How Amanullah Sk from India succeeded in obtaining a grant for a postdoctoral position at ETH Zurich and how André Wunder from EU GrantsAccess helped him. This is the story of their success.
In laboratory H214 of the ETH Zurich chemistry building on the Hönggerberg campus two men look attentively through the glass window of a fume bonnet. A blue solution flows from a test tube through a thin glass tube into a vessel with a filter above it. The process takes place under the fume bonnet in a closed system filled with argon, as the solution reacts explosively when it gets into contact with the oxygen or moisture in the air. The man in the white lab coat’s full name is Amanullah Sk, but he calls himself simply Aman. He is a chemist and SNSF postdoc in the research group at the Laboratory of Inorganic Chemistry of Christophe Copéret, Professor of Surface and Interfacial Chemistry at ETH Zurich. Next to him is André Wunder, Research Manager and Advisor for research proposals at EU GrantsAccess.
«It was clear to me:
I have to join
Aman Sk has invited André Wunder to the laboratory to show him some of his experiments. They have known each other for over two years. During this time, André has been instrumental in helping Aman obtain the grant for the postdoctoral position by the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF. On this afternoon in May, they meet in person for the first time. But let’s start the story from the beginning.
In the beginning there was chemistry
Aman Sk grew up in a family of teachers in the Indian state of West Bengal. His mother taught at a primary school. His father was a chemist, ran the school laboratory in a college and supervised students in their laboratory practicals. «When I was a little boy, I didn’t like chemistry at all,» recalls Aman Sk. «When my father came home from work, his clothes and bag always had that pungent foul smell of hydrogen sulphide. But when I grew up, my father took me to the lab, let me do experiments, and then when I was in college myself, I had to demonstrate to him in the lab what I had learned. It was like private lessons.»
«If you do not
understand this goal
of the EU, it will be
difficult to write
Aman Sk studied chemistry, did his master’s at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur in 2014 and earned his doctorate in inorganic chemistry from the prestigious research university Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) in Kolkata a few years later. For his dissertation, he studied the chemical structure and reaction processes of proteins and enzymes in the human body and was fascinated by the diversity, efficiency and elegance with which nature synthesises and modifies these molecules. «Why does nature create so many different variations, even though they all belong to the same family? How does it manage to be so precise and effective?» These questions continued to drive Aman Sk and became the starting point for his research project as a postdoctoral researcher at ETH Zurich.
Research destination Zurich
After the dissertation, Aman Sk was faced with the question of what to do next. He could have stayed in basic research, but that did not satisfy him. In view of the major challenges humanity is facing, he wanted to use his knowledge as a chemist to contribute to solutions. «I thought that at the interface between research and industrial application I could contribute to creating something socially useful.» He began to search the Internet for research groups around the world – preferably in the organo-metallic field – that maintained contacts with industry and carried out application-oriented research projects. In the process, he came across Christophe Copéret’s group for interfacial and surface chemistry. Aman Sk read the publications of Christophe Copéret and his team, scoured their website and came to the conclusion: this is my research group. «What impresses me about Christophe is his profound understanding of chemistry. All the publications of his that I read were essentially about chemistry. The way he analyses, characterizes and describes the systems, how the chemistry of a process works, is absolutely fascinating. I have a good knowledge of molecular chemistry. But I have zero experience with materials and surfaces and I want to learn how to combine the two fields. So it was clear to me: I have to join Christophe Copéret’s team.»
A process beset with obstacles
He wrote an email to Christophe Copéret, sent him the outline of a research project on the hydroxylation of methane and asked him if he could realise this project as a postdoc in his group. Christophe Copéret agreed, but recommended, as he lacked funds for positions at the moment because of Covid-19, that he should apply to the EU for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship. He helped him to specify the content of his research project, advised him to plan his experiments with alkanes instead of methane and referred him to André Wunder from EU GrantsAccess for further elaboration of the application.
«I thought as a chemist
I could contribute
to creating something
«It was already very late in the application schedule when Aman contacted me,» André Wunder remembers. «The deadline for the Marie Skłodovska-Curie proposals was in four weeks. I looked at the proposal and saw what was still missing. We then started a series of zoom meetings in a short time, improved the proposal step by step and managed to submit it in time.» Aman Sk’s application was rejected in February 2021 because the budget for the current application round was already exhausted. But his project received a «Seal of Excellence» and the chances were good that it would be accepted in the next application round. «So, it was clear we would try again,» André Wunder says. The scientific part was watertight and promising, but the other sections of the proposal, such as implementation or communication, could be further optimized. In the meantime, Aman Sk had moved from Kolkata to Paris and taken up a postdoctoral position at the Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (CEA). He and André Wunder were continuing to work on the proposal via email and Zoom when the EU decided in summer 2021 to exclude Switzerland from association with the Horizon Europe research programme. From now on, it was no longer possible for researchers to apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship with a Swiss university as their host institution. André Wunder informed Aman Sk that his proposal for a Marie Skłodovska-Curie Fellowship had lapsed, but that there was an alternative. He should apply for a Swiss Postdoctoral Fellowship of the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF. He sent Aman Sk the documents and helped him finalise the application in the following weeks. In December 2021, they submitted the proposal to the SNSF. In June 2022, Aman Sk received the acceptance letter. «I was on my way from Paris to Kolkata to visit my family when I read the email at the airport stating that my application had been accepted,» he recalls. He immediately informed his supervisor at the CEA in Paris, who congratulated him and said that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that he should seize it.
When we ask André Wunder on this afternoon in Lab H214 how he assesses the coaching of Aman Sk in retrospect, he sums up, «We have put a lot of work and commitment into this from our side. But I already had feedback on the first Marie Skłodovska-Curie application that it was a very good project scientifically. Christophe Copéret also confirmed this and he wanted to have Aman in his lab. In this respect, I am also very happy for Aman that it has worked out.»
Amanullah Sk stayed in Paris until the end of November 2022 to complete his project. Then, on 1 December 2022, he took up his SNSF postdoctoral position in Christophe Copéret’s lab at ETH Zurich.
 After ERC Grants and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowships fell through, the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation SERI and the SNSF stepped into the gap and have since been funding such applications.
Contribution to success
André Wunder is one of the 14 Research Managers at EU GrantsAccess who advise researchers at ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich in their search for international funding, coach them in the formulation of applications and accompany them until the completion of the project. Three questions for André Wunder about his role as an advisor.
How do you support researchers with their applications?
A.W.: The core of the proposal is the scientific part, which the researchers formulate themselves in consultation with the mentor of their project. We check this part more from a formal point of view: is the logical structure correct, is there something in the text for each heading, is there something missing? The focus of our work is on those parts of the application that have less to do with science, but which are quite extensive, especially for Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship applications. Applicants must describe the impact of their project on their career. They have to state what the institution has to offer where they realise their project, how the supervision is done, where they publish their results, what outreach activities they plan and the social benefit of the project. That is quite a lot.
The EU asks questions on a plethora of topics that researchers are often unfamiliar with?
A.W.: Exactly. And it uses a special terminology that applies to the whole funding scene and that has to be translated for researchers, so to speak. What should they write in the proposal concerning the «Outreach Strategy»? We can use tried and tested wording from other proposals and convey this information to the applicants. In addition, the background story plays an important role. For the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowships, career planning is the main goal of the grant for the EU. Therefore, the application form is also structured in a very specific way. If you don’t understand this goal of the EU, it will be difficult to write the proposal. You have to realise what they want in order to present the story in a way that fits the requirements. Another point is to understand how the evaluation process works, what the researchers have to pay attention to, what is received and what is not. With our experience and our knowledge of the institutional mechanisms, we can help the researchers with all these points to formulate the proposal in a promising way.
You have been conducting these coaching sessions for ten years. What do you enjoy about your work?
A.W.: Reading the researchers’ proposals and talking to them about their projects. And if they are as enthusiastic about their cause as Aman, then I am particularly pleased to critically assess their proposals with them and develop suggestions. Then, of course, it’s also nice to realise that the researchers have considered the comments and that you’ve been able to contribute something to making the proposal better. When the proposal finally passes, it makes you proud and you have the feeling that you have not only done something good, but that you have also delivered qualified work.
Interview with Amanullah Sk
Amanullah Sk | Hydroxylation
Hydroxylation refers to a chemical reaction in which one or more hydroxyl groups (-OH) are added to a molecule. It plays a central role in biochemical processes, for example in the human body. Specialised enzymes act as catalysts in this process. The process of hydroxylation is also significant for the pharmaceutical and technical sectors, for example for the production of drugs. However, the hydroxylation processes tested to date are still very demanding, energy-intensive and not very sustainable.
Amanullah Sk's research project is looking for a method to hydroxylate substances simply, efficiently and free of by-products. To this end, he is conducting electrochemical experiments with various metals that could act as catalysts to hydroxylate hydrocarbons (alkanes) dissolved in a liquid that lead him to his goal, which is «to achieve what nature succeeds so elegantly with enzymes at least approximately with electrolytic processes: the energy-efficient, environmentally friendly hydroxylation of substances for the production of medicines and materials.»
SNSF Postdoctoral Fellowship
Atomically dispersed first-row transition metal-oxo catalysts on nitrogen-doped-carbon for electrocatalytic C-H bond hydroxylation
- Programme: Swiss Postdoctoral Fellowship
- Duration: 1. October 2022 – 30. September 2024 (24 months)
- Contribution for ETH Zurich: 246’279 CHF