In the corridors the conversations are in English, and in the offices and laboratories there are young people of different nationalities and skin colours. Having researchers from all around the world "is a great opportunity; they bring a fresh approach, a new view of the problems and a different way of working, and that is enriching for everyone," says José Becerra, a professor of Cellular Biology at Malaga University and the scientific director of Bionand, which is hosting the eight young researchers from other countries.
Clàudia Oliveira is from Portugal, Ana Ercegovic Rot is Slovenian, Liliya Kazantseva is Russian but lives in Peru, Precious Kwadzo Pomary comes from Ghana, Jonas Leuermann is German, Vladimir Stamenkovic is Serbian, Amene Tesfaye Ayane comes from Ethiopia and Ashish Avasthi has come to Malaga University from India. These eight young people have been given a three-year contract as part of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie programme, financed by the EU, to carry out their doctoral theses in Malaga in the field of nanomedicine and biotechnology.
They were selected from more than 100 applicants from all over the world, which gives an idea of the level of interest in Malaga and this research centre. The process took a year, and the final selection was decided by the Agencia Andaluza de Conocimiento, with external evaluators to ensure that the process was impartial.
The researchers have completed one-third of their stay in Malaga now, and the results of their work are already evident: publication in important scientific journals, or new lines of research. "They know they have to complete their thesis within three years, so they are working at a good speed," says José Becerra.
The medicine of the future, in which nanotechnology and biotechnology go hand in hand to provide new therapies which are practically tailor-made for each patient, is being investigated by leading research centres worldwide.
Malaga has achieved a high ranking on this map of excellence in research thanks to Bionand, the Centro Andaluz de Nanomedicina y Biotecnología, an institution which includes Malaga University and the regional ministries of Health and of Conocimiento y Universidad.
Millionth of a millimetre
In their laboratories, using large electronic microscopes and latest generation optics, nuclear magnetic resonance, fluorescence or bioluminescence equipment, the researchers are working with molecules of unthinkable dimensions: nanotechnology works on the manipulation of material with a size equivalent to one-millionth of a millimetre.
Few of them knew much about Malaga before being selected. Some admit they wouldn't even have been able to find it on a map. Now, however, they are all delighted with their decision to come here, not only because of the state-of-the-art centre in which they work and carry out their research but also because they like the city.
Some of them are still struggling with the Spanish language, partly because at Bionand English predominates. Jonas and Amene are taking lessons and Liliya, who speaks it because of the years she has spent in Peru, acts as interpreter. Clàudia, from Portugal, also manages to get by in Spanish.
They all came to Bionand because they have done previous work, mainly for their Masters degree, on nanomedicine and biotechnology. "I was looking for an important centre where I could carry on with my studies into the chemistry of nanomaterials, and I came across Bionand and these grants," says Amene Tesfaye. Jonas already knew about Malaga and the university, because his research group was in contact with the Communications Engineering faculty. When the director, Íñigo Molino, went to Germany they discussed the possiblity of him doing his thesis in Malaga. Ana Ercegovic Rot is working on cellular reprogramming and its applications, a line of research into the patients' own cells being used to cure them, and thereby preventing rejection. Ashish Avasthi, from India, has a Masters degree in nanotechnology and was looking for a place where he could do his doctoral thesis while continuing to work on the biotechnology and nanomaterials he had already studied. "Curiously, it turned out there was one in Malaga," he says.
Liliya Kazantseva agrees that one of the major advantages of Bionand is that nanomedicine and biotechnology are under the same roof. "We have everything we need here, with equipment you don't always find in universities," she says. Jonas Leuermann explains that his project requires a great deal of equipment and team work. "We began a new line of research, and we needed other teams for it. We quickly found those, and it is fantastic to work with all these facilities," he says.
Few of them know what they will do after the three years are up. Liliya says she might continue to work in Malaga, Clàudia wants to return to Portugal and Amene says he is hoping to find work at a university back in Ethiopia.
After a year of work in Malaga, they have made major progress in their projects and have even opened new lines of research, as in the case of Jonas, who was looking at photonic (light) sensors to detect illnesses. His thesis director, Íñigo Molina, says they have applied for funding for a project to design a new generation of 'photonic chips' which incorporate nano-structured materials.
María Isabel Montañez, a researcher at Bionand who is directing Amene Tesfaye's thesis, says that in just one year "we have discovered a battery of nano-structures and published a very interesting article" about 'in vitro' diagnosis of allergies to amoxicillin and other medications.
Working together under one roof also leads to interesting interaction and positive feedback, so that each person's work is enriched by contributions from the others, says José Becerra. He says this is proving a very positive experience, and that the researchers all show an extraordinary degree of motivation.
There are now plans to incorporate post-doctoral graduates in the future, thereby expanding even further the contribution of this leading research centre in the field of new medical technologies.