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Dr Matteo Bergami’s career sounds a bit like a dream: at the age of just 32, the Italian neurophysiologist was given the chance to set up his own research group in Germany and to pursue projects autonomously. In 2013, Matteo accepted an attractive offerfrom the Cellular Stress Responses in Aging-Associated Diseases (CECAD) cluster of excellence, an interdisciplinary research network that was established in 2007 by the University of Cologne, the University Hospital Cologne, the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Aging and the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research. "I work as a junior research group leader. We study the cellular and molecular processes that are the basis for the regeneration and repair of neurons in the brain. Our work thus also focuses on the changes that take place during the ageing process and as a result of neurodegenerative diseases", explains Matteo.
How is ageing related to brain damage?
The cluster has a clear vision: the researchers want to understand the basic molecular principles of the ageing process. Their goal has high social relevance: as we age, the risk of malfunctions in cells increases. In many cases, these malfunctions result in brain diseases, including for example depression and dementia. "My group studies mechanisms in the brain that are associated with the ageing process. We are interested above all in the processes responsible for the formation of neurons, and in the way in which neurons are integrated into existing tissue. We are also keen to discover how damaged brain cells can be repaired", explains Matteo, who is now 36.
Considerable research freedom
He regards the conditions for research at the CECAD Cologne as highly favourable. "As junior research group leader, I enjoy considerable freedom and autonomy in my research, and can establish my own academic identity." He goes on to explain that his laboratory boasts state-of-the-art equipment, and that his colleagues have a very international and interdisciplinary orientation – which in his view is the ideal basis for productive collaboration. The young researcher particularly appreciates the funding situation at the cluster. "My group is being funded for an initial period of five years by the excellence initiative of the German Research Foundation, with the option to extend. That makes for a very comfortable situation."
From Italy to Germany
The research conditions for Matteo sound pretty ideal. So how did the neurophysiologist land the job he is doing today? He first took a degree in biotechnology at the university in his home town of Bologna, and then graduated from there with a PhD. During this time, he embarked on a shorter-term research placement at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU). "I was only planning to spend half a year there, but then I found that I was enjoying the research work in Munich so much that I stayed for two years." After completing his PhD, he began working at a research institute in Genoa. He remained in regular contact with his former colleagues in Munich, and in 2011 was offered a postdoc position at the LMU. "At that time I had the unique opportunity to research independently and develop new approaches for my future research work. I believe this was important in making it possible for me to join CECAD in Cologne in 2013, as great importance is attached there to autonomous research."
Interesting options for young researchers
Young researchers can also find good conditions for studying life sciences at many German universities. In studies like the CHE Ranking, the following universities for example score particularly well:
- Jacobs University Bremen
- Technische Universität Braunschweig
- Technische Universität Dresden
- Universität Hohenheim
- Universität zu Lübeck
The conditions for young researchers in the field of neuroscience are also excellent at non-university research institutions in Germany, for example:
- Bernstein Network Computational Neuroscience (only in German)
- Fraunhofer Institute for Molecular Biology and Applied Ecology
- German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases
- Leibniz Institute for Neurobiology
- Mannheim Central Institute of Mental Health
- Max Planck Institute for Brain Research
- Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences
- Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology
- Max Planck Institute for Neurological Research
- Tübingen Hertie Institute for Clinical Brain Research (only in German)
Institutions offering special PhD programmes provide young researchers with optimal support and supervision. The following is a selection of graduate schools and other institutions in the field of neuroscience:
- Adaptive Minds: Neural and Environmental Constraints on Learning and Memory
- Berlin School of Mind and Brain
- Göttingen Graduate School for Neurosciences, Biophysics, and Molecular
- Graduate Training Centre of Neuroscience
- IMPRS for Neural Circuits
- IMPRS NeuroCom
- Neural Circuit Analysis on the Cellular and Subcellular Level
- The Brain in Action
- The Neuroscience of Modulating Aggression and Impulsivity in Psychopathology
Living and working in Germany is easy even without speaking the language
Matteo also enjoys a sense of freedom in his leisure time. When not in the lab, he and his wife – who is also from Italy and a researcher – travel a lot around Germany and Europe. "Germany is in the heart of Europe, and is ideally located for short trips", says the researcher. He is happy that he does not necessarily have to speak perfect German in his job or his free time. "I get by really well in English everywhere here. I would like to speak better German, but so far I simply haven’t had the time." Perhaps he will take a German course soon – after all, he can well imagine living and working in Germany in future.