Feature: Pick of the postdocs: Meet three Sir Henry Wellcome Fellows
28 September 2010
You've got your BSc, maybe an MSc too. A year or four chained to the laboratory bench, the long days of experiments and even longer nights of thesis writing behind you and you've earned your PhD. So what now? For many researchers, the next step is to find a postdoctoral position in a lab.
But not all postdocs are the same. In 2006, the Wellcome Trust introduced a scheme unlike any other available in the UK. Every year since, up to 20 researchers receive £250 000 each over four years to launch their independent research careers. Fellows can divide their time between different institutions across the world, giving them the chance to get experience in the best labs for their field, gain independence and make contacts.
We spoke to some of the current fellows to find out about their experiences and research so far, and the best ways to secure one of these fellowships.
Inspired? It's not too late to apply for this year's competition; see the details.
In the beginning
Dr Shane Herbert was one of the first 20 researchers to be awarded a Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship, in late 2007. Having completed a PhD and a year of postdoc research at the University of Leeds, Shane headed to the USA to undertake his Fellowship.
"The best place in the world to do what I wanted to do was California, so I've based my Fellowship at the University of California, San Francisco. There's such a large network here that I've had multiple collaborations with other researchers within the faculty," he says.
Shane is investigating how new blood vessels form on a molecular level. Insufficient or excessive growth of blood vessels plays a role in many different kinds of disease, including cancer, blindness and stroke. The ultimate aim of his work is to identify the molecules that affect how blood vessels behave and try and use them to design drugs to combat these diseases.
He had planned to split his four-year Fellowship between working on two models: zebrafish and mouse. However, when the zebrafish proved particularly promising early on, his plans changed. "The flexibility of the award allows me to stick with this model for now and then pick up the mouse later on in my career," he says.
He appreciates the greater autonomy and independence that this Fellowship provides, compared with some other postdoctoral schemes. "The salary is included in the Fellowship, but so is money for consumables [the everyday items needed for lab research]," he says. "When you're working in somebody else's lab as an independent Fellow, this is critical, as it means that you can direct your own research and do the experiment you want to do."
Fellows are asked to find a mentor, someones who's independent of their work, as part of the scheme. Shane has found this invaluable: "I don’t think I'd be in the position I'm in currently without my mentor, Steve Watson at the University of Birmingham. He's helped with job negotiations, putting together offers etc. You have tons of questions, so it's vital you choose someone you feel comfortable with."
Like Shane, Dr Tim Hallett received one of the inaugural Fellowships. Currently based in Seattle at the University of Washington, he's studying interventions to stop the spread of HIV and how these could be tailored for different populations and different epidemics.
"So far, my Fellowship's been really, really busy, but productive," he says. "The best thing has been being able to switch focus and follow my nose a bit - following up developments in the field, for instance, as they arise."
An example of this is the 'test and treat' debate, when a group working on HIV said that to stop the disease they should treat everyone with the infection. "This created an enormous debate in the international research community," Tim says. "I switched focus for a little while to work on that, and published a paper quite quickly to add to the discussion. That was really satisfying."
He's been part of many collaborations as part of his Fellowship. As well as keeping close links with Imperial College London, where he did his PhD, he's also worked with agencies including UNAIDS, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. He's travelled to a number of places including Qatar, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Thailand. Most recently, he's been working with researchers from Karachi, Pakistan to develop evidence-based recommendations on how to help injecting drug users there.
"The travel was one of the big draws for me," he says. "The field I'm in is very international and there are groups working all over the world that I'd always wanted to work with. The Fellowship let me do that.
"It was quite a big step, particularly as I've got two children who came with me - but they're enjoying their holiday out here!"
Travel has played a large part in Dr Marie-Jo Brion's Fellowship. Her PhD involved looking at the factors that influence childhood blood pressure in the ALSPAC cohort in Bristol, made up of children born to over 14 000 mothers living in the Bristol area in the early 1990s. For her Fellowship she's expanded this work by also looking at a second cohort, Pelotas, consisting of 5000 children born in the Brazilian city of Pelotas in 1993. She is comparing both groups to try and understand what factors are involved in different aspects of child health.
While it's not new to compare populations, researchers tended to use similar populations, with most research coming from cohorts based in high-income countries, Marie-Jo says. For her Fellowship, she's comparing a high-income cohort with a middle-income one.
"When you compare two cohorts that are as dissimilar as ALSPAC and Pelotas you get a better idea of whether something is causing a particular condition or not," she says. "We can compare and contrast, for example, predictors of maternal smoking in pregnancy and then use this to explore how maternal smoking relates to aspects of child health in both populations. These comparisons can then give us a better idea of whether biological intrauterine factors are likely to be driving these associations, or if it's more likely to be due to wider social, psychological or environmental factors."
In a paper recently published in 'Pediatrics', Marie-Jo and colleagues showed that while socioeconomic predictors of maternal smoking in pregnancy differed between ALSPAC and Pelotas, there was remarkable consistency in the association between maternal smoking and child behavioural problems, strengthening the likelihood that these problems are due to intrauterine effects of fetal exposure to tobacco smoke.
Around halfway through her Fellowship, she's already spent six months working in Brazil and 12 months at the University of Western Australia's Centre for Genetic Epidemiology and Biostatistics. Here, she's been gaining experience in the latest techniques for using genetic information in epidemiological studies, something new to her for the Fellowship.
"I’m looking to use genetic information as proxies for maternal exposures in pregnancy," Marie-Jo says. For example, there are genetic variants related to whether or not mums stop smoking during pregnancy, and how effectively people’s bodies break down the ethanol in alcohol. You can use these genetic variants as a means to tease out to what extent mothers' smoking or drinking in pregnancy might biologically affect components of development in children.
"It's about taking forward the conventional approaches for studying health and disease and trying to improve it and get more reliable answers," she says.
Do it yourself
So what do these researchers think is the secret to securing one of these prestigious Fellowships? Shane is emphatic about getting the right people behind you. "The most important thing to do is to identify the key people in the field doing what you want to do, then approach them about being sponsors for your application," he says. "Finding the best people is critical."
For the application itself, you must identify a niche within your field of interest that you can develop into. "This will give you the best opportunity to develop an independent research career in the future. If you want a chance to become one of the top three people in the world in your field, then you need to be a competitive researcher."
Marie-Jo agrees about finding a unique question: "I tried to think of a project that pushed the boundaries a little bit. It was exciting and interesting to try and come up with things that might extend conventional approaches and improve the way we're able to get answers."
"It is a big jump from PhD," she says, "but a big learning curve, which is excellent. It's great knowing that how things turn out is, by and large, a function of what you do with your time, how well you liaise with people and how well you work."
"I have very warm and fuzzy feelings for the Wellcome Trust for giving me this opportunity and for filling this gap in the market," Tim laughs. "What would I say to prospective applicants? Well, you’ve got nothing to lose by applying. It's one of those really rare opportunities: four years of research funding, a generous amount of travel and work abroad. It's a gift - if you can get it, go for it!"
Strathdee SA et al. HIV and risk environment for injecting drug users: the past, present, and future. Lancet 2010;376(9737):268-84.
Brion et al. Maternal smoking and child psychological problems: disentangling causal and noncausal effect. Pediatrics 2010;126(1):e57-65.
See the scheme pages for more information and to watch some of the current Fellows, including Marie-Jo Brion, talk about their experiences.
This year's Fellows
Congratulations to the 2010 Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellows:
Oliver Bannard, University of Oxford - The regulation of B-cell responses during malaria infections.
Ross Chapman, CRUK London Research Institute - Defining the role of BRCA1 and associated proteins in suppressing 53BP1-dependent toxic DNA repair.
Molly Crockett, University College London - Automatic and analytical altruism: neurobiological foundations of human prosocial behaviour.
Samuel Dean, University of Oxford - The trypanosome flagellar pocket functions and adaptations in differentiation, pathogenicity and immune evasion.
Helge Dorfmueller, University of Dundee - Mechanism and inhibition of chitin synthesis.
Daniel Fazakerley, University of Dundee - Use of proteomics and systems biology to dissect the molecular adaptability of metabolism in muscle and fat cells.
Demis Hassabis, University College London - Understanding the episodic memory system and its critical role in future thinking.
Nerea Irigoyen, University of Cambridge - Ribosomal frame-shifting and read-through in virus gene expression.
Benjamin Judkewitz, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine - Optofluidic microscopy for portable low-cost malaria diagnostics.
Line Löken, University of Oxford - Feelings of pain and pleasure: delineating hedonic sensation in the brain.
Andrew MacAskill, University College London - Spine-specific targeting of ion channels in striatal neurons.
John Perry, University of Exeter - Identifying low-frequency and rare genetic variation involved in type 2 diabetes using next-generation sequencing data.
Sridharan Rajagopalan, University of Oxford - Proteases as next-generation therapeutics for influenza A.
Oliver Ratmann, Imperial College London - Unravelling the dynamics of rapidly evolving infectious diseases in humans with approximate Bayesian computations.
Anthony Roberts, University of Leeds - Mechanisms regulating movement and force generation by cytoplasmic dynein.
Aleksandra Watson, University of Cambridge - The structural basis of the interactions of the NuRD co-repressor complex.
Elton Zeqiraj, University of Dundee - A structural and biochemical approach to understand the molecular mechanism of glycogen synthesis.
Kaixin Zhou, University of Dundee - Heritability and pharmacogenetics in patients with type 2 diabetes.
For more on the 2010 Fellows, see the press release.