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The Warsaw Voice » Other » October 28, 2009
Young Talent
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Secondments for Scientists
October 28, 2009   
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Eleven young Polish scientists will be able to work in research centers in the United States, Britain and Germany as part of the latest round of the Foundation for Polish Science's Kolumb (Columbus) scholarship program.

Columbus scholarships are available to young Polish scientists who hold Ph.D. degrees and have not had a secondment abroad for more than six months since they obtained their degree, says Elżbieta Marczuk from the Foundation for Polish Science.

Under the program, six- to 12-month secondments are available for young scientists at leading research centers around the world. Candidates are rated according to their accomplishments in science and the work they plan to carry out at the foreign research center of their choice. The status of the chosen research center plays an important part in the evaluation as well.

This year, a total of 113 candidates applied for Columbus scholarships. Once the applications had been evaluated, 28 people were invited to interviews in the second stage of the competition. The 11 winners were selected by the managers of the Foundation for Polish Science.

The Columbus scholarships are worth between 3,000 and 6,000 euros per month, depending on where the secondment is to be served. The foundation pays the scholarship holder's travel costs as well as those of their spouse if the couple are planning to stay together for more than half of the secondment period. Insurance for the entire stay abroad is paid for as well. After returning to Poland, the scientists can apply for a grant for holders of the foundation's foreign scholarships and funds as part of the Homing program, which encourages Polish researchers working abroad to return to Poland. Those taking part in the Homing program receive funds to continue international collaboration while doing research in their home country.

Most of the latest batch of Columbus winners are chemists, medics and physicists, and there is also an archeologist and a linguist among them. The young Ph.D. degree holders from across Poland will embark on research journeys they have been dreaming about, getting to know internationally famous experts in their fields and putting themselves to the test as members of reputed research teams.

Designing drugs for schizophrenia
Agnieszka Kaczor, a young Ph.D. from the Medical University in Lublin, is gearing up to go to Spain to help patients suffering from schizophrenia.

The disease affects around 1 percent of the population and is usually a lifelong condition, says Kaczor. In most cases, the health of patients deteriorates as years go by and full recovery is only recorded in 25 percent of the cases, and it is believed that such patients would recover with or without taking antipsychotics. Another 25 percent of patients are able to live independent lives, have regular jobs and even families as long as they receive appropriate therapy. The remaining 50 percent spend their lives in nursing homes, daycare centers, mental hospitals, prisons or end up homeless, Kaczor says. Scientists have been trying to fight diseases with complex etiology by identifying and attacking several molecular targets at a time. Kaczor will seek such new targets in schizophrenia therapy at the Computer-Aided Drug Design Laboratory of the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona and the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park. In a group led by Prof. Manuel Pastor, she will analyze ways to treat schizophrenia through protein receptors that could become the target for more efficient antipsychotics. Kaczor will try developing such medication.

"To use the familiar analogy in which the receptor is a lock and the drug is a key, you could say that contemporary specialists in medical chemistry are trying to simultaneously open several doors leading to health by using copies of one key," says Kaczor. "The trick is to design the key."

The new thing about Kaczor's research is that she is looking for a substance that has a pharmacological effect on several kinds of receptors at a time-unlike older drugs that only work on one type. According to Kaczor, this will help keep the disease at bay and produce pharmaceuticals with fewer side effects.

Atypical drugs such as clozapine are efficient in the treatment of drug resistant schizophrenia, Kaczor says. Drugs like these are becoming increasingly popular in medical chemistry.

Kaczor's work will involve computer-aided drug design techniques which, according to estimates, can cut the costs of introducing a pharmaceutical to the market by up to 50 percent. The results that Kaczor obtains will be checked in experiments by research groups at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

Regional genes
The other 10 Columbus scholarship holders will do equally intriguing research.

Krzysztof Rębała, a Ph.D., from the Forensics Faculty of the Medical University of Gdańsk, is going to Barcelona to join what he says is the world's largest genetics and anthropology research project. During his secondment at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology/Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, Rębała will study the genes of indigenous ethnic groups inhabiting the Kashubia, Kociewie and Kurpie regions in northern Poland. This huge project aims to explore the genetic diversity of indigenous human populations around the world, an attempt to trace and reconstruct the genetic history of humankind. The researchers will try to find out the timeline and the routes of prehistoric migrations and determine how and when people arrived and settled in individual continents. The largest project of this kind in the world, it involves the world's best science and research centers which deal with genetic anthropology, Rębała says.

Rębała's research will kick off a project as part of which DNA samples will be gathered from anonymous donors, members of indigenous ethnic groups inhabiting different regions of Poland. In the future, the database may become a valuable complement of ethnographical, historical, genetic and epidemiological research, Rębała says.

Going west
This year's Columbus winners also include Wiesław Laskowski, Ph.D., from the Gdańsk University Institute of Theoretical Physics and Astrophysics, who will go on a six-month secondment at the Faculty of Physics of the Ludwig-Maximilians-University of Munich. Laskowski will conduct research in optics and quantum information. In Germany, he wants to concentrate on "non-classic properties of quantum states of light and ways to use the properties for safer and more efficient communication."

Łukasz Dobrzycki, a Ph.D. from the University of Warsaw's Faculty of Chemistry, will spend 12 months at the Department of Chemistry, University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany.

Another chemist, Bartosz Lewandowski, Ph.D., from the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Polish Academy of Sciences, will spend a year in Britain at the University of Edinburgh's School of Chemistry.

Answering questions at Harvard
A young scientist from Białystok, Karol Kamiński, Ph.D., will go to Harvard University, where he plans to seek answers to questions that baffle many people around the world.

What is the key to a slim figure? Does the amount of sleep and physical activity and the duration of meals influence human metabolism? Do people regulate their circadian rhythm themselves or is it all in the genes?

Kamiński, who hails from the Faculty of Cardiology of the Medical University in Białystok, will probe all these questions during his stay in the United States. Recent research shows that genes that regulate the circadian rhythm, including physical activity, sleep, meal times and the amount of food people consume, also have a considerable influence on the metabolism of the fat tissue, muscles and adjustments of the amount of energy obtained from fat burning, Kamiński says. A reverse correlation has been established as well and it turns out that genes in charge of metabolism influence the daily cycles of physical activity and sleep.

The project which Kamiński will conduct at the Harvard Medical School aims to analyze the interdependence of circadian rhythm regulation and metabolic disorders such as obesity. Kamiński will try to determine which organs play the central role in the interaction between energy metabolism and the circadian rhythm.

Date with the Danes
Łukasz Albrecht, a young chemist from the Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Technical University of Łódź, will spend a year in Denmark joining the research team of Prof. Karl Anker Jørgensen at the Center for Catalysis, Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University. Albrecht will study the use of chiral organic catalysts in the synthesis of biologically significant compounds with a strictly defined spatial structure.

Albrecht's research work is well known at home and abroad. His scientific achievements won him a scholarship from the Ministry of Education and Science, and in 2002 he spent several months at the University of Ghent, Belgium, on a Socrates-Erasmus scholarship.

Stateside
Two more scientific minds from Poland will visit universities in the United States. Adam Bzdak, Ph.D., from the Henryk Niewodniczański Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Polish Academy of Sciences is getting ready for a 12-month secondment at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, while Piotr Przytycki, Ph.D., from the Institute of Mathematics of the Polish Academy of Sciences, will spend 10 months at the Department of Mathematics, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Piotr Bartosz
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