Dr. Diego Franco

New section about Spanish scientists that returned to Spain to continue their scientific career. Noelia Muñoz interviews Professor Dr. Diego Franco , who shares his experience as a post-doc in Amsterdam and the process of returning to Spain.

He spent more than 6 years in the capital of The Netherlands, while working at the Academic Medical Center (AMC) as Post-Doc. In 2000, he returned to Spain as Assistant Professor at the University of Jaén. Currently, he works as Associate Professor and is the director of the department of Experimental Biology and coordinator of the PhD program at this same university. In addition, he has conducted important research to understand the cellular and molecular basis of embryonic heart development and the establishment of cardiac rhythm.

Why did you decide to come to Amsterdam as a Post-doc?

When I finished my doctoral thesis at the Department of Animal Biology of the University of Málaga, I knew that I wanted to move abroad to continue my scientific career and there were two possibilities. One was to do a post-doc in London following my previous trajectory in cardiac anatomy and morphology, mainly focused on continuing to advance in human anatomy and pathology or changing course towards molecular embryology in Amsterdam. I chose the latter option, as I thought it was more innovative and I was lucky enough to be awarded with an FPI fellowship abroad from the Ministry of Education and Science. That is how I came to Amsterdam.

How do you remember your experience here?

On a professional level, the experience was extraordinary, especially considering that I came from a small, peripheral and very young university. When I finished my thesis, the University of Malaga was only 22 years old and I was now at a university that was more than 300 years old and that was somehow perceptible and felt. For example, when we had scientific brain-storming meetings in the Tulpkamer, with its old paintings about anatomy lessons. In addition, I joined a large department, comparatively speaking, with excellent technical and human resources. The first years of post-doc were relatively hard, because of cultural and particularly social differences, but with time I understood that the Dutch were not rare, they were just different, so I had to get used to it. I was considered a bit antisocial for not getting up early and arriving at the lab at 8:30 to have an American coffee and talk about the weather (as if the weather changes a lot in Amsterdam, cold, wind and/or rain, or everything together). On a scientific level I learned a lot and quickly fitted into the system. I loved enjoying and learning about the pragmatic vision of things, the stubbornness in the technical and experimental approaches, always looking for the best, the excellence and being in general quite cooperative. I also have to say that this was in marked contrast to our formulations in Spain, where everything was much more complicated, with far fewer resources, and often had to be pulled off. The last few years of post-doc were great, as I was already fully acclimatized, in all senses, both culturally and socially, as well as on the research level. I even managed to “Spanishize” the meals at noon, since I managed to get a substantial number of my foreign colleagues and some Dutch people to have a lunch break outside the lab every day, something unthinkable in the first years when I arrived. 

On a personal level, not everything was rosy, but I survived. The first year was spent alone, with continuous trips back to Spain. I missed my family and more people. In the second year I managed to get my “friend” to come with me to Amsterdam and start the thesis in our Department, but not everything lasts forever and that was over after a few years. The real problem was not the break-up, but that I had not made a group of friends in the Netherlands. The Dutch are peculiar about this because they keep a lot of this social distance. After almost seven years in Amsterdam, I could only say that I had one true Dutch friend. But everything can be solved, with time and good foreign partners everything was solved and the last years in Amsterdam were great. So great that I still miss it today.

When you arrived, were you considering returning to Spain? What factors determined your comeback?

When I arrived in Amsterdam, my fellowship was for two years and of course I had the idea of returning to Spain. The problem is that the possibility of returning was not realistic. There were no state or regional plans to return and the national and international situation did not give much hope that things could change. Thus, my option was to look for new post-doc opportunities. The third year I had an EMBO short-term fellowship to go to Margaret Buckingham’s laboratory at the Pasteur Institute in Paris and that provided me with new horizons. Through this collaboration we applied for several projects from Dutch foundations (NWO, NHS) and I was given two projects that kept me in Amsterdam for another three years and a travel grant that allowed me to attend many international congresses and create a wide network of collaborators. In fact, one of those years, I spent more time outside Amsterdam than inside (between holidays, congresses and visits to different laboratories in Europe and the USA) and that was great. After almost seven years in Amsterdam, the way back was relatively difficult, as I had disconnected from Spanish social life, but of course, the other reality was that I had not connected with Dutch social life either, but with the French, Korean, Italian and Portuguese who lived in Amsterdam. This created a sense of continuous temporariness. The job opportunities in Amsterdam were getting weaker, so I broadened my horizons with some real possibilities to continue as a post-doc or tenure track professor in New York and/or Sydney, but that sounded too far away for me. The main reasons to come back were, on one hand, the opportunity to go back to a young university, where everything was about to be done and whatever was done for good or bad would be mostly my fault (or not) and, on the other hand, the family. I’m not a very deep-rooted person, neither to the land nor to the family, but at that time my father was chronically ill, I knew that he wouldn’t have many years left to live and I wanted to be close to him during those last years. I was also sure of one thing, if science did not succeed in launching and progressing as I wanted it to in Jaén, I would always be ready to jump again to new destinations.

Was it hard to come back? What steps did you follow?

The return in the first years was not complicated at all. I was very excited about doing science in Spain, bringing back everything I had learned abroad and continuing to build and maintain the international contacts I had. Together with Amelia Aranega, we got a coordinated project of the Spanish national plan. In addition, I got along very well with the younger members of our department, in particular Antonio Caruz and Francisco Navarro, since both had also done post-doctoral stays abroad, specifically in Paris, and this meant that by joining forces and synergies we were able to introduce changes in the way of working in the Department, for example, making sure that all the teams were shared and not duplicated or tripled. In addition, I also managed to get an international project with the collaboration of my French contacts and that was essential to start my journey outside the influence of Amsterdam. Although the first years were difficult due to the lack of infrastructure, this was compensated by international support and the enthusiasm, talent and work of students who were committed to producing high quality science. The contacts of Amsterdam and Paris helped us to become part of a European project that managed to consolidate us as a European laboratory in cardiovascular development. I believe that one of my successes was to break the umbilical cord with the laboratory in Amsterdam basically from the first moment. Although the lines of research that we developed in Jaén had a certain basis in what I had previously researched in Amsterdam, they were not lines which were going to be followed there and were therefore purely Jaén-based.

Do you think that your stay in the Netherlands helped you to get a higher position in Spain? Why?

Yes, clearly it did. The research experience I gained after being a post-doc in Amsterdam at the AMC allowed me to have a pretty good CV when I returned, which allowed me to quickly obtain regional, national and international funding as a principal researcher in the following years after my incorporation to the University of Jaén. In addition, my international contacts, made when I was a post-doc at the AMC, allowed me to maintain collaborations with different foreign laboratories, which undoubtedly were of great help to continue research at the desired pace and level. At an academic level, I also think it helped, moving from a visiting professor to an assistant professor after the first year, and then being associate professor three years later and obtaining the qualification as a titular university professor in 2008, basically, eight years after returning to Spain. So, it helped, both scientifically and academically, because of the publications and contacts established during the post-doc.

What do you miss about living and working in the Netherlands? On the contrary, what do you value most about being back in Spain?

I don’t miss much of Dutch life, because the weather is not very nice and social life is also too distant, too squared and they lack a word in their vocabulary, which is improvisation, so not much. At work I do miss some things a lot, for example, their pragmatic nature when it comes to scheduling and doing things (seminars, meetings, brainstorming sessions, etc…). It is enviable that there is always an exquisite programming of things and that everything or almost everything works on time. Also, to be envied is its negotiating nature, with no winners or losers, but simply seeking the best for everyone and of course quality and excellence in research. What I value most about being back in Spain is the human warmth, the complicity in doing many small things and enjoying everything around us. We are a very welcoming society and that is why the arrival in Jaén, even though it was not my hometown, was extraordinary.

What would you advise to the Spanish scientists who are working in the Netherlands now?

Well, I would say that the most important thing that can be done in the Netherlands is to make the most of the scientific-technical benefits that they have and get the most out of them, by learning and publishing as much as possible and at the best level. Furthermore, as the weather is not suitable for going to the countryside, everything is flat and similar, you can take advantage of almost every weekend to be in the laboratory, and there will be time to rest on those weekends when you are back in Spain. However, there is always time for a few beers and some Indonesian food, which is basically “typical” Dutch food. I also think that we should learn their negotiating spirit, without bitterness, to make everyone and everything works better, so that when you are back in Spain, you can use it to improve our country a little bit.


TRANSLATION: Noelia Muñoz Martín

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