A celebration of Spain’s exemplary lab leaders

Meet the winners of Nature’s 2017 mentoring awards.

by Alison Abbott

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In the 1980s, Alicante was known only as a beach resort in southern Spain. Carlos Belmonte made it into a place where researchers could carry out international-level work in neuroscience. And in the 1970s, Margarita Salas created a school of molecular biology in Spain at a time when that science did not exist in the country’s minimal and internationally isolated research environment.

But these were not the main reasons that these two eminent researchers were jointly selected for the 2017 lifetime achievement award of the annual Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science. Belmonte, the founding director of the Institute of Neuroscience in Alicante, and Salas, a former director of the Spanish National Research Council’s Severo Ochoa Centre for Molecular Biology (CBMSO) in Madrid, were recognized by a panel of judges for their exemplary personal mentoring.

Throughout their careers, judges said, both recipients have given appropriate and  individual attention to the scientific development of the PhD students and postdocs under their supervision. In many cases, this support continued even after the trainees’ own careers were well under way.

For similar reasons, judges also co-awarded the Nature mid-career achievement mentoring prize to molecular biologist Carlos López-Otín at the University of Oviedo and physicist Lluís Torner, founding director of the Institute for Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona. Nominators spoke of the ability of these scientists to instil confidence in self-doubting trainees, and of their motivational skills.

Keeping the flame

Judges said that all four winners have helped to develop a stronger science base in a country that remained at a scientific standstill during the 36-year military dictatorship of Francisco Franco, who ruled from 1939 until his death in 1975.

“It is very important to Spain to recognize the value of mentoring. As an evolving scientific society, we need to enhance mentoring as a relationship of support and trust between senior and junior scientists,” says ecologist Josep Peñuelas at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, who chaired the panel of judges. Although Spanish science is excellent in some fields, he adds, it remains poorly funded, yet excellent mentoring “helps to keep the flame”.

The Nature mentoring awards were founded in 2005 to draw attention to the importance of mentorship, a crucial component of a junior scientist’s career development that often goes overlooked and unrewarded. The awards are given in a different country each year. Each contender has to be nominated by five of their former trainees, from different stages of the mentor’s professional life; these five must describe the support they received while launching their own scientific careers. This year, awards were bestowed in Spain, and the two pairs of joint winners each share a €10,000 (US$12,000) purse. Winners received the awards on 4 December, in Madrid.

Each of the four winners, judges pointed out, developed new institutes or schools in which subsequent generations of scientists have matured under their supervision.

All four award winners fostered a sense of ‘family’ within their laboratories, mentees noted. Salas’s trainees, for example, are known colloquially as ‘the Margaritos’, and Torner’s as the ‘Infonians’. Many of the winners’ nominators have taken up top positions in labs in Spain and elsewhere. Yet they have continued to benefit from their mentors’ advice and guidance, they say, long after leaving the labs where they were once trainees.

Mentees emphasized how their mentors always made themselves available to listen, advise and give practical support — offering encouragement when assays failed to work, when things went wrong in the lab or in their personal lives, and when they felt like giving up. Nature’s recent global survey of PhD students (see go.nature.com/2j0fu9e) demonstrates the crucial importance of mentorship to early-career researchers. Effective mentoring — including guidance from and recognition by an adviser — contributes more to respondents’ overall satisfaction with their PhD programme than does any other factor, the survey of 5,700 students found.

A new and better way

Belmonte’s nominators appreciated his creation of a strong scientific direction for the region of Alicante. “Academic life in the last years of Franco’s regime was extremely poor and dull, if not dead,” wrote one of Belmonte’s mentees. “Carlos arrived as a breath of fresh air into an impoverished atmosphere.”

Many also remarked on his personalized mentoring style. “He provided guidance, insight and criticism and at the same time allowed the development of my personal interests and space,” wrote one former trainee.

Salas, whose career also spanned Spain’s transition from dictatorship to hopeful democracy, worked to maintain the CBMSO as a thriving hub of science. “She ultimately constituted a school that cemented the field of molecular biology in the whole country,” said one of her mentees.

One of the people who nominated Salas said that, as a junior researcher in the molecular biologist’s lab, she had failed to get reproducible assays and had questioned her ability to be a scientist. “Margarita looked me in the eyes and said, ‘I trust you: you have good hands and these experiments will work.’ I calmed and tried again,” the mentee wrote. “Not long after that conversation, my first paper came out.”

Like Belmonte, López-Otín ended up not in one of Spain’s major scientific centres, but in a provincial town in Asturias, where he created an important centre for cancer and the biology of ageing. “Carlos has been a constant catalyst of scientific activities in Asturias, a region marked by decades of economic and social distress,” wrote one of his mentees.

Paths to independence

López-Otín’s mentees praised his ability to draw out and encourage even the shyest lab member. “Carlos gave me the strength to pursue an independent career as a principal investigator,” one wrote. “He made me feel that my career was a priority for him, and it is thanks to him that my career has advanced further than I would ever have imagined.” Another noted how López-Otín had encouraged trainees to read widely and think big. “Carlos told me that ground-breaking work comes from broad scientific knowledge, while overspecialization is the path to small science.”

Nominators said that López-Otín insisted on celebrating every accepted paper or project in the lab and was widely generous with advice. One scientist who was not in his lab, but who had found himself in difficulties, turned to him anyway. He found LópezOtín clearly busy, with lab members coming in for advice and e-mails pouring into his inbox. “But he still spent hours talking with me,” said the nominator. “He helped me refocus my passion for science.”

Science in Barcelona was underdeveloped when Torner accepted an offer in 2002 to be ICFO’s founding director. Today, the city is a thriving centre of scientific excellence, thanks to ICFO and other institutes that the regional government established around the same time.

Torner’s mentees commented on how he persuaded them to join ICFO instead of choosing more high-profile scientific institutes abroad. “Luís’s unique leadership convinced us that something different was being created and we wanted to be a part of it,” one mentee wrote. “None of us have regretted that decision.” Another mentee had been a visiting undergraduate from abroad when he first met Torner. “At the time, it was fair to say that Barcelona was not the best place in the world to do science,” the former trainee wrote. “Then I met Lluís and talked to him for five minutes — long enough to change all my plans, and switch to his field.”

Maximum motivation

One of Torner’s nominators recalls his “five-point take-home message: work hard, don’t settle for easy goals, get the most out of ICFO, pursue your dreams and let me know how I can help you get there.”

Philip Campbell, Nature’s editor-in-chief, notes that the awards competition has now taken place in 13 countries or regions, including the western United States, the Nordic countries, South Africa, Japan and China. “These are very varied cultures — and yet the key characteristics of outstanding mentors are remarkably similar. Spain’s great examples are no exception,” says Campbell, who established the awards. “They are extraordinary in their ability to nurture emerging scientists of great diversity.”

The Patterns of climate change

Biologists analyze data of long-term experiment to monitor and predict how plant species will respond to climate change

Plant Ecology researchers at the University of Tübingen have developed a technique to monitor and predict how plant species will respond to climate change. Dr. Mark Bilton and Professor Katja Tielbörger, from the Institute of Evolution and Ecology, re-analysed data with Spanish collaborators from their unprecedented 16-year experiment. The experiment was conducted in an area the size of two football pitches within the Garraf National park south west of Barcelona. The landscape is mostly a Mediterranean scrubland, featuring thickets of low rise shrubs and herbs such as rosemary and thyme, and home to many protected species.

Using large automatic shelters, climate for the plants living in their natural environment was changed in order to match climate conditions predicted in the future, separately by decreasing rainfall and by raising temperatures. However, until now, it was unclear how the different species of plants were responding to changed climate, making it difficult to make further predictions about which species may be most affected in the future. The results of the study were published in the New Phytologist.

In general, global warming and reduced precipitation may lead to large-scale species losses and vegetation shifts in ecosystems around the world. Depending on whether plants are better adapted to warm and dry conditions or to cool and wet conditions, the response to a changed climate is likely to vary even within a region. In the study the scientists showed, that within a region, the relative rate and direction of plant response to a changed climate can be directly related to where and which climates the species occur in more frequently.

Therefore the researchers used a large online database containing the localities of where the different species in the experiment occurred all throughout southern Europe. These observations were combined with rainfall and temperature maps. This way the average temperature or rainfall requirements of the different co-occurring species in Spain could be used to rank them, based on which climates they are more commonly found. This ranking technique helped the scientists unlock the secrets behind which species were changing in the experiment, and monitor their changes over time.

In this particular experiment, the overall species diversity and vegetative biomass did initially respond negatively, but from 8 to 16 years the overall amount of vegetation was increasing again. Here the researchers showed that the initial decrease was due to a disappearance of the wet adapted species, followed by a delayed increase in the dry loving species. In addition, the novel ranking technique showed, that the species that declined under decreased rainfall, were different to those disappearing under increased temperatures.

By finding that responses were mainly related directly to where the species originally occur more frequently, separately for either rainfall or temperature, predictions can be extended to other future scenarios of climate change. “The technique is logical, but also surprisingly revealing”, says Dr. Mark Bilton, who has been using the same method to study plant responses in Israel. “It allows us to compare the rate of change of species within a habitat, but also between habitats”. Combining the ranking technique with the leading experimental approach to understanding climate change responses, the response of vegetation in other regions can be monitored and compared. “Within a region this can aid conservation efforts to identify those species likely to be lost most quickly. We are also confident it can help identify, which species and regions around the world may be more vulnerable to climate change in the future.”


Climate Change_Ecology and Evolution  xxxx Climate Change_Ecology and Evolution2

Automatic shelters used to alter either precipitation or temperature in Garraf National Park near Barcelona. Images: Courtesy of Josep Peñuelas

Publication: Daijun Liu, Josep Penuelas, Roma Ogaya, Marc Estiarte, Katja Tielbörger, Fabian Slowik, Xiaohong Yang and Mark C. Bilton: Species selection under long-term experimental warming and drought explained by climatic distributions, New Phytologist , DOI: 10.1111/nph.14925, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/nph.14925/full

Contact: Daijun Liu, Prof. Josep Peñuelas, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, CREAF – Global Ecology Unit, Phone +34 667094190, d.liu@creaf.uab.es

Dr. Mark Bilton, Tübingen University, Institute of Evolution and Ecology, Phone +49 7071 29-73235, mark.bilton@uni-tuebingen.de


Nature commends four Spanish scientists for outstanding mentoring

Four Spanish scientists have been recognised by Nature, the leading, international weekly journal of science, for exemplary personal mentoring of other scientists. The Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science have been hosted since 2005 in various countries and regions to champion the importance of mentoring and inspiring a generation of young scientists. The 2017 awards have for the first time taken place in Spain.

Chair of the judges: Josep Penuelas, Center for Ecological Research and Forestry Applications (CREAF) – National Research Council (CSIC), Barcelona

Judging panel:
Alison Abbott, Nature, Munich, Germany
Emilia R. Solano, CIEMAT, Madrid, Spain
Juan Lerma, Instituto de Neurociencias de Alicante – UMH, Alicante, Spain
Mariano Barbacid, Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas, Madrid, Spain
Pilar Ruiz Lapuente, Institute of Cosmos Sciences, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain

At the ceremony held at the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences in Madrid, Sir Philip Campbell PhD, the Editor-in-Chief of Nature, presented the awards and congratulated the recipients on their laudable contributions.

The joint-recipients of the lifetime achievement award are:

  • Professor Carlos Belmonte, founding Director of the Institute of Neuroscience of Alicante
  • Professor Margarita Salas, former Director of the CSIC Centre for Molecular Biology Severo Ochoa in Madrid


The joint-recipients of the mid-career achievement award are:

  • Professor Carlos López-Otín, a molecular biologist from the University of Oviedo
  • Professor Lluís Torner, a physicist and founding Director of the ICFO (Institute of Photonic Sciences) in Barcelona.


Carmen Vela, the Spanish Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation commented on the importance of the awards: “Nature is an internationally renowned science journal in which researchers from around the world seek to publish their work, so it is very important for us to receive the ‘Nature Mentoring Awards’ here this year. Spain is a country full of talented scientists, and many of them have been guided by Margarita Salas, Carlos Belmonte, Carlos López-Otín and Lluis Torner, four great Spanish researchers. I would like to express my gratitude for their work over these years”.

Sir Philip Campbell, who established the awards, said: “These awards have taken place in 13 countries or regions, including the western United States, Nordic countries, South Africa, Japan and China. These are very varied cultures, and yet the key characteristics of outstanding mentors are remarkably similar. Spain’s great examples are no exception – they are extraordinary in their ability to nurture emerging scientists of great diversity.”

Through the Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science Nature recognises outstanding scientific mentors in different regions around the world. Each winner receives a prize of €5,000.

More information about the panel of judges and eligibility criteria for this year’s awards can be found here.

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