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Wellcome Trust Fellow: Getting (Well) Paid for Work You Love

My position as a senior research fellow of the Wellcome Trust gives me independence and allows me to run a lab in my own style, working in a place I want to be. At this time, I employ four energetic people, which is plenty for me--two postdocs, one research assistant now registered for a PhD, and a newly appointed Wellcome Trust Prize student. I am able to work in the lab and give my graduate students and postdocs the individual attention they deserve.

I chose the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex because here I have colleagues with similar research interests with whom I can interact on a daily basis, which is very important. And Brighton is a fun place to live.

But why a senior research fellowship?

Because it represents an ideal career option for me. I love working at the bench and want to keep doing so for as long as possible. In fact, I guard this privilege jealously and get ratty when I am tied to my desk for any length of time. To make sure things remain sweet with my host institution, I perform limited amounts of teaching, at my discretion, which to me is very rewarding and a good way of finding PhD students. But I keep administrative duties, apart from those relating to my grants, to a minimum. And to prevent such duties from encroaching on my ?working day,? I keep my paperwork (reading, writing, and reviewing manuscripts and grants) for the evening, so life is pretty full and hectic.

Like everything, my position has its good points and bad points, but in my opinion, the former outweigh the latter by far. So you may want to know how I got where I am and what were the choices I made along the way.

I had a great time doing my PhD in the biochemistry department at the University of Cambridge and decided to use this as a ticket to both work in science and travel, something I have always wanted to do. But where to go and whom to work with? How do you get it right? Your first postdoc can be a bit of a lottery, and I strongly suggest that you carefully check out potential supervisors. Face-to-face is best, and international meetings are a great opportunity to do this, usually in the bar late at night when they have had a few. Jump at the chance to ask their postdocs what it is like to work in the lab, and grill the PhD students about the time they are expected to spend at the bench; and if they have been left back in the lab, ask yourself why.

I wanted to stay in the area of translational control, so I asked my supervisor to recommend researchers in the United States who were easygoing and human and who were doing good work. After meeting my potential supervisor, who happened to be passing through London, intuition told me he was the guy to work for, and I ended up doing a postdoc at the University of California, Davis. I arrived in San Francisco carrying a dry ice package, with $36 in my pocket, $24 of which was used to get the bus to Davis. I lived off goodwill from the lab and slept on another postdoc?s floor for a month before finding a shared apartment. Although work went slowly, my supervisor was extremely supportive, and I learned the nuts and bolts of protein purification, having a whale of a time in the process.

Playtime outside the lab is very important; it keeps work in perspective and gives you time to reflect and unwind while allowing you to interact with a community outside the lab. It?s amazing what is out there, and I recommend you make the most of the place you go to. Through my supervisor?s contacts, I got onto a 3-week rafting trip through the Grand Canyon, shooting rapids on a 4-meter rubber raft, sleeping rough in the wilderness. I trained and then worked as a white-water rafting guide for a commercial company at the weekends, and I even organised a private river trip for the whole lab. I did cross-country skiing in the winter and competed in National Championship 3-kilometer open water swims in Northern California. I got to do a 22.5-km relay swim across Lake Tahoe starting off the beach in the snow with Mark Spitz (well, I saw him for about 30 seconds before he disappeared into the distance ...). I was fortunate, as my supervisor positively encouraged this extracurricular activity, believing that a balance between hard work and play was important for productivity in the lab.

My lifestyle changed when I met my wife (in the local bar on Super Bowl Sunday) and my daughter was born in Woodland, just up the road. I got married in the local courthouse and endured a harrowing FBI interview for my green card before we moved into the countryside, keeping a dog, a few chickens, and ducks for fun. But short-term contracts come to an end, so we soon had to decide where to go next.

The next logical step for me work-wise was at the University of California, Riverside, just outside Los Angeles, where I could investigate the physiological phosphorylation of the proteins I had learned to purify. So, after an interview, we packed the animals into the pickup truck and headed south. This new life brought my first real dilemma: How do you balance work with family when your partner is working as well? I was lucky to have picked an understanding partner as well as a professor who appreciated my need to watch my daughter grow up.

To spend as much time as possible with her, I started a work regime that has stuck with me ever since, sometimes to the extremes! I now get into the lab early (at the bench by 5:30 a.m.), work intensely, and go home early (about 4:30 p.m.), trying not to do lab work on weekends. So when my daughter was young, I assumed parental duties during my time out of the lab so that my partner could get on with her work. I loved it, and it worked for us. Fortunately, my research went very well and I limited journal reading and manuscript writing to when my daughter was in bed.

I got my first tattoo in Riverside, a milestone of another sort, and have collected them from all of the other places I have lived since. We stayed in Riverside for nearly 3 years but decided to move on, wanting to try Europe for a change. So the ducks went to the local lake, the chickens had long since been eaten by coyotes, and the dog was flown (in style) to Europe. My Royal Society Travelling Fellowship took us to Basel, Switzerland, for me to study the signalling pathways involved in the phosphorylation of translation initiation factors. I never actually got as far as looking at my proteins of choice, but I learned a lot of techniques from my colleagues and a lot about myself. Although I had met my supervisor face-to-face, my intuition had let me down this time. And my phone conversation with another member of the lab did not help, as it turned out he shared an office with my supervisor and could not be frank in his answers. Apart from having to cope with a new language in everyday life, this was quite a different work environment from what I was used to--more intense, regimented, and at times difficult to contend with.

Still, we managed to get an excellent social life, and we made some lasting friendships. My 3-year old daughter attended a local kindergarten and became fluent in German--useful when out and about in town. I modelled at a tattoo convention, which was a novel experience, and we travelled as much as we could to nearby countries. It was particularly nice to be able to walk into France to shop and then into Germany to swim. In spite of this, we only lasted 2 years in Basel. The dog died there, and the family moved on with 3 months' notice by mutual consent after my proven ?work habits? were deemed to be ?out of line? with the rest of the lab's. So what was to be next? A real job of some kind? Academia or industry? I applied for over 50 jobs but was unsuccessful in obtaining any lectureship or research position. Fortunately, I identified a niche for myself in the field--a novel area of research in translational control--and wrote a proposal jointly with a permanent member of faculty at the University of Sussex, U.K., who had actually taught me years earlier. This earned us a project grant from the Wellcome Trust.

So we packed up again and moved to the United Kingdom, where we have been ever since. The work was very successful and introduced me to the minefield that is administration and staff management. I try my best, but I?m sure I could do better. My philosophy is that PhD students and postdocs should go to as many meetings as they can stomach and take off as much time as they like, as long as they get the work done, according to their own schedules. In most cases, input equates with final output, and they know it deep down! More difficult for me was learning how to bite my tongue and keep my fingers out to let young scientists learn from their mistakes.

After 3 years, this framework of research allowed me to secure a senior research fellowship from the Wellcome Trust, good for 5 years of research. It was hard work writing the grant, but nothing compared to the interview! Work progressed, and I hired more people, obtained new equipment, and kept working at the bench. My fellowship was renewed recently for another 5 years, so I must be doing something right. I still work in the lab; it is not flash, it stinks like a lab, and we trip over each other all the time, but on the whole I think we function well as a unit. I insist that prospective PhD students visit the lab and spend the day talking openly with my postdocs and students so that they can see whether this is the place for them.

Just as important to my mental health, my family is settled here. My daughter, 15 years old now, really wants only food, money, and a ride somewhere, and my partner has enrolled in a photography degree at the University of Brighton. I still work to my personal regime, which suits me fine, but life is more stressful as I continually try to juggle time between research, administration, and family. I have 3 more years before it is decision time again. Do we stay or do we go? Where? To do what? Principal research fellowship application? Academia? Industry? I?m burying my head in the sand for now and enjoying the lab work, but these burning decisions are lurking around the corner!

Work in Simon Morley?s lab is sponsored by grants from the Wellcome Trust, to whom he is eternally grateful for letting him have his cake and eat it too.

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