Case study

Cathy PriceProfessor in Cognitive Neuroscience, Institute of Neurology, UCLPrincipal Research Fellowships

Getting Wellcome Trust funding

What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?

In 1994, Professor Richard Frackowiak set up the functional imaging laboratory that became the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL. Each area of work was led by a senior investigator. When the senior investigator in the language area left, I became acting head of the group and applied for a Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship. When I got that I became head of the language group.

What aspects of the Principal Research Fellowship funding are most useful to you?

Wellcome Trust fellowships are highly prestigious, so can really boost your career. I’ve recently become Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. The fact I had a Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellowship (PRF) was important in establishing my academic credentials. 

The flexibility of the funding is crucial. It recognises that the direction your research takes is often contingent on the results – you can’t specify in advance five years’ worth of experiments. And it has enabled me to make some big decisions. I’d planned to recruit two experienced postdocs, but I found nearly 100 hospitals were keen to collaborate and I realised the new Clinical Research Network provided a way to access patients. 

This was a great opportunity to collect huge amounts of patient data and I was able to divert my postdoc money to make it happen. It’s a risk – I’ll need to find another way to get the postdoc money – but I’m pretty sure it was the right thing to do. I followed the general principle that prioritises translation and patient benefit rather than slavishly following applications.

What do you think about Wellcome’s application process?

I had my senior fellowship renewed twice and was awarded a PRF. I’ve always found the process straightforward and less fiddly than that of other funders. The process has changed – now there’s a strong focus on your scientific vision and long-term aims.

How challenging have you found it to secure funding?

After my first senior fellowship renewal, I applied for a PRF, which I didn’t get. That was a blow. I wanted to study the brain and language problems arising both developmentally and acquired after stroke. I thought this was logical and feasible, but the reviewers didn’t. 

I had a year of uncertainty while I put in a proposal for another senior fellowship renewal. I got that, and soon after made a key discovery – that I could predict whether and how people recover language after a stroke based on how their brains had been affected. Validating this idea and its potential clinical application provided a very strong focus for a new PRF application. Fortunately, this time the reviewers agreed.

What advice would you give to other applicants?

Make sure you have a clear question – you should be able to tell your grandmother why your research is important and how it’s going to be useful. Also make sure your application marshals the evidence, so you make a convincing case that you can achieve your aims. Be ambitious but focused – make sure everything you’re suggesting is integrated around your core aims.

Career path

Career Summary

  • 2015 Director, Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging
  • 2012–17 Wellcome Trust Principal Research Fellowship
  • 2007–12 Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship renewal
  • 2003–present Professor in Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Neurology, UCL
  • 2002–07 Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship renewal
  • 2001 Birth of second daughter
  • 2000–03 Reader, Institute of Neurology, UCL
  • 1997–2002 Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship
  • 1997–2000 Senior Lecturer, Institute of Neurology, UCL
  • 1994–96 Lecturer, Institute of Neurology, UCL
  • 1991–94 Postdoctoral research fellow, MRC Cyclotron Unit, Hammersmith Hospital, London
  • 1990 Birth of first daughter
  • 1985–90 PhD, Birkbeck College, University of London

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

Two examiners of my PhD thesis happened to be on one of the first grants looking at neuroimaging of language in the UK. They recommended I apply for a postdoc position at the Hammersmith, which I got. It was perfect timing – neuroimaging was just taking off and we were one of the few groups in the world using it to explore language processing. This really gave me a head start in the field. 

In the early 1990s, I was combining research with being a single mother. That was incredibly hard, but there was simply no way I could step off the career conveyor belt. When I had my second child, although my partner helped out it was still difficult to combine a research career with looking after two young children. There were times when I really struggled. It was tough but worth it. My older daughter recently finished medical school and has survived the experience impressively well.

Research and public engagement

What’s the key question you’re addressing?

I’m looking at two. First, after stroke, is it possible to predict language outcomes based on the site and extent of brain damage? And second, how do preserved areas respond to achieve recovery?

How are you going about answering these questions?

We’re using structural brain imaging to answer the first question, undertaking sophisticated analyses of lesion sites and relating the results to patient outcomes – whether and how quickly they recover language skills. To address the second question, we’re mostly using functional magnetic resonance imaging. Our results also shed light on fundamental questions about how language processing occurs in the brain4.

What public engagement or outreach work do you do?

We do a lot of work with patients and carers at stroke clubs, to let them know what we’re doing. We also aim to reach clinicians so they know what’s going on. We do lots of media work - with radio, TV and the press - and have the usual online presence. We also work with schools and host work experience visits.

References

  1. Price CJ. A review and synthesis of the first 20 years of PET and fMRI studies of heard speech, spoken language and reading. Neuroimage 2012;62(2):816-47.
  2. Hope TM et al. Predicting outcome and recovery after stroke with lesions extracted from MRI images. Neuroimage Clin 2013;2:424-33.
  3. Seghier ML et al. The PLORAS Database: A data repository for Predicting Language Outcome and Recovery After Stroke. Neuroimage 2015. pii: S1053-8119(15)00285-2.
  4. Seghier ML et al. The importance of premotor cortex for supporting speech production after left capsular-putaminal damage. J Neurosci 2014;34(43):14338-48.

More information

Find out more about Cathy's lab on the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging website.

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