Case study

Katrina LythgoeSir Henry Dale Fellow, University of OxfordSir Henry Dale Fellowships

Getting Wellcome Trust funding

What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?

I’d had a good experience with Wellcome in the past – I’d previously had a travelling fellowship and a Research Career Re-entry Fellowship after a spell out of science. 

Wellcome was willing to be flexible in applying its eligibility criteria. I couldn’t apply to some funders because too long had elapsed since I completed my PhD. It’s a prestigious scheme and offered the perfect next step. I was also offered a lectureship, but taking it up would have meant moving my family. The Henry Dale Fellowship gave me more flexibility.

Scientifically, I knew which direction I wanted to go in - I’d already had interesting discussions with my sponsor, Oliver Pybus, so I knew he would be a good person to work with - and Oxford was a commutable distance. It all converged very well. 

Potentially, I could have stayed at Imperial, which is a world-leader in epidemiology, but I was keen to look more at evolutionary questions. Moving to Oxford has enabled me to develop and expand my research interests. I’ve been able to maintain links with former colleagues at Imperial through collaborations. It’s the best of both worlds.

What aspects of the Sir Henry Dale Fellowship funding are most useful to you?

The fellowship offers generous funding over a reasonably long time. You can use it flexibly if you want to work part time, and it offered me a lot of freedom to pursue a new avenue of research. It’s giving me a real chance to establish myself as an independent researcher and create my own research niche.

What do you think about Wellcome’s application process?

It was stressful, but you expect that. I’d been through fellowship applications before so I knew what was coming up. The pre-proposal is a useful stage – it makes you think about what you want to do and who you want to do it with. 

What impressed me most was that the reviewers (and presumably the interview panel) were not put off by my relatively small number of publications. They appreciated that a career break can limit your ability to accumulate publications, and could see quality in the papers I had published and in my proposal.

How challenging have you found it to secure funding?

I applied for a Research Career Re-entry Fellowship and a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship to get back into science. I only made it onto the waiting list for the latter but fortunately I managed to get the Wellcome award. It can be challenging getting back into research after a career break.

The re-entry fellowship was great – I had freedom to work part-time, it recognised the need for training to get back up to speed and gave me the opportunity to pursue my own research agenda. But it is difficult to match the output of people who have spent all their careers in science. I applied for a lectureship, which would have given me more job security, but I didn’t want to uproot my family. It’s probably easier for younger people to take up such positions, as they’re generally more mobile. So a fellowship worked better for me, even though I’ll have to begin chasing funding again all too soon.

What advice would you give to other applicants?

Don’t do what I did ie leave it to the last minute and apply only to one scheme. It’s always sensible to hedge your bets and put in multiple applications. Fortunately for me, plan A worked, although I always knew I had the lectureship to fall back on. Also, think carefully about who you want to work with and what you want to work on. 

If you get called for interview, make sure you practise thoroughly and get on top of your subject – the big picture and why your research matters, as well as the technical details. You’ll be facing some really sharp minds, and you’re also likely to get quizzed on points raised by the referees.

Career path

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

My first fellowship didn't go fantastically well and made me question whether science was the right career for me.  Working outside science made me realise it was.  The re-entry fellowship was important not only in helping me get back into practising science but also in enabling me to secure further personal funding.

 

Career summary

  • 2015 Henry Dale Fellowship, University of Oxford
  • 2011–15 Wellcome Trust Research Career Re-entry Fellowship, Imperial College London
  • 2010 Maternity leave
  • 2007 Maternity leave
  • 2003–10 Editor, Trends in Ecology and Evolution
  • 2002–03 MSc in science communication, Imperial College London
  • 1999–2002 Wellcome Trust International Fellowship, University of California San Diego/Edinburgh
  • 1995–99 PhD, University of Edinburgh

Research and public engagement

What's the key question you’re addressing?

One of our key aims has been to understand the role of the viral reservoir in HIV infection. HIV integrates into the DNA of immune cells, which can become dormant – and hence so not susceptible to antiretroviral drugs. If people stop taking their drugs, the virus can reactivate and spark a new infection

How are you going about answering this question?

I use a mixture of mathematical modelling and genomics. By developing models and then testing them with data, we can gain a much better understanding of how different processes affect pathogen evolution. Ultimately, this will enable us to produce better epidemiological models and predict the possible effects of different control strategies. An example might be the wider rollout of HIV antiretroviral drugs in resource-poor countries. To control the spread of drug resistance, is it better to maximise distribution or focus resources on ensuring that supplies of drugs and follow-up care are optimised? Nobody knows the answer, but modelling could suggest what might give the best outcomes overall.

What public engagement or outreach work do you do?

I would like to do more but finding the time is difficult. I’d particularly like to do more work in schools, to show that women can be scientists and to raise awareness of the different ways in which maths can be used in a career.

References

  1.  Lythgoe KA, Fraser C. New insights into the evolutionary rate of HIV-1 at the within-host and epidemiological levels. Proc Biol Sci 2012;279(1741):3367-75.
  2. Lythgoe KA, Pellis L, Fraser C. Is HIV short-sighted? Insights from a multistrain nested model. Evolution 2013;67(10):2769-82.
  3. Fraser C et al. Virulence and pathogenesis of HIV-1 infection: an evolutionary perspective. Science 2014;343(6177):1243727.

More information

Find out more about Katrina's work on the Imperial College website.

People we've funded