Johannes Charlier discusses his career in research
Veterinary aspirations from a young age
I grew up in Overijse, Belgium. My father is a medical doctor and my mother taught biology at secondary school. Furthermore, one of my grandfathers worked as a bio-engineer in animal production, and the other as a professional grape grower. I have always admired people making a living from natural elements and when I had to make my study choice, I chose veterinary medicine because it combined my interest in nature and biology with medicine. I thought being a veterinarian would make a meaningful contribution.
At the beginning of my studies at Ghent University, I intended to become a practitioner and make sick animals healthy again. However, as graduation approached, two events changed my destiny: first, during the third and fourth year of my studies I became intrigued by parasitology (in lectures by Jozef Vercruysse and colleagues), where insights into the magical lifecycles and behaviour of parasites fed my general curiosity in the functioning of nature; and, secondly, at the time of graduation I felt too insecure to start working in practice. So, when I received the offer of a one-year project in the Laboratory of Parasitology at Ghent University, I was glad to accept it.
"I chose veterinary medicine because it combined my interest in nature and biology with medicine"
By the end of the first year, we had produced good results in the project and it was prolonged by an extra year and then again by two more years. Although not originally planned, after four-and-a-half years, I obtained a PhD in veterinary sciences. At that point, I needed to decide what to do next. Should I stay in academia (with mostly minimal possibilities) or find a job in industry? The general advice was that if I didn't intend to stay in academia I should make the move towards industry or another sector, or, if I aspired towards an academic career, I should go for a postdoc position abroad. I did neither. I knew that I wanted to become a good veterinary parasitologist so I stayed where I was for three sequential postdoc studies. I did this because I was committed to my topic and felt there was more important work to do. This decision felt very natural and, in each case, I could build on my previous work. Plus, there was the feeling that I could meet new interesting people, learn new things and do a useful job by contributing to productive livestock farming.
A great thing about working in academia is the multiple facets – the opportunity to combine knowledge generation with transferring that knowledge through teaching, as well as writing scientific papers and other activities. I always had great freedom in the topic I wanted to study, and how and with whom I wanted to study it, so long as in the end I was able to publish the results. I believed I was doing an important job and my personal drive, together with the pressure associated with the insecurity of my position made me productive in terms of publications and other scientific output. I produced several papers each year and became a regular speaker at conferences or institutions; I also received several scientific awards. In this respect, I must acknowledge the support, time and effort of the technicians, PhD students, colleagues and my family, without whom these achievements would not have been possible.
Importance of family
At the age of 31 I became a father – we now have two wonderful children who are four and seven. Time became very precious and balancing family life with work was becoming a challenge. This, together with the lack of security in my position, the pressure to combine research with teaching, supervising PhD and MSc students, grant writing and other services, was becoming a burden – especially when you experience the low success rates of grant proposals and realise that you are becoming too expensive to be included as a researcher in your own grant applications. When I was losing sleep over it, I realised I needed to take action.
Understanding research funding
In 2014, I saw a vacancy for a part-time role with DISCONTOOLS, and decided to apply. DISCONTOOLS is a project managed within IFAH-Europe (the federation representing manufacturers of veterinary medicines in Europe). It is funded by national funders of research in animal health in Europe, with industry providing administrative support, and aims to identify and prioritise research needs in animal health. It works by bringing together leading experts in the field of 52 infectious diseases of animals. My reasoning was that, if it was so difficult to obtain a grant, I wanted to understand the needs of funders of research, as this could help me to write better grant proposals in the future. I really enjoy my job because it works at the science-policy interface. It allows me to be in contact with world-leading scientists in animal health, I am learning a lot about new (non-parasitological) diseases and, most importantly, about research from the perspective of academia, government and industry.
"Changing employer was a personal catharsis and I am immersed in a new working environment"
In 2015, I was offered a full-time position in Avia-GIS that I could combine with my other activities including my role with DISCONTOOLS. Avia-GIS specialises in the collection and analysis of spatial information as a basis for the development of space-time information systems applied to veterinary and public health. The company is active in several European research consortia on vector and disease control. My principal roles are to attract and conduct contract research in the field of veterinary epidemiology, take up responsibilities within various research consortia and contribute to the development of commercial decision support systems in animal health. Being a veterinarian, most of my research has had an applied angle. First, it focused on diagnostic test development and evaluation, and subsequently evolved into using diagnostic test information, together with environmental variables, economic and sociological information, to develop better advice and decision support for disease control in ruminants. At Avia-GIS, I try to continue this research and use my expertise to provide added value to the company.
Changing employer was a personal catharsis and I am immersed in a new working environment. It is also very enriching, as I am meeting new people, learning new skills and developing a different perspective on my career. Most of all, it is teaching me to look at my professional career from a distance. At the end of my academic employment, my profession had become my identity. Changing job has helped me to restore the balance between personal life and work.
I remain ambitious and my central aim is to make a contribution to animal health and the people depending on it. One of topics I strongly believe in is to make better tools and models to assess the economic impact of infectious diseases (Charlier and others 2015). I now realise the multitude of channels available to do this: academic versus private research, policy, product development, and so on. Where I can, I'll always try to keep a certain level of independence and pave my own way. So far, this has allowed me to work on fascinating topics and with great people in different environments. I can only hope this will continue to serve me as well in the future as it has in the past.
CHARLIER J., VANDE VELD F., VAN DER VOORT M., VAN MEENSEL J., LAUWERS L., CAUBERGHE V., VERCRUYSSE J., CLAEREBOUT E (2015) ECONOHEALTH: Placing helminth infections of livestock in an economic and social context. Veterinary Parasitology 212, 62–67