Prestige, equality and inspiration
Joining a scientific community
Recognition of a ’Cinderella’ area of science and flexibility
Most of my research has been done in rural Asia, in particular in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka where we have studied potential clinical and public health interventions to prevent deaths from self-poisoning with pesticides, plants, and medicines. We aim to lower global suicide rates by 20%, particularly by reducing deaths from pesticide poisoning. More recently I have combined this work with clinical, volunteer, and large animal studies of antidotes in Edinburgh.
Most of my funding has come from the Wellcome Trust (for Sri Lankan work) and from Scotland’s Chief Scientist Office (for UK based work). But all of this funding, except for my Scottish Senior Clinical Research fellowship, has been tied to particular studies. There have rarely been flexible funds available for pump priming work or for recruiting essential colleagues.
This is where the Lister research prize comes in. A colleague in Edinburgh, Andrew Jackson, had won one of the prizes in 2009. Somehow I heard about this – I can’t remember where or when now. It sounded extremely attractive – a national competition for £200,000 research grants, based on the quality of a project proposal but judged in the context of a whole research program. It offered a prestigious prize, a stamp of quality from a scientific advisory committee that knew nothing about my work, and fellowship with a group of highly successful scientists.
I applied for the prize in 2009 with a proposal for a novel area of work but failed to make the interview short list. Over the year, I worked on the application, gaining pilot data, before submitting an improved application in December 2010. This time I made the interview.
The funds have proved invaluable, offering complete flexibility. The first thing I did was recruit a research projects coordinator – someone to keep an eye on the research finances and logistics and to help me with grant applications as I do the science. I also recruited a PhD student to run the research project with me in a collaborator’s lab. Already she has reproduced our large animal work and is now looking at the mechanisms of the neuromuscular junction failure that occurs after organophosphorus pesticide poisoning. A better understanding should allow us to identify antidotes to prevent this devastating complication of poisoning and save thousands of lives every year. Without the Lister Foundation’s prize, this work would have been much more difficult to drive through.
Developing a new research area
I applied for a Lister award to develop a new area of research in my group to understand the molecular mechanisms important for regulating the membrane trafficking of organelles and in particular mitochondria within neuronal axons and dendrites. In particular we have been focusing on the key role played by the Miro family of mitochondrial GTPases for the delivery of mitochondria to activated synapses during neuronal activity. With the help of Lister funding we are focusing on how mitochondrial trafficking is regulated by neuronal activity and calcium signaling under healthy conditions and how disruption of these pathways contribute to neuronal pathology that underpins neurological disease.
Ability to take risks and flexible funding
In 2005 I was awarded an RCUK Fellowship to build on this work as an independent Principal Investigator in the School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, where I am now Reader in Infectious Disease.
By far the most exceptional aspect of the Lister Fellowship is the flexibility of the funds. Over the last two years this has allowed us to bridge salaries, buy critical small items of equipment and, in general, to maintain a rapid pace of research by ‘filling in gaps’ between other grants. In short, it is probably the single most important award I’ve received in my career thus far, so for anyone thinking about applying, my advice is “Don’t hesitate!”.
Flexible funding aids creativity
I moved back to the UK in January 2006 and was fortunate to secure independent fellowship funding from the British Heart Foundation as well as establishing myself in a permanent position at the University of Bristol on the back of an RCUK Academic Research Fellowship. Unfortunately, neither of these fellowships came with sufficient funds to allow me to continue the state-of-the-art technologies I had applied in Boston. I was now interested in how hypothalamic glucose-sensing goes wrong in obesity and also how obesity-induced hypertension arises, particularly in relation to novel genes highlighted by Genome-Wide Association Studies. There were (and still are!) many unanswered questions around CNS neurogenetic pathways regulating metabolic and cardiovascular states, most of which can only be fully addressed using systems-level analysis of physiology; without funds to generate and analyse new genetically modified models, my research was in danger of being curtailed.
It was the Lister Institute for Preventive Medicine Prize which allowed me to perform research at an internationally competitive standard. Having a flexible £200,000 at my disposal enabled the creativity I had enjoyed at Harvard, allowing me to design a focused but adaptable research program.
With the Lister Prize I have generated new genetically modified models, retained and employed key staff between grants and delved into new (expensive but very exciting) avenues of next generation transcriptome sequencing. Critically, the Lister Prize further allowed my lab to keep running whilst I was away on maternity leave. The outcome of all this is not just continued publication in respected journals, but also preliminary data leading to BBSRC project grant funding, an ability to maintain international collaborations and last but not least progression within the University. A recent application for EC funds reminded me how refreshing and easy the Lister Institute’s ‘admin light’ approach to grant application, reporting and management is; again, it allows full focus on research.
Sadly, my time as a ‘current Lister Fellow’ is over, but because of the Lister Prize I am ideally equipped with publications and preliminary data to apply for a Senior Fellowships or the like. In addition, the annual Lister meetings make sure that all current and former Lister fellows stay in touch as an invaluable research community.