45 doctoral students from all over the world have come to the URV on the first Martí i Franquès COFUND programme

Over the course of five years, they have published about 100 open-access articles and presented their research results at international conferences. The programme has also helped to address the fight against COVID-19 and emerging challenges such as the digitalization of education

In January 2017, the Martí i Franquès COFUND doctoral training programme (MFP-COFUND) was launched, an eight-million-euro project co-financed by the URV and the European Commission, with the support of other institutions such as IRTA, Banco Santander, the Catalunya-La Pedrera Foundation and the Tarragona Provincial Council.

This February marks the fifth anniversary of the programme, which will officially end in September. In these five years, through the MFP-COFUND programme the URV has hired 45 new doctoral students from all over the world, from countries as diverse as Greece, Poland, Indonesia, Nigeria, Argentina and British Guiana. Selected after a highly competitive process from more than 1,400 applicants, the researchers have had a three-year employment contract during which they have worked on their doctoral dissertations, been given cross-disciplinary training, taken part in established research groups and been on international research secontments.

Internationalisation and training

This international component is precisely one of the aspects that is most valued by both doctoral students and their supervisors. “Having the resources to stay abroad has opened doors for me not only in academia, but also in industrial research,” said Jananee Muralidharan, one of the programme’s researchers. Hailing from India, she holds a degree in Industrial Biotechnology and a Master’s degree in Food and Nutrition Technology. She completed her thesis at the URV in 2021 and is currently pursuing a career in industry in France, as head of clinical research projects.

The PhD students stress the importance of establishing networks and contacts. Giuseppe d’Amico, from the Department of Economics says “my stay in Canada has allowed me to exchange ideas and ways of doing research with other researchers from all over the world. In addition, being part of such a well-known network as MSCA students enables you to create new synergies for the future.” Junjing Wang, another doctoral student, points out that “the skills I have acquired through the training I received at the URV, especially problem solving analytic skills, make me feel ready to face the new challenges of my future career.” Wang, from China, a Food Science engineer, earned a PhD with a dissertation on the use of insect proteins in emulsion and encapsulation processes in the food and cosmetics industry.

Supervisors also value the international component of the programme. Michelle Murphy, a lecturer in the Department of Basic Medical Sciences, and Josep Maria Arauzo, a lecturer in the Department of Economics, emphasise this aspect when they talk about their doctoral students. For Murphy, having the doctoral student Alejandra Rojas, a biologist of Colombian origin, in her group has been a great plus: “She came well prepared: not only had she done a master’s degree but she had also been given supplementary training courses, participated in other research groups, and published articles.” In the same vein, Professor Arauzo points out that having an international researcher means not only a more far-reaching network of contacts but “a personal and cultural enrichment from which we all benefit.”

During their stay at the URV, the doctoral students have been given training aligned with the principles of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions: international, interdisciplinary and intersectoral. In particular, the courses in transversal skills stand out. The MFP-COFUND programme has created more than 20 new courses in areas such as leadership, entrepreneurship, communication skills, creative and strategic thinking, and academic and non-academic career planning.

Scientific and social impact of research

In total, doctoral researchers and their supervisors have published 108 open-access articles, following the European Commission’s open science policy, one of the European Union’s political priorities. Other international researchers also participated in 40% of these articles. Although the research carried out covers all areas of knowledge, the articles that have had the most impact are in the field of engineering, energy and environmental sciences. Two of the most cited publications are a study of solar district heating networks published in Applied Energy; and the mathematical model for predicting the risk of new cases of COVID-19, published in Physical Review X.

In addition to the scientific impact, some of the MFP-COFUND research has also had an impact on the region. The research has also contributed to the urban improvement of the Camp de Tarragona, drafted guides on educational technology for teachers of young children and students of Educational Sciences and Psychology at the URV, and increased the competitiveness of the Costa Daurada and Terres de l’Ebre as family tourist destinations via a project on healthy eating and mobile applications.

In addition, the links between the URV and international research institutions have been strengthened as a result of the nearly 40 international secondments made by the programme’s researchers at institutions such as Harvard University, the University of Sydney and the University of Manchester.

Of the 45 researchers, 16 have already defended their doctoral thesis and the others will do so in the coming months. After completing their doctorates, many of them have already moved on to new stages in the field of research, both inside and outside academia. The Venezuelan José Ignacio Sánchez, journalist and holder of a master’s degree in Strategic Communication, who received his doctorate a few months ago, has already obtained a postdoctoral contract in the field of marketing at the University of Prague. Likewise, the Greek bioinformatician Dimitrios Kioroglou, who completed his thesis at the URV in less than 3 years, is currently a researcher at a leading laboratory in the Basque Country in the field of genomics. The Uruguayan Valeria Ferreira, a graduate in Accounting Studies and holder of an MBA, has also succeeded in obtaining a postdoctoral contract as an expert in circular economics at one of the joint research centres that the European Commission has in Spain. And in the field of industrial research, Mohamed Abokersh, an engineer from Egypt, is researching solutions for manufacturing and identifying emerging technologies in an Irish company.

Future of the MFP-COFUND project

Although the MFP-COFUND programme ends this year, since 2020 the URV has been running a second edition of the programme, which again received the co-funding needed to hire 50 more predoctoral researchers. This programme will run until 2025 and the 50 researchers have already been selected. Half of these have already begun their research at the URV and the rest will join the URV in the coming months. With this new programme, the URV will improve some key aspects that will become the backbone of doctoral education: diversity to encourage innovation (the programme has the support of 59 partner institutions, 21 of which are non-academic), better opportunities for candidates in difficult situations, integration with the research and innovation strategy for the smart specialization of the region (within the framework of the RIS3CAT) and improved training in transversal skills and support for doctoral students.

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