Game changer?

Ghent Travel Blog

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Before I left I told people that I had an open mind, but Belgium would have to do something seriously impressive to get over the line. In Montreal I like the people, the institute, the resources, the city and the lifestyle. Lydia and I had decided beforehand to sign up with Montreal if the offer had met my minimum criteria – it is only because it didn't (surprisingly to me, since I set bare minimum realistic standards) that we kept up the process with other institutions. Individual people in Montreal – Sylvie, Claude and Pierre – have been an enormous help to me, dedicating a lot of their time to helping me. But I have never really felt that the IRIC itself really put itself behind the offer.

The attitude of IRIC appears to be to invest in the institute (building, equipment, platforms) so that good people can do great research. It is a good attitude, certainly better than the vast majority of scientific institutes which just provide space (and charge heavily for it) and will (I think) fall behind as science becomes more technologically advanced and expensive and needs to rely on central services rather than what individual labs can sponsor and specialise in. Still, my research is technologically basic, beyond mouse models, so the benefit to me initially would be rather limited. I prefer instead the approach of VIB. Yes, they invest in shared high technology platforms that allows small labs to compete with the monsters of the scientific world. But rather than pouring all their money into making these platforms cheap they focus on simply making them available and giving the money to researchers to use as they see fit. This is an enormous advantage to me, because it gives me the intellectual freedom to decide for myself whether to spend it all on complex experiments or to spend it on people to do simple experiments on complex mice. Both the VIB and the Universities have also gone out of their way to smooth over issues with me and to make their best offer first (which is just as well, because I'd rather turn down an offer than negotiate).

Actually the only complaint that I have with the VIB in the process is that they have been too focussed on me, ignoring me when I said that options for Lydia really are the most essential aspect of the recruitment. Either consciously or unconsciously they have treated her as a "non-working spouse", as if this move is for my career and she just needs to find something to occupy her time. They moved fast enough to up my pay offer for the time she'll be unemployed, but never really took our enquiries about her career options seriously – ignoring her list of people she would like to talk to, not talking to people to research her options, and just providing a career advisor who simply told her there was "zero percent chance she could work in the public health sector".

At that point we were just going to walk away. Yes, I liked Belgium and the offer, but I think I can succeed in Montreal or London equally well, and if Lydia can't get a job that will be rewarding in Belgium we wouldn't consider it. This is going to be a dual career move, not a sacrifice by one of us for the other. I really only went to the last day in Leuvan out of politeness, so while I really enjoyed my chats there I was blown away when the vice-rector mentioned that Leuvan was the centre of more than 600 Europe-wide non-profit new clinical research trials every year and that they were looking for analysts. This is the type of thing which is tough to know if you are outside the country and outside the field, but it is staggering to think that Belgians in biomedicine didn't think to mention it to us, since it is exactly what Lydia wanted. I had sent them her CV and job requirements, so it would have been easy to set her up with an interview during her visit.

Oh well. All's well that ends well, and we now know that Belgium has great opportunities for Lydia. I also think that the VIB undersold itself to me on my first recruitment interview. The start-up offer was impressive, but they didn't show me the brand new buildings with state-of-the-art facilities, the cost-recovery high-tech platforms and the quality of scientific researchers available as colleagues. Perhaps for Belgians returning it was obvious, but for an Australian who had never contemplated a tiny country on the exact opposite side of the globe often mocked by its own neighbours, I had no idea of just how high-powered science in Belgium was. Molecular immunology in Ghent, nanobodies and parasitology in Brussels, autoimmunity and diabetes in Leuvan, there would be quality colleagues where-ever I went. Brussels may be the ideal living place for us, but the mouse house there would be limiting (and would cost half my start-up to improve). Ghent has a great centralised facility, but Leuvan has a great interaction between basic and clinical research.

The past week has been exhausting, interview after interview for five days straight, late nights and scarce meals, but it may very well have been a game changer.

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photo by: lasersurge