Case study

Anita Thapar

Anita ThaparProfessor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Cardiff UniversityCollaborative Awards in Science

Getting Wellcome Trust funding

What attracted you to Wellcome and to the Collaborative Awards in Science scheme?

I’ve had funding from Wellcome previously. Quite a lot of my early work on ADHD genetics was funded by Wellcome. I applied to this scheme in particular because I’m a clinical scientist and I believe that it is impossible to do top quality science unless I work with other people who have expertise in different areas. 

I work in mental health and we really do need that cross-disciplinary fertilisation and joint grants to make new discoveries. 

What aspects of the funding are most useful to you?

The funding will enable us to gather the data we need to address the questions that we’re interested in. It will fund posts that will bring together skills from two research centres – at Cardiff and Bristol. So it funds data collection and it funds people. We wouldn’t be able to do it without the funding.

What do you think about Wellcome’s application process?

The process for the Collaborative Awards in Science went through Wellcome’s population health research strand. I’m a psychiatrist, but this seemed a more appropriate panel to go through. My experience was extremely positive, and I had lots of good advice from Wellcome people. The process for this scheme – preliminary application and then interview – was straightforward. 

How challenging have you found it to secure funding?

In recent years it has been very challenging to get funding for the sort of research I do – at the interface of clinical and science. However persistence pays off. We got this funding.  

What advice would you give to other applicants?

Go for the Collaborative scheme, especially if you're a clinical academic.

If your project spans different disciplines, then it's helpful having other people with you at the interview because you can answer different questions. It was really important we had research questions that involved collaboration, and we did lots of interviews and practice runs as a team.

Career path

Career summary

  • 1999-present Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Cardiff University
  • 2009-present Theme lead, Developmental Disorders, MRC Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics
  • 2017 Frances Hoggan Medal for Outstanding Research by Women in STEM, The Learned Society of Wales
  • 2017 CBE for services to Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • 2015 Presidents Medal, Royal College of Psychiatrists
  • 2014-2017 Visiting Professor, University of Sussex
  • 2014 Ruane Prize for Outstanding Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Research, Brain and Behavior Research Foundation 
  • 1996-1999 Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant, University of Manchester
  • 1995 PhD University of Wales College of Medicine
  • 1991-1995 MRC Research Training Fellow, University of Wales College of Medicine
  • 1989 MRCPsych Royal College of Psychiatrists 

What have been the defining moments of your career so far?

A big defining moment was during my clinical training when I became deeply interested in research. I was awarded a clinical research training fellowship, and that marked my transition from being a clinician to becoming a clinical academic. 

And getting my first grant back in the 1990s was a defining moment. At that point we didn't really know much about genetic contributions to mental health so quite a lot of my work in the early days was looking at whether there was a genetic contribution to different types of child mental health problems. 

Another defining moment was getting a Wellcome Trust Showcase Award to look at children born by IVF – that is genetically related and unrelated mothers and children. This design enabled us to test whether specific prenatal risk factors have likely causal risk effects on children’s mental health.

For causal risks it shouldn’t matter if the children are related or unrelated to the pregnant woman. For example, we thought smoking in pregnancy caused ADHD problems. Using this design the association was explained by the genetic relationship between the mother and the child. We wouldn't have been able to do this research through normal funding mechanisms. 

Research and public engagement

What’s the key question you're addressing?

We used to think neurodevelopmental disorders such as ADHD and autism only happened in childhood, but we now know that adults are also affected. So we are looking at the natural history of neurodevelopmental problems from childhood to adulthood using a UK cohort and testing the contribution of genetic and prenatal risk factors to neurodevelopmental trajectories. 

How are you going about answering this question?

If you're going to look at factors that influence the longer-term trajectory of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders you need epidemiologists and mathematicians, so that's who I'm working with: Prof George Davey Smith, Prof Kate Tilling and Dr Evie Stergiakouli.    

We will work with the UK cohort ALSPAC. Individuals in this cohort have been studied since they were in the womb. We’ll describe their neurodevelopmental problems at the age of 26, and find out how they are linked to earlier child/adolescent profiles. 

We will also test the extent to which genetic risk factors and early life experiences (in the womb and the early years) make a difference to life-long (at least till age 26) neurodevelopmental health. And we'll collaborate with other cohorts across the world to map the natural history of these neurodevelopmental problems.

Are you planning any public engagement work?

Yes, we've always done a lot of public engagement work with children, young people and their families, and adults with neurodevelopmental disorders, as well as with clinicians and the general public. 

I think public engagement is really important. If you're going to do science, you need to be able to share your findings with the public. ADHD and autism are stigmatising disorders and there are loads of myths around mental health problems, so it's really important that the public understand them.

More information

Find out more abotu Anita on the Cardiff University website.

People we've funded