January has been a particularly momentous start to 2017 for me. Last week, I attended an interview with the Medical Research Council, one of the seven major research councils in the UK. This regimented 23 minute interview would decide the fate of the fellowship proposal I submitted seven months ago, and might potentially fund the next three years of my research (modelling type 1 diabetes).
I entered the room with the expected nerves, but confident that I had done as much as I could to prepare myself for the questions of the 16 person panel. I gave a 5 minute presentation on my research, and then answered questions from the panel on a wide range of topics.
The following afternoon, I received an email from the council telling me that I had been successful, and a huge sense of relief followed. The timing on a Thursday meant that the whole group could join myself and Eder Zavala (another successful MRC fellow from our wider group) in celebrating this event fully on the Friday!
Academic fellowships are significant sums of money offered by research councils and many charities. They provide funding for researchers that cover salaries, equipment and training during key transition points in their careers. Importantly, they allow the recipients of the awards to focus almost entirely on their research project, (meaning they don’t have to commit to extensive teaching or administrative duties). Fellowships are designed to provide training opportunities for (typically) early career researchers to expedite the development of skills so that they can work towards becoming independent researchers in their own right. As such, fellowships serve as a great stepping stone for an academic career.
A colleague once told me that applying for a fellowship is a full time job in itself, and having been through the process, I can confirm this to be true. Given the prestige associated with the fellowships, it should come as no surprise that competition for them is fierce, and you submit applications in the knowledge that there are many other talented researchers applying for the same scheme.
Ultimately, if you are selected for shortlisting, you have only 23 minutes to convince the judging panel, consisting of experts across a range of biomedical disciplines, that they should award you funding over other candidates. Questions from the panel covered every aspect of my proposal progressing from bench to bedside. This included scientific aims, training aspects and feasibility, all the way through to real world applications.
The weeks leading up to the interview saw me almost exclusively preparing for it, almost to the point of obsession. During this period, I revised what I perceived to be the most relevant literature for my proposal, received communication training from a specialist, and underwent two gruelling mock interviews. The mock interviews, though nerve wracking at the time, were really useful, both in terms of preparation for the onslaught of questions in the real interview, and in helping me control my anxiety. I really appreciate the time and commitment from everyone that helped with these.
I am incredibly excited to start my research project, which will investigate how communication between beta cells in the pancreas affects the dynamics of insulin secretion. Insulin is one of the key regulators of blood glucose levels and is secreted into the blood solely by beta cells. Dysfunction of the secretory process is associated with diabetes, and by gaining a deeper understanding of the role of intercellular communication, we can hope to understand how to rescue some of the cellular function in the disease state.
One of the most surprising things of the fellowship application has been the number of people involved. Ultimately, the fellowship is a personal award, but this does a disservice to those who have helped me along the way. The list is far too long to include everyone, but I would especially like to thank my sponsors: Prof. Morgan, Prof. Randall and Prof. Tsaneva for their continued support of my research, together with members of their respective labs for training me in basic biomedical skills. I would also like to mention Kevin Sales and the wider Research Services team, who provided significant assistance with the administrative processes.
Finally, for his advice, support and belief in me, I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Prof. John Terry, who has been, and continues to be, a great mentor.