Case study

Charles Wondji

Charles WondjiReader, Liverpool School of Tropical MedicineSenior Research Fellowships in Basic Biomedical Science

Getting Wellcome Trust funding

What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?

I liked the fact that there seemed to be an obvious career development pathway. It was clear what you could apply for at each stage of your career, and that you could progress from one scheme to another, if you were successful. Wellcome also has a very strong reputation in international health. 

My first application was for a Research Career Development Fellowship (RCDF), which helped me to achieve my scientific independence. I was able to perform my research, publish papers and manage a research group independently. The Senior Research Fellowship was the natural next step.

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

For my Senior Research Fellowship, the security of five years funding gave me peace of mind and has enabled me to concentrate on my main research programme. The flexibility of funding was particularly important to me. I wanted to combine laboratory research in Liverpool with extensive field studies in Cameroon.

The fellowship funding is enabling me to spend two years in Liverpool then move with part of my team to Cameroon for three years. Other funders’ schemes would only have let me spend 12 months in Africa, which wasn’t long enough for what I wanted to achieve.

What do you think about Wellcome's application process?

Stressful but fairly straightforward. During my RCDF, every two years we had a fellows meeting at which a Senior Research Fellow and former RCDF spoke about the transition. These talks helped me to know what was expected from me to be successful.

I discussed my options with senior colleagues in Liverpool. The choice at the time was between a Junior Investigator award and a Senior Research Fellowship, and they felt that with my track record a senior fellowship was more appropriate. Wellcome staff also said I could talk to them at any stage, so I made an appointment and had a chat with them. They were very helpful in highlighting what I needed to think about, and also suggested that I was a suitable candidate for a senior fellowship.

You have to think long and hard about your research question, and it’s a real challenge to get all your ideas for five years’ work into just 3,000 words. I discussed my ideas with colleagues, and Wellcome staff were always willing to answer queries. I prepared for my interview with mock interviews – my colleagues really challenged me in advance, so I felt well-prepared for the real thing.

How challenging have you found it to secure funding?

I’ve been fortunate with my main fellowship applications. I’ve had a few other grant applications turned down – life’s not always rosy and it goes with the territory. You just try to learn something from the experience.

I applied for a senior fellowship at the MRC at the same time as I applied to the Wellcome Trust. I was shortlisted for interview with good referees’ reports. Although the fellowship would have given me seven years’ support it was not renewable and it didn't have the flexibility of Wellcome's funding, so I withdrew before the interview stage.

What advice would you give to other applicants?

Give yourself plenty of time to think about your research question. Don’t rush it – you may need a year to clarify your thinking and come up with a compelling application.

Make sure you discuss it with your colleagues – you need to make sure it is novel and interesting enough to be funded. Share drafts with colleagues – it’s vital to do your own internal peer review. Don’t work alone and think alone – make use of the brainpower of those around you (but maintain your independence).

Also stay in touch with Wellcome staff. They are always available to answer queries and let you know about things you ought to be aware of. 

Career path

Career Summary

  • 2014 Promoted to Reader, Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine
  • 2014 Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship in Basic Biomedical Science (Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine)
  • 2012 Birth of fourth child
  • 2009 Birth of third child
  • 2008–13 Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellowship (Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine)
  • 2006 Birth of second child
  • 2005 Birth of first child
  • 2004–08 NIH postdoctoral research associate (Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine)
  • 2003–04 Postdoctoral research assistant (OCEAC, Cameroon)
  • 1999–2003 PhD (University of Yaoundé, Cameroon)

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

Coming to Liverpool initially was important – I came from a French-speaking background and wanted to learn English so I could also work in English-speaking environments.

Later, my RCDF was critical in enabling me to establish my independence, while my senior fellowship is enabling me to carry out high-quality research which I hope will have important practical applications in Africa. 

Another benefit of my senior fellowship is that it enables me to contribute to capacity development. I received excellent mentoring when I was young and understand how important it is to be mentored properly. I benefited, and now I want to give something back. I am a sponsor for several fellows, from Cameroon and other African countries, and work with young scientists at all levels – Master’s, PhD and postdoctoral. I can pass on advice and encouragement, and I hope they see me as a role model. 

Also, I can play a role in institutional development. I am helping my local Cameroon institution (OCEAC) understand what it takes to be internationally competitive. I hope I am in some way helping to develop the next generation of African scientists. 

I’m fortunate that I have a wife who has been flexible while I have been developing my career internationally. I have always thought about the possible impact of my career moves on her and my children. They have been incredibly supportive. It can be a challenge to be a father and a scientist, but my family give me stability and a focus. I’m truly blessed to have this combination.

Research and public engagement

What's the key question you're addressing?

I’m studying the genetic basis of insecticide resistance in mosquitoes and its impact on control [1, 2]. Insecticide spraying and insecticide-impregnated bednets are crucial to the fight against malaria and other vector-borne diseases. By identifying genetic markers of resistance, I am developing tools to track resistance in the field, to gather information on the best course to manage resistance and maintain effectiveness of control programmes.

How are you going about answering these questions?

In Liverpool, we’re using hi-tech sequencing and molecular genetic tools to identify mosquito genes linked to insecticide resistance, and biochemical approaches to analyse their function. We then develop tests to detect DNA markers of resistance. In Cameroon, we are tracking resistance in the field [3], assessing its impact on the effectiveness of control tools and investigating new approaches to manage resistance.

What public engagement or outreach work do you do?

In Cameroon, we’ve been involved in radio programmes to encourage more bednet use – explaining about malaria, mosquitoes, our research, and why bednets are important. With Wellcome Trust support, we’d also like to do more work with young people in schools.

References

  1. Riveron JM et al. A single mutation in the GSTe2 gene allows tracking of metabolically based insecticide resistance in a major malaria vector. Genome Biol. 2014;15(2):R27.
  2. Riveron JM et al. Directionally selected cytochrome P450 alleles are driving the spread of pyrethroid resistance in the major malaria vector Anopheles funestus. Proc Natl Acad Proc Sci USA. 2013;110(1):252-7.
  3. Antonio-Nkondjio C et al. Rapid evolution of pyrethroid resistance prevalence in Anopheles gambiae populations from the cities of Douala and Yaoundé (Cameroon). Malar J. 2015;14:155.

More information​

Find out more about Charles' work on the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine website.