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The origins of human settlement: Mainz University coordinates a new EU project for young researchers

Junior researcher Zuzana Fajkošová passes international selection procedure and begins her doctorate in the Palaeogenetics Group at the JGU Institute of Anthropology

"BEAN – Bridging the European and Anatolian Neolithic" is the name of a new multinational educational network which has received funding from the European Commission for the next four years. It is classified as a so-called Initial Training Network (ITN) in the EU Marie Curie Actions program, which allows young scientists early access to research activity at top international institutions. A basic requirement for funding is that the researchers involved leave their home country and conduct their research in another European country.

The BEAN Network consists of several European partners in England, Switzerland, France, Germany, Serbia, and Turkey, and has set itself the goal of enhancing the skills of a new generation of researchers in the subjects of anthropology, pre-history, population genetics, computer modeling, and demography. Many different disciplines are participating in the initiative. An important associate partner on the German side is the German Federal Statistical Office in Wiesbaden. The common focus of the project partners centers around questions associated with the origin of first farmer settlements, which were established some 8,000 years ago in West Anatolia and the Balkans. Where did they come from? Were they migrants from the Middle East? Are they our ancestors?

Anthropologists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) have been meticulous in their preparation of the project over the last years and have entered into various cooperations to underpin it. Seven research institutions and two commercial companies are now working together on the BEAN project. Two leading researchers serve the network in an advisory capacity. These are archaeologist Ian Hodder from Stanford, who established his reputation with his excavations in Catal Höyük, and Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural History Foundation, who spent many years excavating and researching in European Turkey.

As of July 2012, doctoral candidate Zuzana Fajkošová, who completed her undergraduate studies at Masaryk University in Brno and at Charles University in Prague in the Czech Republic, will be the first of two BEAN researchers to start work at JGU's Institute of Anthropology and in the new palaeogenetic laboratory, which is currently in the final stages of construction on the edges of the university's Botanic Garden. She will analyze DNA from the bones of the last hunter-gatherers and the first settled farmers in the region between West Anatolia and the Balkans using the new cutting-edge technology of Next Generation Sequencing (NGS). Together with her colleagues in Dublin, London, and Geneva, she will use the genomic data to compile a model for the settlement of Europe.

"It is both a great honor and a huge opportunity for me that I can work together with such renowned researchers. I'm looking forward to Mainz, the university and the institute's new building," comments Fajkošová, who turned down a number of other offers in order to work at JGU. "A major factor leading to her appointment was the fact that besides mastering biomolecular techniques she also has good programming skills,” explains Professor Dr. Joachim Burger, the Network Coordinator. "A few years ago we more or less founded the discipline of Neolithic Palaeogenetics single-handedly. However, undertaking genomic projects is possible only with the help of international colleagues. That is why we are so pleased that such networks give us and our colleagues the chance to train young research talents."

Besides academic training, the young researchers will be able to do practical work for the two commercial companies within the network and thereby gain work experience in a non-university environment. "This is important as not all of the candidates will opt for a pure research career," explains Karola Kirsanow, who moved from Harvard to Mainz last year and now administrates the network together with Burger. "Our young colleagues have to attend many workshops, courses, and internships, most of them abroad. While this makes for a very tough program, we believe that it significantly enhances the quality of the training and similarly enhances candidates' career prospects."

Petra Giegerich | idw
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