Case study

Michelle Ma

Michelle MaLecturer in Imaging Chemistry, King's College LondonSeed Awards in Science

Getting Wellcome Trust funding

What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?

This scheme was attractive because it supports brand new ideas, without the expectation that there has to be large amounts of prior data. 

It gave me the opportunity to go away and think about the type of project I wanted to work on – one that would help me to set up new collaborations and learn different things.

What aspects of the Seed Award funding are most useful to you?

The funding covers pretty much everything I need to hire a postdoc. I’m a chemist, and I’d like the postdoc to be a biologist who wants to expand their skills into imaging chemistry. It means that I’ll get to work with somebody who’s got complementary skills to mine.

Seed Award funding is usually for two years, but I’ve only applied for 18 months. After hiring the postdoc, I’ll still have about £25-30,000 left for other laboratory expenses. I come from the Imaging Chemistry and Biology Department at King’s College London, so we do a lot of scanning. It isn’t cheap! Being able to cover the cost of that is really important. 

What do you think about Wellcome’s application process? 

It was no frills and no fuss. The deadline was February, and I heard back in April. It meant I didn’t have to sit around thinking, ‘should I be applying to a different funder for this?’ 

In terms of the funding application itself, the word count that Wellcome set was good. It required enough detail from me to think about the nuts and bolts of the project, but not so much that I became consumed by them. 

The Seed Awards application process is interview-free, so it was pretty straightforward. 

How challenging have you found it to secure funding?

I’ve been a research fellow under the Marie Curie European Commission scheme and a Newton Fellow under the Royal Society scheme. Through these fellowships I’ve been able to get funding that’s been set aside for early-career researchers.

I started applying for funding fairly soon after my PhD was over. I think having some sort of track record behind me has been valuable in attracting more funding.

When I have to apply for larger grants I think it will be more difficult because I’m still relatively new to the game. 

What advice would you give to other applicants?

Make sure the project you’re proposing has longevity. So not something you’ll work on for two years, write up a couple of publications and then go ‘well that’s that done’. That’s not within the remit of the Seed Awards. 

Have an idea of where your project will go after the grant – how other projects will build upon what you’ve found. 

Career path

Career summary

  • 2015–present Lecturer in Imaging Chemistry, King’s College London
  • March 2015–August 2015 Research Associate, King’s College London
  • March 2013–February 2015 Marie Curie Research Fellow, King’s College London
  • April 2012–February 2013 Royal Society Newton Fellow, King’s College London
  • February 2011–March 2012 Postdoctoral Researcher, Monash University
  • January 2010–January 2011 Postdoctoral Cancer Research Fellow, the University of Melbourne and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre
  • January 2005–September 2009 PhD, the University of Queensland and the University of Melbourne
  • 2007 Research Assistant, the University of Melbourne

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

During my PhD I really got into the field of imaging chemistry and the role it can play in nuclear medicine. For one of my projects, I had to design chemical constructs that enabled radioactive nuclei to hunt for disease in biological subjects. It set the direction my career path has taken over the past six or seven years.

After I finished my PhD, the junior fellowship I was on allowed me to spend some time at King’s College London. Only two months – but I really liked it.

I moved from Australia to England in 2012. I applied for a Newton International Fellowship, followed by a Marie Curie Fellowship in the Department of Imaging Chemistry and Biology at King’s. I was lucky enough to get both of them. The facilities within the department are excellent. I can do my chemistry in one lab, then my pre-clinical work just down the corridor.

I’ve recently got my first academic position as a lecturer at King’s. My official title is Lecturer in Imaging Chemistry – chemistry that enables nuclear medicine techniques. I’ve enjoyed it because it lets me work on very diverse projects. I can focus on chemical research one day, and then collaborate with biologists and clinicians the next.

Research and public engagement

What’s the key question you’re addressing?

I’m looking at how to improve cell tracking in vivo – by developing more robust cell radio-labelling and imaging methods.

The aim is to help improve cell therapies. These are treatments that use cells to restore or improve the functioning of human tissues or organs damaged through trauma or disease.  

I look at simple ways of incorporating radioactive nuclei into chemical constructs that have the potential to be translated clinically. I hope it will help nuclear medicine diagnosis techniques, such as PET and SPECT, to be available to a wider range of patients. 

How are you going about answering this question?

To test techniques, I put the radioactive nuclei with different chemical compounds and see which one works best. I examine the cells to see if the radioactive compounds retain their affinity, if their structural integrity is OK, and if the radioactivity remains with the cell. Then I look at the radioactive cells in vivo

I look for the chemistry that operates in the most simple fashion. So things that a radio-pharmacist in a hospital, or a student in their second or third year at university could do. 

We’re collaborating with Dr James Dixon from the University of Nottingham. We’re using our systems for radio-labelling and his systems for getting a radio-label into cells. 

What public engagement or outreach work do you do?

I enjoy the public engagement – it’s one of the more immediately rewarding parts of the work I think!

Last year I took part in Soapbox Science, which is a platform for women scientists to promote the work they do. We stood on soapboxes at Southbank and sort of accosted passers-by. Things like that make it more normal to see women talking about science in a public arena.

I also took part in the Royal Society of Chemistry’s ‘Public attitudes to chemistry’ launch. It was very useful because it helped me to define some of the key rules of public engagement. It doesn’t matter if the public don’t understand the intricate workings of the research – but they do need to know its benefits and outcomes. 

Last year I spoke at a Pint of Science event which was a lot of fun. The events are set up by universities or research institutes, and scientists give a half an hour spiel about what they do. Everyone enjoys dinner and a pint, too.


  1. Ma M et al. New Tris(hydroxypyridinone) Bifunctional Chelators Containing Isothiocyanate Groups Provide a Versatile Platform for Rapid One-Step Labeling and PET Imaging with 68Ga3+ Bioconjugate Chem. 2016;27(2):309-318.
  2. Ma M et al. Rapid kit-based 68Ga-labelling and PET imaging with THP-Tyr3-octreotate: a preliminary comparison with DOTA-Tyr3-octreotate EJNMMI Research 2015;5:52:10.1186/s13550-015-0131-1.
  3. Ma M et al. Tripodal tris(hydroxypyridinone) ligands for immunoconjugate PET imaging with 89Zr4+: comparison with desferrioxamine-B Dalton trans 2015;44:4884-4900.

More information

Find out more about Michelle's work on the Centre for Doctoral Training in Medical imaging website

Read an interview with Michelle on the Soapbox Science website.

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