Florin Albeanu in his lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory
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Phil Renna
Florin Albeanu in his lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory

Romania’s Science Problem: A Tale of Two Florins (Part 2)

In September of 2010, Florin Albeanu traveled from New York, home of his neuroscience lab at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, to Bucharest, Romania, the city where he lived the first 19 years of his life, for an unusual scientific meeting.

The Romanian government had invited Albeanu and many other Romanian scientists working abroad to the meeting, called Diaspora in Scientific Research and Higher Education in Romania, to discuss the problems facing the country’s scientific enterprise (or lack of it). Corruption, incompetence and cheating is rampant in Romanian universities and government agencies. This has led to a dearth of funding and training opportunities, impeding researchers from doing any science at all, let alone publishing their results internationally recognized journals. Like Florin Ţibu, the subject of last week’s post, Florin Albeanu had seen this problem firsthand.

Albeanu grew up in Bucharest, in a culture of fear and economic hardship created by communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu. Albeanu vividly remembers the omnipresent political propaganda — not only the state-controlled television and radio, but ceremonies where his family, friends or neighbors gathered, begrudgingly, to sing songs about the greatness of Romania and Ceaușescu. Albeanu was 11 years old when Ceaușescu was executed, in 1989. Immediately after it happened, “there was a lot of hope for a drastic and very rapid change,” he says. “But in the following five to ten years, things changed very, very slowly.”

In high school, Albeanu excelled at math and science, and competed in science olympiads in Romania and other European countries. “You hear about how things are around you, hear what the opportunities are abroad,” he says. “It was a very strong drive.”

Albeanu applied to colleges in the U.S. but was not accepted, so he went to the University of Bucharest to study biochemistry. He was quickly disillusioned by the curriculum. Nearly all of his classes were dry lectures with no student discussion. “Then the exam comes and you just regurgitate what they told you,” he says. Worse, most of his professors did not do scientific research. So he sent another round of applications to American colleges. This time, it worked. He transferred to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the beginning of his sophomore year.

Albeanu has been in the U.S. ever since, climbing the ladder of academic research. He did his graduate work in neuroscience at Harvard, followed by a fellowship at Cold Spring Harbor. In 2010, he launched his own lab there, focused on the neural circuits underlying smell. But Albeanu hasn’t forgotten the problems of Romania, where his mother, brother, and many friends still live. He only knows of a couple of labs in Romania that do neuroscience research. “And even those are extremely limited in what they can do because of resources,” he says. State-of-the-art neuroscience requires an investment in technologies — like electrophysiological rigs, optical microscopes, and genetically engineered animals — that Romanian scientists simply can’t afford.

But the real problem, he says, is human resources. “Because money you find ways to get. But you need to find people that are interested in the same ideas, same questions as you are. Without having enough people to talk to, it’s very hard to shoot ideas.”

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Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament on a dreary December day

All of that is to say that Albeanu happily accepted the invitation to the Diaspora conference. It consisted of workshops at various Romanian universities as well as discussion sessions at the Palace of the Parliament, the largest building in the world outside of the Pentagon (and a 3.7 million-square-foot reminder of Ceaușescu’s despotism). For Albeanu, the most productive part of the meeting came on the next-to-last evening, at a fun, informal reception at a sports club in Bucharest. There, while mingling in an outdoor garden, he met fellow neuroscientist Raul Mureșan, one of those rare Romanians actually doing science in Romania.

In the late 1990s, Mureșan studied computer science at the Technical University of Cluj-Napoca, located in the northwest (Vampire-rich) region of Romania called Transylvania. His education was top notch, he says, as IT is one of the few thriving industries in Romania and other parts of Eastern Europe. But both of his parents were doctors, and he was always drawn to their medical books. By the end of college, he had taught himself the basics of computational neuroscience, a field that blended computers and medicine. For his thesis, he created an algorithm that could crudely recognize cars and faces in real time. Thanks to a personal connection of one of the professors on his thesis committee, a company called Nivis hired Mureșan to continue this research on its dime.

From there, Mureșan began to publish some of his work and forge collaborations with neuroscientists in other European countries. He convinced Wolf Singer in Frankfurt, Germany, to sponsor his doctoral training (and later, the training of several other Romanians). Mureșan earned his Ph.D. in 2005 and started a postdoctoral fellowship in Singer’s lab. But his plan, always, was to return to Romania.

He was finally able to do so in 2007, when the Romanian government — seeing modest economic growth and optimism from joining the European Union — launched an ambitious new plan for scientific research. It offered large grants to incentivize Romanian scientists working abroad to come home, and Mureșan got one. He joined a new non-profit institute in Cluj called the Center for Cognitive and Neural Studies and has been there ever since.

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Raul Mureșan

The 2010 Diaspora conference was a time of much enthusiasm, Mureșan says. “We felt that Romanian science is finally going to be put on the right track and we felt we had a part to play in this process. I still remember that I had a very good feeling back then and lots of hope.”

After they met at the garden party, Albeanu pitched an idea to Mureșan: What if they created a summer neuroscience course in Romania to teach graduate students and postdocs the latest techniques in neuroscience? The course would be held in Romania and taught by experts from all over the world. It would be open to students from anywhere, to keep the standards high, but would over time attract more and more students from Romania and Eastern Europe. It was a very small solution to a very big problem, they knew, but might be fun, at very least.

Mureșan was enthusiastic from the get-go. “It was a way to put Romanian neuroscience on the map,” he says. Over the next few months, the two began making plans by email. Funding was their biggest challenge. The project would cost about 50,000 euros, all told, to cover lodging and lab space for about a dozen students for two weeks, as well as the equipment and travel expenses of guest lecturers. After more than a year of applying for loads of different grants, they finally received 18,000 euros from a large Romanian government agency. Most of the rest was covered by fees of 1,400 euros per student.

Forty students applied for the course, but only one was living in Romania. That’s partly due to the cost, which is prohibitive for most Romanians, but also because of a lack of qualifications. “Unfortunately, this guy’s application was not very good,” Albeanu says. “So we debated for awhile: Should we take him because he’s from Romania, or try to keep our standards high?” They rejected the application. In the end, though, 3 of the 13 summer students turned out to be native Romanians getting training abroad.

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Students in the summer neuroscience course walking the Transylvanian hills

The course happened last summer, in a pension on a lake outside of a picturesque Transylvanian village. (You can see many photos and read more about the course on Cold Spring Harbor’s news blog, Lab Dish.)

One of the goals of the course was to teach students how to build their own microscopes, a significant cost-cutter should they ever launch their own labs (in Romania or anywhere else). The students also learned how to record the electrical activity of neurons in live mice. Getting the animals to Romania was, as you might imagine, a paperwork nightmare.

Everybody had a great time. But it’s difficult, of course, to know how much of an impact the course had on those students’ scientific careers, or on the overall visibility of Romanian science. They’re doing it again this summer. Albeanu and Mureșan were able to raise more funding for it this time, cutting the fee to about 500 euros and hopefully attracting more students from Eastern Europe.

Both Albeanu and Mureșan consider the course a success, for slightly different reasons. Mureșan enjoys the excitement and challenge of creating something from the ground up. It’s the same reason he has continued to do science in Romania, despite knowing that his publication output would be greater if working from Germany. “I can make a much larger difference here,” he says. “The satisfaction is bigger because I feel like I’m building something.”

Albeanu is a bit less enthusiastic. He doesn’t think the course will make much of a difference in the next 2, 5 or even 10 years. But he strongly believes that many small moves over long periods of time will eventually turn the tide. “You have to be very patient, but you don’t have to be pessimistic,” he says. “Obviously, things will change in time.”

What’s remarkable, to me, is that the other Florin — Florin Ţibu, who came back to Romania after years abroad — believes essentially the same thing: that despite all of the deep, systemic problems surrounding Romanian science, things will change for the better, eventually. From an outsider’s perspective, their optimism may seem passive, or naive. But then again, these men have lived through far worse times and witnessed far more dramatic revolutions.

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Update: The text has been changed to reflect that the Romanian funding agency that gave 18,000 euros for the course was not obscure, but large. Also, Albeanu launched his lab in 2010, not 2011.