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Beyond the sprint: stories from the marathon runners of science

by Guest Author on 28 Mar 2019

First, we removed the time-bound criteria from our fellowship applications, to give people more time to apply after completing their PhD. Then we did the same for our New Investigator Research Grants (NIRG). Other funders have followed suit (including Wellcome and Cancer Research UK), and we know that many researchers have benefited from these changes. Here four new investigators and fellows describe the different paths they’ve followed to become independent researchers, and how broadening access to our schemes has helped them along the route.

Marathon runners

Helen Price, Senior Lecturer in Bioscience, Keele University

Helen Price

I believe that I’m a better principal investigator because of the additional time I spent as a lab-based researcher. After working in cancer research, I returned to the field of parasitology, which had been the focus of my PhD. I worked as a senior research associate in a lab for 13 years, then did three years as a lecturer before applying for the MRC NIRG.

Now, two decades after my PhD, securing a NIRG means I can spend more of my time doing what I enjoy – studying the cell biology of parasites and looking for new ways to treat parasitic infection. As a lecturer, I dedicated 80% of my time to teaching. This meant I found it difficult to fit in research on top of my other responsibilities. The NIRG now enables me to spend 30% of my time on research. Being able to focus on my research has helped me to develop new collaborations and given me the confidence to apply for larger grants. My application for £4.5m to study the parasitic disease leishmaniasis has recently been shortlisted.

Jennifer Asimit, Senior Investigator Statistician, MRC Biostatistics Unit

Jennifer Asimit

I always knew I wanted to start my own research group, but there are some life events that can make it challenging to keep up in the research race. For me, this included transitioning into a different field (statistics to statistical genetics), moving from Canada to the UK and raising my three kids.

I spent 10 years as a postdoctoral researcher, of which three were as an MRC Skills Development Fellow. I’m delighted that the MRC Career Development Award is allowing me to expand on the research network I’ve been building. It is a solid foundation to create my own research group to develop new methods to increase our understanding of heart and metabolic diseases (cardiometabolic genetics). In my previous role as a senior investigator statistician I was already based at the unit for two years, so it means I can continue working with leading biostatisticians and maintain my external collaborations.

Christiaan van Ooij, Assistant Professor, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

After three years working as an editor at Nature Reviews Microbiology in London I thought my academic career was over. But research had always remained on my mind – the excitement of new discoveries, slowly but surely discovering how something works, building an understanding of a biological process step-by-step.

The change gave me time to return to research. I did this through a Wellcome Trust Career Re-entry Fellowship focused on the interaction of malaria parasites with the host’s red blood cells, a continuation of the work that I had done previously. The data I collected as a Career Re-entry Fellow formed the backbone of my application to the MRC Career Development Fellowship. This maximised my chances of a successful application which I obtained in 2018 – 20 years after completing my PhD.

Monique Gangloff, Senior Research Associate, University of Cambridge

I’ve always prioritised my family and didn’t want to keep moving around for my career. The grant funding has been key to enabling me to stay in a place I love, doing what I love, where I had my support network to start my own research group.

After my PhD in structural biology in 2000, my research focused on the immune system. I explored different structural techniques to help our understanding of how molecules in our bodies activate immune responses to fight infections. The NIRG (secured in 2017) has been my stepping stone to establishing a new line of research from scratch – investigating the immune system of mosquitos, which carry life-threatening diseases such as malaria and dengue fever.

By making our support mechanisms more flexible, we’re encouraging early-career researchers to apply to us when they’re ready to transition to independence. If you’re a researcher interested in applying for our support for your first award as an independent PI, our website provides information on the skills you’ll need to demonstrate and some of the different routes available.




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