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Interview with Montse Escobar, IQS Predoctoral Researcher

Montse Escobar has earned an INPhINIT grant awarded by the "la Caixa" Foundation to carry out her doctoral thesis within the Bioengineering Department at IQS. This represents the first INPhINIT grant awarded to the school.

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PhD student Montse Escobar has earned one of the thirty INPhINIT Retaining grants awarded by the “la Caixa” Foundation in its 2023 call. These grants are aimed at talented young researchers of any nationality who want to carry out doctoral studies in Spain or Portugal.

In the case of Montse Escobar, the grant will allow her to conduct her doctoral thesis within the Chemical & Synthetic Biology for Biotherapies (ChemSynBio) Group, directed by Dr Benjamí Oller Salvia in the Bioengineering Department at the IQS School of Engineering. This is the first time IQS has received one of these prestigious INPhINIT Retaining grants.

Today we are speaking with Montse Escobar and one of the supervisors of her doctoral thesis, Dr Benjamí Oller.

Montse, can you tell us about your career as a biotechnologist?

I’m from Mexico City, where I studied two undergraduate degrees, one of which was in Biotechnology at the Interdisciplinary Professional Unit of Biotechnology with the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN). During my university studies, I did research stays at the National Institute of Respiratory Diseases (INER) and the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV), both in Mexico. I also completed my academic training at the University of Santiago de Compostela (USC) in Spain. When I returned to Mexico, I decided to join CINVESTAV again and extend my studies for a further year to carry out the thesis that led me to earn that degree.

After that, I spent two years working in a pharmaceutical company. But my motivation to learn more as a researcher led me to study a Master’s Degree in Biotechnology and Bioengineering thanks to the support of the Carolina Foundation, for which I returned to Spain and studied at the Institute of Research, Development, and Innovation in Health Biotechnology of Elche (IDiBE) within Miguel Hernández University (UMH). While there, I conducted research in molecular oncology based on the identification of new therapeutic targets for the diagnosis and treatment of glioblastoma multiforme.

At the end of the master’s degree, I was completely certain that my path would continue towards PhD studies and in searching for my “ideal project.” I soon found Dr Benjamí Oller’s offer, which was very much in line with what I was looking for. I applied for this position, and here I am! I have been working with this IQS team for more than a year and two months now as a doctoral candidate in the Chemistry and Chemical Engineering programme.

What is the focus of your thesis at IQS?

Within the lines of research carried out in the ChemSynBio group, the objective of my thesis is to develop “intelligent” antibodies for therapies aimed at glioblastoma stem cells from a therapeutic vision that combines chemistry and biotechnology. We are developing new methodologies to control the activity of antibodies that will, hopefully, allow us to generate more effective and safe therapies in this field and that could even be applied to other types of cancer.

My thesis is being jointly supervised Dr Benjamí Oller and by Dr Cristina Díaz, who brings her experience in the chemical area I am employing and also in biomolecule characterization techniques.

The objective of my thesis is to develop “intelligent” antibodies for therapies that target glioblastoma stem cells

How would you sum up your first year?

Excellent! I think the fact that I have applied for the INPhINIT grant to stay with this group already says quite a lot. I’m really comfortable working with this team. When I set out to do my PhD, finding a good mentor was very important to me. I was looking for someone who could guide me to achieve the objectives, of course, but also to help me fit in with the project and the team. With Benjamí, Cristina, and the ChemSynBio group, I’ve definitely found everything and I’m really pleased.

What has it meant for you to earn this INPhINIT grant from the “la Caixa” Foundation?

Well, I’m very happy of course! The “la Caixa” Foundation awards two types of INPhINIT grants: Retaining grants, which are personal and require that the candidate has spent more than twelve months in Spain or Portugal in the last three years. And then there are the Incoming grants, which are grants called for the Severo Ochoa and María de Maeztu research centres.

I am very proud to have earned one of the thirty INPhINIT grants awarded for Spain and Portugal

The INPhINIT Retaining grants are extremely competitive because candidates from any university in Spain can apply. In 2023 they awarded thirty for the entire territory, with a success rate of just 4%. They are very widely evaluated and take into account both the academic record of the applicant, as well as whether, for example, they have work or research experience in international companies and centres, their English level, and more. To apply for it, applicants must prepare a dossier with all their background and merits, as well as a brief description of a possible project. If selected, there is a second phase with a personal interview that does not exist in other doctoral grants.

And for the thesis supervisor, what does the addition of Montse and the grant she has earned represent?

Benjamí. Well, I’m truly happy that she’s with us! She has been on our team for more than a year and has already demonstrated her extraordinary work capacity and commitment to the project and the team.

Unlike other types of predoctoral grants that also take into account the group or research centre that the applicant joins, INPhINIT grants are awarded solely based on the candidate’s merit. Upon obtaining the grant, they get to decide where they want to do their PhD. So our only merit is to have attracted such a talented person. And we’re really happy she chose to come here.

The INPhINIT grants are awarded solely based on the candidate’s merit, they get to decide where they want to do their PhD, and she has chosen IQS

These grants evaluate talent in a broad and general manner, especially the consistency of the candidate’s career, even if it is very brief. They are based on a very objective selection process, similar to that followed by European grant awards. Since I first saw Montse’s profile, it was clear to me that she had a strong chance to earn this grant. It’s a source of pride for the group that she has earned it and now works with us.

This grant brings prestige to Montse, our group, and IQS

This grant brings prestige to Montse, our group, and IQS. Once again, IQS has demonstrated that it can attract talent that is capable of earning new, highly competitive grants. This is the first INPhINIT grant to be awarded at our university and, as has happened with other grants in recent years, it is sure to encourage more researchers to apply in the future.

Finally, what is her contribution across the spectrum of your research?

Montse’s addition brings a very applied vision to the research of our group. Montse has the ambition to go beyond methodological development, combining biological chemistry and synthetic biology to generate a biotherapy that is selective to treat the most resistant cancer cells. Her thesis will be conducted within the framework of the different projects we carry out for “intelligent” bio- and nano-therapies against brain tumours and other types of resistant cancers: PRO-ANTIBody, funded by the “la Caixa” Foundation; APTIBody, funded by the Spanish Research Agency; and ACTIVATED, with seed funding from the Spanish Association Against Cancer. We hope to contribute our small part to moving forward with the treatment of these complex diseases.


Benjamí Oller-Salvia, PhD

Associate Professor - Junior Leader F. La Caixa - ERC Grantee





School of Engineering

Chemical & Synthetic Biology for Biotherapies

This group combines chemistry and synthetic biology to develop precision bio-nano-therapeutics based on smart proteins and to generate molecular systems that enable transport of therapeutics to the brain.


APTIBody (Nanoterapias de Glioma)

Estrategia para generar anticuerpos activables y su aplicación para dirigir nanoterapias génicas a células madre de glioma
Funding Agency:
Research Group Link:
Materials Engineering (GEMAT)
Chemical & Synthetic Biology for Biotherapies (ChemSynBio)



Activatable antibodies in targeted therapies

Dr Oller from IQS has recently received a grant from the Semilla programme with the Spanish Cancer Society (AECC) to work on new types of activatable antibodies against a specific marker of resistant cancer cells.

Activatable Antibodies to Increase Selectivity for Brain Tumour Therapies

In the Materials Engineering Group (GEMAT) at the IQS School of Engineering, the team led by Dr Benjami Oller Salvia is working to take on two of the great challenges with GBM therapies.