Interview with Dr. Eri SAKATA, MSCA IF Fellow and Group Leader at Max Planck Institute

Categories: News | Meet the researchers


Eri Sakata is a project group leader at Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry (Germany). She received her Ph.D from Nagoya City University at Prof. Koichi Kato lab and carried out a joint postdoc at the laboratories of Prof. Wolfgang Baumeister at Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry and Prof. Keiji Tanaka at Tokyo metropolitan Institute of medical science (Japan). She studies the structural biology of the ubiquitin proteasome system from a multidisciplinary perspective.

- Eri, can you introduce your research interests to our readers?

In my scientific career, I have studied structural aspects of the ubiquitin-proteasome protein degradation system (UPS) using hybrid approaches of structural biology, such as cryo-electron microscopy, NMR spectroscopy, X-ray crystallography and mass spectrometry. My research interests focus on understanding how UPS enzymes efficiently perform their functions to degrade components that are no longer useful. I am currently working at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry as a project group leader and studying the structural dynamics and functional mechanisms of the 26S proteasome using cryo electron microscopy. I am funded by an MSCA - Career Integration Grant.


- You are under an MSCA mobility grant in Europe. Can you tell us a bit about your professional choices, and what particular circumstances lead to your work in Europe under this grant?

The Marie Curie Action Career Integration Grants (CIG) are open to experienced researchers of any nationality with at least four years of full-time research experience or a Ph.D. The aim is to support researchers in the first steps of their European research career. This action should also allow the transfer of knowledge that the researchers have acquired prior to the CIG, as well as the development of lasting co-operation with the scientific and/or industrial environment of the country from which they have moved. This action has a particular emphasis on countering European 'brain drain' to other third countries.

More information about the MSCA CIG here


I am still founded under my MSCA IF grant because I was able to suspend it during my six-month maternity leave. I first came to Germany as a JSPS postdoctal fellow after my Ph.D at Nagoya University. At that I was not planning to pursue my career abroad and had rather planned to go back to Japan after a short stay. However, as my project was not finished within the limited time of my JSPS fellowship, I decided to extend my stay. With time, I realised it was easy for me to work in Germany, where work and personal life are balanced and gender equality is better achieved. After a short second postdoc at another lab, I received an offer for a group leader position from Prof. Baumeister. While the position is not yet that of a fully independent researcher, I was guaranteed to perform my own research with support the whole team. Since there was a limit to my research funding, I applied (with success) to an MSCA Career Integration Grant which helped a lot to launch my research.


- How did you obtain the grant? Were there specific hurdles that you managed to overcome in order to secure the position/the funding?

It was the first time for me to write a grant application in English. I have been funded by several fellowships and awards previously, but they were all from Japanese funding sources (JSPS, Uehara and Naito). To be honest, I regret that I didn’t apply European fellowships (e.g. Marie-curie, EMBO, HFSP…. )  sooner, during my postdoc period. That could have been a great training to write a grant application which will be required anyhow during the rest of my research career.


- Now that the grant is running, what would you say was its impact on your career?

The grant started right after I started my group. Although I have an access to many instruments in the department, I needed to buy several instruments (e.g. HPLC, centrifuge, electrophoresis system) and consumables to set up my lab and the MSCA grant wasof a great help for that. In addition, I took a half-year maternity break during the funding period. The MSCA grant allows that, and staff was quite supportive, so I was able to suspend the grant during my maternity leave. After coming back to the lab, I was able to publish some papers as a senior author and am now preparing several other papers. This is an important step to find my next position since my current one is not tenured.


- How would you say research environment compare between the different countries you visited and Japan?

I have been conducting research in three countries, Japan, Germany and USA. Each country has pros and cons and it is difficult to say which one is the best. I found that the working environment abroad allows diverse working styles and makes it easier for us to mix career and personal life. I also want to mention that Japan is still a man-dominated society. Gender equality in Japan is improving but it is still worse than in many Western countries. For example, in our institute in Germany, three out of seven directors are female. Japanese universities do increase the numbers of female staff scientists but the number of female Pis or Professors is still low. I believe the Japanese society itself has to change to let women work confidently and comfortably. I would like to encourage young people, especially female students, to gain experience by studying abroad.


The EURAXESS Service Centres are part of a network of about 500 offices in all of the European countries covered by EURAXESS that provide practical advice to incoming researchers such as Eri. Accomodation, Visa, Taxes, Pensions, and of course day-care, schooling & family related issues are covered. For the latter, 33 information sheets are available through our website:

EURAXESS / Information and Assistance / Day care, schooling & family

Search for the EURAXESS Service Centre closest to you! services.euraxess.org


- What are the challenges of doing research in Europe as a Japanese national?

Language! You have to speak to people and write papers. That is the only way to improve it. It is also important to network. Once you have children, another challenge starts, since each country has different health care and school systems. Understanding those things requires a different energy than research. Luckily, our institute has an international office which supports international employees. [see sidenote]


- What does this mobility experience to Europe bring to you, in terms of skill or career development?

In Europe and the USA, I saw many talented students who were able to completely change their fields of study. I believe that those kind of people are prone to make breakthroughs. To work in different labs and communicate with scientists from different countries enriches your scientific knowledge and provides novel insights. It also improves your communication skills. Since the Japanese scientific system is very hierarchical and many scientists still stay in a same and unique lab through their whole scientific career, I believe it interferes with the dynamics of science. In my case, I am in the middle of my career path but these mobility experiences brought me wide knowledge in various scientific topics. European programmes such as the MSCA are very good in supporting such people, who are internationally mobile to pursue their research goals.


EURAXESS Japan regularly organises events and seminars to inform researchers and students of their opportunities with Europe.

Browse EURAXESS Japan events

In addition, since 2016, we organise‚ Boost Your Career: Grants In Practice, a full-say information session and workshop with practical study-cases and alumni who can teach others to be successful in writing proposals.

About the Boost Your Career: Grants In Practice event

In 2017, the event will be held on 14 July (Friday). Save the date!


- From your perspective, how can/should researchers mobility flows between Europe and Japan (both ways) be improved? Also, what would be the barriers for research cooperation?

Before coming to Europe, I knew very little about European fellowships and I focused on JSPS which I was familiar with. First, we (Japan) should establish an accessible information source to encourage Japanese students to go abroad. Seminars featuring fellowship holders presenting how to get a fellowship might be interesting. [see sidenote]

My feeling is that in Japan, not many people go abroad and/or not many PIs encourage their students to go abroad. I also understood that people who stay outside of Japan too long (most of people go back to Japan within 2 years) have difficulties to find a position in Japan. That makes the mobility of Japanese scientists lower because they are afraid not to find a job if they leave Japan too long. I think Japanese Pis or employers should open door for those people; and also for foreigners.


- A final, more personal question: how do you envisage your career and where?

I would like to stay in academia but I am in the situation of many colleagues, who struggle with ‘dual-career’ problems and juggle between parenthood and work. My husband is working in the same field and we need to find two positions in in the same location at the same time in near future. That will be challenging for us. It is difficult to envision our lifes in a specific country, as many other researchers of our generation; and we have to be rather flexible for coming offers.


Eri, thank you very much for your time, all our wishes for your career!