The Partnership Institute of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), which will focus on developing gene editing technologies, will soon start operating at the Life Sciences Centre of Vilnius University (VU LSC). This unique institute was established through the implementation of a partnership agreement. It will adopt the best practices of a research organisation, which have been applied for many years at the world’s largest laboratory of molecular biology. The selection of the principal researchers was carried out through an open international competition following the same procedures and standards as the EMBL.
Unique opportunity for Lithuania
In September last year the EMBL Director, General Prof. Edith Heard, signed an agreement with VU on the establishment of a Partnership Institute for the Development of Gene Editing Technologies at VU LSC. According to Prof. Gintaras Valinčius, Director of VU LSC, from that moment. active efforts were made to attract top-level staff to the newly established institute.
“The establishment of the EMBL Partnership Institute in Lithuania shows that the research carried out in our country is receiving international recognition, where VU LSC is regarded as a reliable international partner. The joint agreement between VU and EMBL for the establishment of the Institute includes the provision that the new institute, which has no comparison in Lithuania, will employ international research groups to develop and strengthen gene editing technology. One of the creators of this technology is the famous Lithuanian scientist and a distinguished professor at VU LSC, Virginijus Šikšnys,” G. Valinčius said while discussing the implementation of the agreement.
The EMBL is the world’s largest intergovernmental organisation responsible for conducting research in the field of life sciences. When Lithuania became a full member in 2019, as the signing procedure was taking place, the EMBL Director of International Relations and a member of the VU LSC International Advisory Board, Silke Schumacher, proposed the idea of signing a partnership agreement between the EMBL and VU LSC, which would significantly expand research in the field of genome editing and the development of new technologies in Vilnius.
The Ministry of Education, Science and Sport has allocated €6 million from an EU investment to implement the partnership project. Such a significant investment is not only a testament to our government’s belief in the importance of science, but is also a great responsibility. Therefore, according to the Head of VU LSC, the selection of the principal researchers for the newly established Partnership Institute was be carried out in accordance with the standards applied in international best practice. This process has become an extraordinary challenge and has received a lot of attention.
Prestigious publication to the rescue
“From the very beginning of the talent selection, we sought to provide opportunities to all who wished to apply for the position of the VU LSC and EMBL Partnership Institute group leaders, regardless of the candidate’s nationality, gender, race, age and other non-academic criteria. The main selection criteria were academic excellence and ideas that the applicant could successfully implement in Vilnius. A high-ranking international scientific journal became our platform to let the world know about this selection,” Prof. G. Valinčius said.
According to the Head of VU LSC, in consultation with the representatives of EMBL and after studying the main search practices applied to researchers, the advertising services of Nature magazine were chosen for this purpose. Nature is one of the most important scientific publications, read almost everywhere the world. The extensive publicity resulting from this ad really paid off. “We received 27 applications from 13 countries. Most of the applicants were from Western countries including the USA, Italy, Canada, Switzerland and the United Kingdom, while some were also from Asia. Lithuanian researchers working in our country and abroad also took part in the selection competition,” said the Head of VU LSCt.
A 5-member committee was formed for the selection of the candidates. The committee included Director General of the EMBL Prof. E. Heard, Director of the EMBL Scandinavian Partnership Institute Prof. Poul Niesen, VU Researcher Prof. V. Šikšnys (Chairman), Prof. Saulius Klimašauskas and the VU LSC Director Prof. G. Valinčius. All the candidates were subject to the same qualification requirements: they had to have a level of education with an appropriate degree, to have published research on a relevant topic and they needed to submit a research plan. The personal characteristics, motivation and other qualities of the candidates were also taken into account.
“The successful selection was extremely gratifying and shows the type of high-level international institute we are building,” said the Head of VU LSC. The Minister of Education, Science and Sports, Jurgita Šiugždinienė, agreed. “The successful selection of the candidates for the first world-class science laboratory in our country, which belongs to the network of frontier research centres that are established in Europe, shows that Lithuania is increasingly being recognised as an innovative country strong in the field of life sciences, which is being chosen by world-class researchers as the site for pursuing their careers,” she noted.
Community invited to watch the candidate introductions
After the first stage, the selection committee selected 10 of the 27 candidates to move on to the next stage. “VU LSC, as an innovator of life sciences in Lithuania, lived up to its reputation: in the second stage, we invited the community to attend a public introduction to the candidates. To my knowledge, Lithuania has never done anything like that before. Each candidate presented their work during a mini-symposium. This format allowed the VU LSC community to get to know the people who wanted to work here, while opening up opportunities for the candidates themselves to shed light on their plans and reach a wider audience,” Prof. G. Valinčius explained.
The EMBL Director, E. Heard, agreed that the selection process was organised in a particularly competent manner and was conducted in accordance with Western standards. “As the head of the organisation, I was included on the selection committee, which demonstrates the full support of our partners. I was impressed by the extremely high level of candidates. I must also say that the selected group leaders will have full access to the EMBL research centres, not only in terms of the infrastructure but also in terms of international relations,” she said.
The Chairman of the Selection Committee, Prof. Virginijus Šikšnys was also pleasantly surprised by the level of candidates: “According to the EMBL Director, E. Heard would really be happy if some of the candidates decided to join her organisation in Heidelberg. The fact that these young people are deciding to choose VU LSC as a step in their further scientific career shows that Lithuania is conducting internationally competitive research, and that Lithuania is on the map for global life sciences. We hope that this will give impetus to the further development of the life sciences research and industry in Lithuania.”
As the introductions to the community became a mandatory part of the selection process, a mini-symposium was held for three days. During that time, all 10 of the second-stage candidates had an opportunity to introduce themselves and answer questions from members of the VU LSC community.
“This stage was followed by individual interviews with the candidates by members of the committee. We are pleased to have selected six researchers who we are expecting to join the newly established VU LSC and EMBL Partnership Institute in the near future,” said the Head of VU LSC.
He is certain that the best practices employed in this international selection can also be applied in internal VU LSC competitions. For example, researchers who want to become group leaders could be asked to publicly present their vision to the whole community. “We always strive to be one step ahead and to introduce new, innovative methods in our activities. We will make continuous efforts to maintain this tradition,” said G. Valinčius, discussing the future plans of VU LSC.