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Clinical Research Fellow: Dr Alessia David

Current job:

Clinical Research Fellow at the Centre for Integrative System Biology and Bioinformatics, Imperial College London and Honorary Lecturer in Endocrinology, in the Department of Endocrinology, Charing Cross Hospital.

Length of career:

13 years

Key quote:

Life is full of ups and downs. Failures and rejections are just part of the journey and we should not let them kill our dreams! 

Career in brief:

I studied medicine and completed my specialist training in Endocrinology and Diabetes in Italy. After, I decided to pursue an academic career and moved to London for a PhD in molecular biology and genetics at the Centre for Endocrinology in the William Harvey Research Institute at Queen Mary University London.

After my PhD, I was awarded a Wellcome Trust Value in People award, which allowed me to continue my research at the Institute. It was during this time that I realised how important bioinformatics expertise had become in generating and answering research hypotheses. So I made contact with Professor Mike Sternberg at Imperial College and established a collaboration with his group. This initial contact led me to apply for an MSc in Bioinformatics and System Biology at Imperial College London, which I completed thanks to an MRC studentship, before going on a 3-year career break to look after my family.

Career break:

In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of funding opportunities for career re-entry. The MRC has created a one-stop-shop website where all such grants are listed with hyperlinks to relevant web pages. It is important that such opportunities are well advertised and widely visible. It would be great if funders gave a linked to ‘Career re-entry opportunities’ from their homepage.

When I was looking for career re-entry opportunities, I contacted several funders, such as the MRC and the Royal Society. I must say that I have always encountered extremely kind and helpful people, who were happy to read my CV, listen to my career path and give me constructive advice, for example by pointing me towards a Funder or award that I was not aware of. As well as my current Fellowship, I also applied for the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship.

I kept in touch with developments in my area of research and continued my collaboration with the Department of Bioinformatics at Imperial. This ultimately helped me to obtain an MRC post-doctoral training fellowship in Biomedical informatics (now skills development fellowship).

MRC post-doctoral training Fellowship in Bioinformatics:

Many endocrine disorders are caused by genetic factors. However, often we don’t know how the genetic factor leads to disease. I’m trying to understand this by developing algorithms to assess how genetic variations in the human genome impact on protein function, structure and, ultimately, biological systems. The aim is to predict the effect of different genetic factors, so we can prioritise research into those that may cause disease or increase your risk of developing disease.

My fellowship gives me the flexibility to have some protected time as a clinician. Being an active clinician helps me to identify gaps in our understanding of genetic causes of disease. I can also tell which problems can be tackled using a bioinformatics approach. My ultimate goal is to understand these factors well enough for us to provide personalised medicine.

I completed my 3-year fellowship this year and I have bridging funding to continue my research and apply for grants that will allow me to pursue my goal of setting up my own research group.

The SUSTAIN programme:

I enrolled in SUSTAIN – a year-long programme of training, mentoring and peer networking for women in science – during the last year of my MRC Fellowship. This happened at a crucial moment of my career, when I was due to make major decisions about my next career steps, while feeling overwhelmed by the challenge of delivering high quality research, building a successful career in a very competitive environment and raising two little children. I’ve written a blog about SUSTAIN.

I spend my days:

When I am not in clinic, my typical day is spent in the lab, programming and interacting with a large group of colleagues at Imperial College. Recently, I have established important collaborations with other centres and frequently interact with or visit my collaborators. I also supervise several students, ranging from undergraduates to PhDs.  

Career highlights:

Obtaining the MRC training fellowship in Bioinformatics! This allowed me to come back to the two things I love: basic research and medicine. It also allowed me to develop further as a scientist, acquire a supervisory role within my group, establish several important collaborations and generate research papers and grant applications. I have also had the opportunity to talk to school children and the public about my research.

Biggest challenges:

Coming back after a long career break was a huge challenge. Keeping up with the rapid developments in the world of research can be extremely challenging during a career break. You need lots of motivation and enthusiasm, especially when trying to put together grant applications. 

My second-biggest challenge was deciding to train in bioinformatics, when bioinformatics had not yet become as popular as it is today. Many people thought that I was crazy to abandon molecular biology. Now most of them agree with me that bioinformatics is the missing link between genetics and molecular biology.

The third biggest challenge I have had to face (and I am still working on this!) is achieving a good work-life balance, while finding quality time for my children. This is particularly tough when trying to shape a career as a clinician scientist.

Skills I consider most valuable:

Enthusiasm, curiosity, passion, resilience, endurance.

I am inspired by:

My PhD supervisor and now mentor, Professor Adrian Clark. He is probably one of the reasons I got “hooked” to basic science. He has been inspirational, not only as a scientist but also as a supervisor and team leader. 

Words of wisdom:

Persevere! But also be flexible and learn to adjust to new or unexpected situations. You will inevitably encounter difficulties but face them with optimism. Seek advice from your mentors!

Next steps:

My ultimate goal is to establish myself as an independent researcher and secure a position within the Academia that will allow me to continue to deliver high quality science.

Further information:

Alessia’s blog about SUSTAIN

SUSTAIN scheme information

THE article on SUSTAIN

Science doesn’t only need sprinters – Why the MRC removed time-bound criteria

Explore funding opportunities across 8 funders

Correct as of: October 2016