nationalities you mentioned? How does an American work compared to someone from Singapore, Japan or the Czech Republic?
There will always be certain specific characteristics. But the most interesting thing is that if they are motivated, a Singaporean, a Japanese and a Czech will all work equally hard. However, I should add that it is much easier to find a motivated student in Singapore than in the Czech Republic.

You spent seven years as a professor in Singapore. What are researchers in Singapore like and how does local research differ from the Czech practice?
Most researchers in Singapore are foreigners. In my department, there were two Singaporeans among about forty professors at the beginning; that number later increased to four. Universities in Singapore are highly international and competitive. That’s why they seek out the best scientists from all over the world and that’s why my university, Nanyang Technological University (NTU), can be the 11th best in the whole world. This competitive element is largely missing in the Czech Republic. Local universities pride themselves on being ranked at 400th or even lower, and nobody finds that strange.

Before moving to Singapore, you worked in Japan and applied for an ERC grant to work in Switzerland at the renowned EPFL in Lausanne. And you actually received the highly sought-after grant in 2009 to research potential analytical applications of labs-on-a-chip. And then you did something very few people do with the most prestigious grant in Europe…
... I returned it. I received an offer from the NTU in Singapore the same year and decided to go to this university instead. The reason was that my start-up grant at NTU allowed me to hire many more students and postdocs than I could in Switzerland with the ERC grant and hence do more science. So, winning the ERC grant also won me membership of the very limited club of “I returned an ERC grant”. This is how some of my colleagues introduce me to other researchers, which is funny. It’s important to realise that an ERC grant is “just” a grant and that research results are more important than whatever grant you received.

Nevertheless, many people would consider winning this grant their biggest success as researchers. You are obviously not one of them. Can you tell me what your biggest success has been so far, the most important milestone you achieved in nanorobotics research?
We developed robots that can navigate independently based on a weak magnetic field. Also, robots that carry anti-cancer drugs. And we developed methods to produce kilograms of nanorobots.

And what is it that you would still like to achieve?
That nanorobots could communicate with each other, organise themselves and move in flocks like birds or microorganisms. Simply put, more nanorobots can achieve more. This is the goal of the whole field.

You already mentioned how the Czech Republic compares to Singapore. When you compare Czech research to research abroad, what are we doing well and what needs to be improved?
In general, there is a lot of equipment available to Czech researchers, more than in Singapore, for example. What’s missing, however, is competition between universities and ambitions to attract the best scientists the way they do in the US or Asia. If Singapore with 5 million people can have two universities among the top 15 in the world, why can’t the Czech Republic have at least one in the top 100? The way the system is set up is archaic and needs to be changed from the top down.

Can you say more specifically what changes are needed in the system?
Start-up grants at universities are practically non-existent and the mobility of researchers between universities is dismal. Almost nowhere else in the world, not even in conservative Germany, is it possible for a student to start working as an assistant professor at the same university where they studied. Here, it is unfortunately entirely normal and, with a few exceptions, it completely dampens all creativity. When you come to the Czech Republic from abroad with the title Assoc. Prof., which is the equivalent of the Czech position of “docent”, the Czech university cannot legally hire you as a “docent”. They can only offer you an assistant position. This makes it really hard to attract anyone to Czechia because usually, it’s the other way around. As I have already said, the Czech system was set up in the wrong way from the top down.

That must be really demotivating for researchers. What’s the most exciting part of your job? What makes you really happy?
My PhD students from Singapore make me happy. More than twenty of them graduated under my supervision and it’s wonderful to see how their careers develop. Two of my former students are full professors in Spain and in China and three of my former postdocs hold various professorial positions in Singapore. That makes me proud. I know I helped them change their lives.
But to return to your question – when I was leaving Singapore for good, I received letters from students in my group, all similar to the one I’m going to quote by my student Naziah. She wrote: “Dr. Martin, you were a positive force that changed my life for the better.” It’s what you’re hoping for as a professor, but this really brought tears to my eyes. And when they actually found out what time my flight was when I was leaving for Czechia and all – every single one of them – came to the airport to say goodbye. I said to myself: “I must have done something right.”

And were you ever angry with yourself for something that you should have done differently?
As they say, “Regrets, I have had a few, but too few to mention....” (Quotation from Frank Sinatra song My Way. – editors´note). Among the loads of interesting science that we did, there were a few things where we could and should have been the first. We had everything we needed, but we were too slow. But those are trifles. Overall, there’s nothing I would change.

What do you think a scientist needs to succeed – and do you have it?
If you want to be successful, you need the drive. You also need to be able to distinguish the important problems and issues from the not so important ones. You have to stay informed and be able to recognise what the current research problems are – not the ones that were important twenty or five years ago. I always ask myself and my employees: let’s imagine that this particular research project is going to work out perfectly and we’ll achieve what we set out to do. Who is going to be interested? What impact will it have on science? If it won’t really have that much of an impact and it will only be a minor contribution to what we already know, there’s no point in even starting for me. If the result will change the direction of an area of science, we go full steam ahead and give it two hundred percent. Then you’re working sixteen-hour days and you’re enjoying it.

Does your wife support you in what you do?
They say that you should look for a strong woman behind every successful man. Yes. Without my wife’s support and her willingness to go and live abroad with me, I wouldn’t be where I am today.

How were you able to combine your marriage and bringing up your children with your job?
I always told my students and postdocs: family first. But for the past ten years, I didn’t follow that rule myself. After 8 p.m., we put the children to bed, I washed the dishes, which is a great way to relax, and then it was back to the computer, sometimes until two in the morning. Even just balancing your working life is a problem in itself. A research group is like a start-up. First, it takes a heck of a lot of effort to get the steamroller moving, and once it does, you’re running downhill in front of it hoping it won’t catch up and run over you.

Does your wife work in the same field?
No, she doesn’t, fortunately for both of us. My wife used to be a journalist, she wrote two books on anthropology and now she works as a child therapist.

And are you trying to instil your Czech roots in your children?
Even though they have Czech passports, they lived mostly in Asia from when they were two months old, so you’ll win them over with sushi or rice rather than schnitzel and potatoes. But we moved back to the Czech Republic for those Czech roots, we always only spoke Czech with them and we read them Czechs books for bedtime stories, which expanded their vocabulary as well as ours.

The author is a journalist, working for the Czech newspaper Hospodářské noviny.