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Keys to Independence - Views from the Trenches

Making the transition from postdoc to independent investigator is tough. Scientists who received prestigious fellowships or grants relate their experiences-and offer some advice

Karin Hing has her own research team at the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Biomedical Materials at Queen Mary University in London. She also has independent funding, her research into bone graft substitutes has led to the formation of a spinoff company, and at home she has a budding family. In short, she could be mistaken for a successful senior lecturer at any U.K. research university. But one thing she doesn't have--yet--is a permanent faculty position.

Hing is one of a few early career scientists in the United Kingdom and Ireland who have won grants that allow them to work independently, even before they have attained lectureships (the equivalent of assistant professorships in the United States). These grants may come in the form of a fellowship in the United Kingdom or an independent research grant in Ireland, but whatever the name and particular strategy, they all provide a much-needed kick-start for an academic research career. Grants like these offer generous, independent research support, which gives highly talented young scientists some leverage to negotiate with universities for lab space and other support usually available only to lecturers and more experienced scientists. This in turn allows them to build their own research teams and--most importantly--to pursue their own research ideas. Despite their relative youth and inexperience, these lucky few are able to work as principal investigators (PIs) while greatly improving their prospects for more permanent academic employment. Call them "junior PIs."

Making the break. Karin Hing's fellowship has brought independence to pursue her work on bone graft substitutes.


Finding the right host

Funding bodies in the United Kingdom and Ireland offer a variety of schemes that provide young scientists at least some of the advantages that Hing enjoys (see story). These diverse programs all have a common goal: to free young scientists from dependence on a more senior scientist or even a university.

First, however, applicants for these coveted awards must find a university willing to provide lab space and other institutional support. In the United Kingdom, applicants approach a prospective host institution seeking an endorsement of their projects. Working out the nitty-gritty details of space and equipment and securing them permanently comes later. "In my experience, it is very unusual for a fellow to be promised an empty lab by their host before applying for a fellowship," Hing says. "But once you have your fellowship, you are then in a position to barter with your host for extra space--or to find a better offer!"

In Ireland, institutions tend to commit earlier, but this doesn't mean more casually. As Ruth Davis, research support officer at University College Cork, says, "We have to know up front--at the proposal stage--what the candidate needs." While they always look to choose the best scientific candidates, she notes, they must also consider whether "we can deliver the space and additional resources they need."

For the prospective junior PI, there is more to picking an institution than lab space and equipment. "People have to look at the support and inspiration [the host institution may offer them]," says Kevin Ryan, a Cancer Research UK senior cancer research fellow investigating how regulating factors in programmed cell death may be used as potential targets for therapy. Also important, Ryan says, is whether junior PIs feel comfortable with the departmental and institutional administrators they will have to work under, because "you will ask them for support and need to know that any concerns you may have will be heard." Ryan chose the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow because he knew the institute well, having worked there as a Ph.D. student.

Cormac Taylor of University College Dublin (UCD) Conway Institute of Biomolecular and Biomedical Research has a lot of experience with this kind of negotiation. Taylor won a Wellcome Trust Career Development Fellowship, which he used to start his work on oxygen sensing in human disease, after which he secured a Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Investigator grant. Taylor's advice: Use your fellowship and grant money as leverage to negotiate good working conditions. "Don't underestimate your own value, and don't undersell yourself."

"The biggest challenge is to manage people and know what everyone is doing." -Cormac Taylor


Boost your chances

That advice could apply equally well to researchers entering the hot competition for independent grants. Apart from an excellent track record, review panels look for a carefully conceived, interesting research plan that the applicant is well prepared to execute. SFI Director General Bill Harris says the main criteria are the "quality of the idea, quality of the recent track record of the researcher, and the strategic relevance of the research."

Kristina Downing of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford believes that the novelty of a project and its relevance to the funding body's mission are key. She should know; she has won two fellowships. In 1996, she received a Research Career Development Fellow- ship from the Wellcome Trust, a funding body in the United Kingdom primarily interested in understanding human health and disease. Downing proposed to study the structure of fibrillin 1, a large cell-membrane modular protein, and to examine how structural changes in the protein relate to human disease. In 2000, she applied for a Senior Research Fellowship in Basic Biomedical Science, also from the Wellcome Trust, and was successful again. This time her research project extended her findings to other proteins and diseases.

A potential for commercial applications may also tip the balance in an applicant's favor. Fergal O'Brien won a President of Ireland Young Researcher Award (PIYRA) from SFI to launch his research at the Department of Anatomy at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin. He is using his award to look into developing a physical collagen matrix that could be used clinically as an artificial tissue scaffold. O'Brien feels that the combination of basic research and commercial potential in his project attracted SFI's interest.

Showing that you will bring scientific knowledge back to the United Kingdom or Ireland is another factor that can play an important role, or so thinks UCD's Taylor. His Wellcome Trust Fellowship and SFI grant allowed him to return to his native Ireland after spending 5 years at Harvard Medical School in the United States. Taylor believes that the key to both of his funding successes was his desire and ability to "take expertise or technology from an international institution" and inject it into a local institution.

"Setting up my own lab was really hard. ... I had come from a pretty computational background and didn't know any molecular biology." -Kristina Downing


The bumpy road to independence

Once you have independent funding, a host institution, and lab space, then comes the really hard part: building up a research team. "Setting up my own lab was really hard," says Downing. "I had come from a pretty computational background and didn't know any molecular biology." She was helped by her first postdoc, who had more molecular-biology experience. Still, Downing estimates that by the time the old lab she was allocated was refurbished, the lab space arranged, and the equipment bought and delivered, 6 months had elapsed. "Fortunately, I was able to work in a different lab during this time, so no one's work suffered," she says.

Newly independent scientists also must hire--and support--people for the first time. PIYRA awardee O'Brien, who currently has three Ph.D. students and one postdoc, encourages new PIs to "take their time to pick the right people," because "it will pay off." O'Brien was "stunned" when his advertisement for a postdoc drew about 100 responses from around the world. O'Brien feels that he could hire a highly skilled candidate because he had 5 years of research funding. "That was a big selling point," he says.

Like any other newly independent scientist, independent-grant winners soon find themselves managing people, something they aren't trained to do. Taylor thinks that "science is the [relatively] easy part; the biggest challenge is to manage people and know what everyone is doing." Taylor started with a single technician, and he advises other scientists to "start small [in order] to learn people management." His team now has seven members.

Bird in the hand. Mark Whittingham hopes his fellowship to study foraging and distribution patterns in birds will lead to a permanent post.


Next destination: a permanent post?

With a substantial publication record and the experience of getting a lab up and running and launching an independent research team, independent grant winners are in good shape when the time comes to compete for permanent positions. "A fellowship is very valuable in terms of offering you 5 years and leverage to apply for a lectureship at a university," says Mark Whittingham, who joined the Department of Biology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., in 2004. Whittingham received a David Phillips Fellowship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to investigate foraging decisions and distribution patterns of birds and the implications for conservation.

Importantly, U.K. fellowships require host institutions to help recipients integrate into the regular academic staff. "I haven't signed anything, but there is an informal agreement that as long as I do well, I will get a position," says Whittingham.

For some independent-funding recipients, integrating into the regular permanent staff isn't a problem. Ryan applied for a lectureship at the Beatson Institute at the same time he applied for his Cancer Research UK Fellowship. "I got offered the job before getting the fellowship," he says. When he won the fellowship shortly after that, the institute offered him a new package, tailored for his position, and he was able to hire a couple of extra people. Yet Ryan is confident he would have benefited if things had happened in the opposite order. "If you want to have a job, a fellowship is a very good thing to bring with you," he says. "It is very attractive to employers, because you have a salary, it is quite prestigious, and it indicates you are able to write a research plan that has already been vetted."

Still, the picture may not be as rosy for everybody, given the current dearth of faculty positions. Justin McCarthy, an SFI Investigator in the Department of Biochemistry at University College Cork, fears that some who have impressive PI funding but no tenure may be left in the lurch when their funding dries up. He, fortunately, won't be in that position; he already holds a lectureship.

Hing's position is not as secure. "Once I had the fellowship, they gave me a lectureship [immediately]," she says. But this was a fixed-term lectureship. Although it topped up her fellowship salary and added to the prestige without requiring onerous teaching and administrative duties, "there was no guarantee of employment beyond the end of my fellowship," she says.

Now reaching the end of her fellowship, Hing is negotiating with her institution for a permanent position. "I have been led to believe I will get a permanent position, but I am not 100% sure," she says. She advises new grantees to make a clear arrangement about what is going to happen when their independent funding runs out. "You should negotiate a permanent position with your host from the beginning, so that you can relax and concentrate on your research throughout your fellowship," she says. And if it should prove impossible to get a firm promise from the host institution, she advises looking into what other career prospects may be offered by other institutions--another great advantage of having funding in your own name.

Also in this special International Careers Report ...

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