Case study

Melissa WardPostdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford, Harvard University, International Livestock Research Institute Nairobi and University of EdinburghSir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowships

Getting Wellcome Trust funding

What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?

The Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme offered a high level of independence at a very early career stage. I applied soon after I’d finished my PhD. 

Because of the fellowship I’ve been able to work in a number of countries, in lots of different research settings. I’ve been able to do this in a relatively short period of time, too, rather than having to do multiple three-year postdocs. One week I could be in Nairobi, the next I could be in Oxford. The flexibility is great. 

I like the way Wellcome’s career structure works. There’s a clear pathway for research careers, so you can look ahead and think about what you need to do to reach the next stage.   

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

Having a budget was new to me. It’s not a full on budget – I’m not employing staff or buying lab equipment – but I’ve been able to design my own genetic sequencing studies and tailor my research to answer the specific questions I’m interested in. 

Negotiating with people for things like sequencing costs has been good training for a more senior fellowship or grant in future.  

A lot of people are quite limited when they do the kind of analysis that I do, either by the data that’s publically available or that a collaborator on a grant has decided to focus on. Having a budget has given me a large degree of control. 

What do you think about Wellcome’s application process? 

I like the fact that Wellcome uses a preliminary application. It’s quite short, which means you don’t have to invest a large amount of time applying when you’ve no idea whether you’re in the right ballpark. 

To prepare for interview, I spent time talking to my different research sponsors. They varied from someone I knew very well, to someone in the USA who I’d only met at conferences. I wanted to know what I could bring to their research group, and what they could offer me in terms of training and opportunities. 

I was lucky to have been able to visit the team in Kenya before my interview. I originally trained as a mathematician, so it was good to show that I knew about the real-life biology behind the data and the considerations that have to be made in the labs and in the field. 

The interview felt a bit daunting. It was something that I really wanted and there was a lot at stake. The panel were friendly, and the interview was stimulating and challenging in a good way. 

They had obviously been through my proposal in detail, and asked quite specific technical questions about my research. If it wasn’t for the fact that my fellowship was hinging on it, it would have been nice to sit down and chat with the people on the panel!

How challenging have you found it to secure funding?

I’ve been quite fortunate in attracting funding. I was awarded a Junior Research Fellowship at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Immunity, Infection and Evolution at the University of Edinburgh just after my PhD, followed by the Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowship. 

My Wellcome fellowship has led to other funding opportunities. For example, a grant for leadership development from the Scottish Universities Life Sciences Alliance has allowed me to go on training courses. 

In research you always have the question of where your next funding is going to come from. But I think the opportunities you get during the fellowship form a good foundation for applying for funding in future.

What advice would you give to other applicants?

Talk to people. When you’re fresh out of your PhD it can be a bit daunting contacting eminent people, sometimes on the other side of the world, to say you’re interested in working with them and that you want to write your own research proposal. 

Be ambitious and take the opportunities that come up, even if at the time they seem a bit outside your comfort zone. 

Make sure you’re up to date with the literature. One of the panellists asked me about a piece of research that had only come out a week or so before the interview. 

Career path

Career summary

  • 2015present Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Oxford, Harvard University, International Livestock Research Institute Nairobi and University of Edinburgh
  • 20142015 CIIE Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh and International Livestock Research Institute Nairobi
  • 20132014 Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of Edinburgh
  • 20082012 PhD Virus Evolution and Epidemiology, University of Edinburgh (BBSRC studentship)
  • 20062007 MSc Quantitative Genetics and Genome Analysis, University of Edinburgh (BBSRC studentship)
  • 20032006 BA Mathematics, University of Oxford

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

My most defining moments have been in the jumps I’ve made between disciplines to arrive at where I am today. 

I studied mathematics as an undergraduate and then applied this knowledge to my Master’s degree in genetics. This led on to a PhD in virus evolution and epidemiology. 

As I was coming to the end of my PhD, new, next-generation sequencing meant that technologies I’d used on viruses could be applied to bacteria. I switched my focus to this area because it was a rapidly developing and relatively understudied field. 

My focus now is on bacterial infections and antibiotic resistance. I want to use my mathematics skills to solve real-life problems that could benefit the health of people and animals. 

Research and public engagement

What’s the key question you’re addressing?

I’m looking at how bacteria and their antibiotic resistance determinants evolve and spread in humans and livestock. 

At the moment I’m investigating the major routes of the flow of bacterial disease and antibiotic resistance in rapidly urbanising developing cities, using Nairobi in Kenya as an example. I’m interested in the role that keeping livestock in urban settings plays. 

How are you going about answering this question?

I’m working alongside a Medical Research Council-led project. It’s sampling E.coli from people, livestock, food, wildlife and the environment in Nairobi – from the very richest to the very poorest areas. 

We’re sampling 99 households. This involves asking people to provide faecal samples, and taking faecal samples from the livestock living in their house. 

We sample the household environment by wearing sock-like overshoes to walk around the house. We then take samples from the bottom of the socks. There’s a team who sample wildlife in the vicinity of the household too, including bats, birds, rodents and primates. 

The samples are cultured and sequenced, then passed on to me to do the analysis. Along with the lab data and the data that’s collected in the field, this information will be used to: 

I love being in Nairobi – it’s really exciting for me to be able to talk to people in the field and meet the laboratory teams. On one of my visits I went to one of the slums, so I was with the field team while they were collecting some of the samples that ended up in my analysis. 

What public engagement or outreach work do you do?

I’m keen that my research in Kenya will benefit the partner institutions I’ve been working with. I got funding to write and deliver training workshops in Nairobi on how to use the genetic sequence data to track the spread of disease and drug resistance. 

One of the people who did the workshop is now involved in a joint PhD, and I’m assisting with his analysis. I’m keen to carry on doing this kind of thing, so it’s a two-way exchange and not just the institutions providing me with the data. 

Last year, I also worked closely with Jo Hodges, a resident artist in my department at Edinburgh, who developed an exhibit to get people thinking about the spread of antibiotic resistance in hospitals. It formed part of an exhibition that’s toured multiple locations across Scotland. 

References

  1. Woolhouse MEJ et al. Antimicrobial resistance in humans, livestock and the wider environment.  Phil. Trans. R. Soc. 2015;B 370(1670).
  2. Ward MJ et al. Time-scaled evolutionary analysis of the transmission and antibiotic resistance dynamics of Staphylococcus aureus CC398.  Applied and Environmental Microbiology 2014;80(23):7275-7282.
  3. Woolhouse MEJ, Ward MJ. Perspective: Sources of Antimicrobial Resistance. Science 2013;341(6153):1460-1461.

More information

Find out more about Melissa’s work.