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MRC Senior Non-Clinical Fellow: Dr Donald J. Davidson


Dr Donald J. Davidson

Current job

MRC Senior Non-Clinical Fellow and Inflammation Biologist at the MRC Centre for Inflammation, the University of Edinburgh

Key quote

“One of the things I love most about science is the opportunity to follow your nose. There are so many opportunities to develop your interests – you just have to grab them when they come up.”

Length of career

23 years

Career in brief

I completed a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh but realised that a clinical career wasn’t for me, so I didn’t immediately undertake clinical training jobs. There was a brief period after medical school where I considered both an artistic career and a scientific career. But then I got a summer placement at the MRC Human Genetics Unit, followed by a two-year lab technician post. I loved the lab work, carved out a niche for myself and got invaluable core training in molecular biology techniques. I then completed medical and surgical training posts in Glasgow, for full GMC registration, in order to obtain a clinician scientist post, which I did for five years while also doing a self-funded part-time PhD.

After my PhD I got a non-clinical Wellcome Trust Travelling Prize Fellowship, as did my wife. We both went to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver for four years to work as postdoctoral fellows. That was wonderful, but we had our first child in Canada, and eventually decided to come back to the UK. I chose the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research in Edinburgh for my repatriation year and have been here ever since, supported by a Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellowship and now the MRC Senior Non-Clinical Fellowship.

My research focuses on antimicrobial peptides. These are naturally occurring antimicrobial agents that can both kill bacteria and viruses, and alter the way that the body responds to inflammation or infection to enhance the removal of the threat.

I spend my days

I’m based much more in the office than in the lab now. I do a lot of reading, writing up, planning and directing the research that we do, and applying for grants. Then there’s teaching, supervising, and meetings with students and staff, but is it important to see what the team are doing at the bench too!

I also get involved in lots of activities outside of bench research. I’m passionate about public engagement with science, and this has allowed me to combine my love of science with my passion for visual arts. I do a lot of work with primary schools and science festivals, running sessions and illustrating materials.

Career highlights

I don’t really have any one specific career highlight. I just love the excitement of discovery, and that science allows me to indulge my curiosity about the natural world. That’s what drives me.

Biggest challenges

One of the challenges of being a scientist is when things simply aren’t working in the lab. There are peaks and troughs – you have to be quite resilient and work your way through the times when nothing works, because it’s so great when something exciting happens. Another major area of challenge is the “publish or perish” mentality with so much weight on getting papers in high impact factor journals in securing subsequent funding.

A key challenge for me was a short period between my career development fellowship and senior fellowship where I had no funds for a few months. I had a lot of self-doubt and needed to rely on the Centre and University for support – both financial and pastoral.

Being a scientist with a family is also challenging. My family life is very important to me, and it means I work much more intensely when I’m at work than before I had family. I try to make the best use of my time at work – I don’t do coffee breaks anymore! It’s about making the best use of time at work, so I can make the best use of time when I’m not at work.

Skills I need to do my job

I think you need creativity married to attention to detail and strong analytical skills, the ability to focus quickly to the core of an issue, strong organisational skills, determination, resilience and self-discipline. You also need flexibility, good communication and group management skills, and then of course the bench work itself takes a certain amount of scientific “green fingers”!

Words of wisdom

If you create an inflexible career plan, you’re less likely to achieve what you want. You need to be focused and to plan ahead, but try to be flexible about changes of direction when opportunities arise – recognise them and grab them. And don’t be afraid of doing something a little unconventional. I met a lot of resistance when I gave up my clinical career – even my bank manager thought I was being an idiot – but there’s no point in doing something you’re not happy in.

Often it’s a case of giving something a go. Not trying is the surest way of not succeeding. In science it’s important to keep trying – accept that you will fail sometimes and get up and try again.

Next steps

After 23 years in science, I now have a career position here at the University that I will take up when my fellowship ends in a year. Top of current priority list are publishing the many findings from this fellowship work, and writing grants to consolidate and continue the work. I also intend to develop more of the communications work that we’re doing at the moment.

Another important thing is to make sure that the careers of everyone else in the group progress too – one of the biggest changes from being a postdoc doing your own thing to being a group leader is that you’re in part responsible for the careers of the people who are working for you.

Further information

Donald’s university profile page

Donald’s website

Donald’s Twitter account

Correct as of: September 2015