Adam Williamson: The support I have at the ICRC has been phenomenal

He is 43 years old and holds 4 ERC grants. Since January, he has been working at the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC) of the St. Anne’s University Hospital Brno and the Faculty of Medicine of Masaryk University, where he is currently building his research team. In our interview we talked not only about what brought him to the ICRC, but also about the importance of scientific mobility or writing ERC projects.

Photo: Adam Williamson

Photo: Adam Williamson

You studied electrical engineering, but now you’re a neuroscientist. Was that the plan from the beginning, or did it just happen?

At the beginning of my career, I never thought that I would one day be a full-time neuroscientist. But I certainly couldn’t do what I do today if I didn’t have the education I have. I have a degree in theoretical electrical engineering. I progressed from being an engineer through many interesting research topics to neuroscience and focused on applying new technology to clinical research.

The field shift was mainly made possible by ERC grants. I was an engineer, but I got a project from the European Research Council to do experiments on mice that had our devices implemented. Today I have a clinical research grant, but I am certainly not a clinical neuroscientist who routinely works with patients. But maybe when we interview together in five years, I will be.

You’ve lived in many countries in your lifetime…

I was born in Canada, and moved with my parents to West Texas as a kid, where I did my undergraduate and graduate studies. I moved to Germany for my PhD and then to France. Subsequently, I travelled extensively between France and Sweden. And now I have settled down at the ICRC in Brno, Czech Republic. In order for scientists to do cutting-edge research, not only money is important, but also mobility, because it allows you to take advantage of the infrastructural advantages of the workplace, such as extremely expensive equipment or laboratories and other facilities.

Do you enjoy the new beginnings that come with every move?

Even though I live in Brno now, I still travel a lot, as I am involved in many scientific collaborations. I love travelling. New beginnings are interesting, I enjoy learning new languages and getting to know the culture of different countries. But I don’t see moving around Europe as a major change, because all countries have a similar culture in some sense and I know what to expect. Even if each country is different, it’s still Europe. I wonder what it’s like to make a “real move” and look at Asia, Africa or the Middle East for example. Not that I plan to, but it would certainly be a very different experience.

Do you think the ICRC will be your last destination?

It certainly has all the qualities to be one. I can say for sure that I will spend the next 5 years here. I have a big ERC Consolidator grant here and a few other smaller projects, so I really have a lot of money to do the research I want to do. The support I have at the ICRC is also phenomenal.

What were the main reasons that brought you to the ICRC?

The main reason was that the ICRC is a very friendly and welcoming host institution, with not only excellent scientists but also excellent administrative staff. They are all very supportive in giving me access to everything I need. A secondary reason is also partly personal. I spent a lot of time in Germany, so it feels familiar and reminds me of where I spent time with my children when they were young.

Do you have a specific example of a situation that surprised you by going smoothly?

When I arrived, I spent several weeks preparing documents for the ethics committee to work on my grants. We didn’t even have to wait a month for some of them to be approved. It’s not because it’s easy to get permission in the Czech Republic, but the system is very efficient. The Commission was very cautious about ethics and research safety. We answered all the uncertainties, and by the next day we had a reply that our document was provisionally approved, but we had to make some additional changes. And they were still apologising for taking so long.

You’re currently looking for PhD students, postdocs and technical staff, and you’re building a new research team in Brno. Is this the first time you’re building a team from the ground up?

It’s the second time. The first ERC Starting grant I got to start a research group was in Marseilles, France. I built a new team there, but then the end of the grant and the outbreak of the pandemic came together. Moreover, at that time all my students, except one PhD student, had finished their studies. Today they are postdocs all over the world and two of them are even at prestigious universities in the USA. I am very proud of them.

What are some of your mistakes that you will learn from in the second round of building your research team?

I made a lot of mistakes the first time, especially on the administrative level. I think I was often, and sometimes unnecessarily, arrogant and confrontational. In addition, I had the misfortune of being there during a pandemic when everything was subdued. I often pushed too hard and tried to get better conditions. Today I know that even if you’re right, you have to be more diplomatic.

Have you had to learn to deal with people who are not necessarily scientists but are in decision-making positions?

I have changed a lot in this respect over the last few years. Today, if I deal with directors, deans or heads of departments, I am very moderate. I know now that I can’t walk into a meeting wearing a sweatshirt, start acting like it’s an informal scientific meeting, and pretend to be the smartest person in the room. I’m going to put on a shirt and respect that these people know how their institutions operate on a day-to-day basis and I have to adapt to that. I may think they’re wrong, but I discuss things and look for compromises. And I try to move things forward.

You have 4 ERC grants. I don’t doubt that you have great scientific ideas, but do you think that your success is also due to the fact that you simply learned to write ERC grants well?

I think I’m very efficient in the way I write them, but anyone can be. An ERC grant application is a space where you can let your creativity run wild and describe a very complex and interesting problem and propose a solution to it, but you can afford to leave the ending open. Everything must be based on facts and strong arguments. I really like this system of ERC projects. I find writing them fulfilling and fun.

ERC grants are different from the similarly prestigious US NIH grants. My experience is that NIH grants are very dense and clearly written documents. It’s one sentence with many citations after another. And the experimental part of the project looks like a perfectly described spaghetti recipe. You describe every detail of what you’re going to do. ERC grant applications are very different in this respect.

What will you be doing in your latest ERC project?

Very briefly, we will be looking at techniques that allow deep brain structures to be stimulated from surface electrodes, which can contribute to the diagnosis and treatment of certain diseases such as epilepsy, tremor or cognitive impairment. Non-invasive stimulation of the vagus nerve from electrodes placed on the patient’s neck can help treat epilepsy or Crohn’s disease, while stimulation of the sublingual nerve can improve symptoms of sleep apnoea.

So you have a clear research direction for the next 5 years.

Anyone who gets an ERC project has to use the money to meet the objectives set out in the project. My goals seem meaningful to me now, but the path to them may be very varied. When I did my first ERC project, I was working on very different research at the end of it than at the beginning, because I realised halfway through that I hadn’t seen the translational potential of the technology towards patients at the beginning. We created a second independent line of research, explained everything in the project documentation and pursued a new direction because it seemed to me the most sensible use of the money. I will take the same approach now. If in a few years it turns out that what I wrote in the grant application when I submitted it doesn’t make sense in the context of current knowledge, I’ll change my research direction.


Author: Vědavýzkum.cz (TM)

Photo: ICRC

Article adapted for the ICRC website with permission of the author.


Adam Williamson

Adam Williamson is a new addition to the International Clinical Research Center (ICRC) of FNUSA and LF MU in the field of neuroscience. The Canadian, who studied theoretical electrical engineering in Texas, received his PhD from the University of Ilmenau in Germany. He has worked in Sweden at the prestigious Karolinska Institutet and other universities. His last workplace before coming to Brno was the Inserm Institute in France.

From an engineer he gradually became a neuroscientist with the ability to apply new technologies to clinical research. His research has received significant support from the European Research Council (ERC) under the EU Horizon Europe programme. He is the recipient of a total of four ERC grants (ERC Starting Grant in 2016, ERC Proof-of-Concept in 2020, ERC Proof-of-Concept in 2022 and ERC Consolidator in 2023). He is now transferring the latter two to the ICRC for implementation, the second of which is entitled Epilepsy Treatment Using Neuromodulation by Non-Invasive Temporal Interference Stimulation (EMUNITI). The grant promises five years of research support for a team called “Neuromodulation Technology” that Adam Williamson is building at the ICRC.