Sara BrownHonorary consultant dermatologist, University of DundeeSenior Research Fellowships in Clinical Science
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Getting Wellcome Trust funding
What attracted you to Wellcome and to this scheme?
The prestige and generous funding, originally. I was delighted when I was awarded an Intermediate Clinical Fellowship. It was then more or less expected that I would apply for a Senior Research Fellowship, although it was a big step up. But I wanted to continue combining science and clinical practice so it seemed worth a try.
What aspects of the Senior Research Fellowship funding are most useful to you?
The long-term, generous and flexible support. It’s giving me the opportunity to develop a major research programme while continuing my clinical work. There are also definite advantages to being a Wellcome Senior Research Fellow. It opens doors – people are more willing to talk and listen to you.
What do you think of the application process?
I wasn’t successful first time around, which was hugely disappointing. With hindsight, I understand why my first application wasn’t funded – it was too broad and over-ambitious. I was at a low ebb, but the Trust invited me to reapply, and I was successful second time around.
How challenging have you found it to secure funding?
I don’t think I’ve followed the conventional route to a senior fellowship. For various reasons (scientific and family related) I did an MD rather than a PhD. Applying for an Intermediate Clinical Fellowship was an ambitious leap. I made the mistake of assuming the transition from intermediate to senior Fellow would be just as big a leap. As well as providing written feedback, Trust staff met me and explained where I’d gone wrong in my senior fellowship application. They put me in touch with an experienced senior fellow. He suggested removing three-quarters of my application, giving it a much tighter focus. At the time it felt like cutting off three limbs, but it was the right thing to do. My ‘light-bulb’ moment was realising that the transition to senior fellow wasn’t such a huge leap, more a natural progression building on my past work.
What advice would you give to other applicants?
Dream big, plan the best possible experiments, but be realistic. Make sure you get people you trust to criticise what you’re proposing and ask for honest feedback. Valid critical comment is essential. Also, try not to be too discouraged by failures – you can learn from the experience. And don’t be intimidated - every senior fellow is different. If you’ve got good ideas, an established reputation and you’re prepared to work hard for what’s really interesting, you will have a chance.
- 2015-present Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellowship in Clinical Science, University of Dundee
- 2009–2014 Wellcome Trust Intermediate Clinical Fellowship, University of Dundee
- 2009 Post-CCT Fellowship in paediatric dermatology, Dublin
- 2006-2008 MD in human genetics, Newcastle University
- 2000-2009 Specialty training in dermatology, Newcastle-upon-Tyne
- 2003 Second child born
- 2001 First child born
- 1999 MRCP Edin
- 1990-1996 MBChB with honours, University of Edinburgh, including intercalated BSc (1st class)
What have been the defining moments in your career so far?
I’ve had some ups and downs, but I’ve been helped at several key points by people in positions of influence. During my dermatology training, I considered giving up medicine because I couldn’t face being apart from my baby. At that time, even ‘part-time’ work would have been around 40 hours a week. A senior colleague recommended a retainer scheme so that I could stay in the system.
Later on, I was lucky to have supervisors who allowed me to do an MD rather than a PhD. I very much enjoyed doing an MD and it has driven my subsequent research. A charitable trust stepped in with significant funding before I got my senior fellowship. It kept my research afloat and allowed me to generate data that strengthened my reapplication to the Trust.
I haven’t planned my career. I’ve been motivated to do what seemed the most attractive or exciting thing at each stage. Scientific careers (and life events) can be unpredictable and it helps to be flexible, to adapt your plans when circumstances change. Somehow it’s worked well, thanks to the support of key individuals at important stages.
My husband and children have been hugely supportive. They are interested in my research and therefore understand why I work hard and choose to make sacrifices in my ‘free’ time to follow this career. But it is a juggling act to keep everyone happy. In financial terms, it would’ve been easier to stick to clinical medicine, but I feel compelled to do research. A purely clinical career would be much less satisfying.
Research and public engagement
What’s the key question you’re addressing?
My aim is to understand the molecular mechanisms leading to eczema. I hope this knowledge will open up opportunities for developing new therapies.
How are you going about answering this question?
My lab identifies genes that predispose people to eczema and then investigates functional mechanisms. We use population-based approaches to identify susceptibility genes. Then we study their function in cultured skin cells. Loss-of-function mutations in the filaggrin gene are an important risk factor for eczema. We’ve shown that variation in the number of copies of blocks of DNA within the filaggrin gene has a dose-dependent effect on eczema risk – the more copies you have, the less likely you are to develop eczema1. This supports the idea that increasing filaggrin expression could be therapeutically beneficial.
What public engagement or outreach work do you do?
It’s eczema patients and their carers who inspire my research. I’ve been privileged to work with a dynamic patient support group, Eczema Outreach Scotland. One of our most rewarding projects was a participatory art workshop. In collaboration with ASCUS Art & Science, two young Scottish artists worked with families affected by eczema. They helped children express through art what they understand about eczema and what it means to them.
- Brown SJ et al. Intragenic copy number variation within filaggrin contributes to risk of atopic dermatitis with a dose-dependent effect. J Invest Dermatol 2012;132(1):98-104.
- Cole C et al. Filaggrin-stratified transcriptome analysis of paediatric skin identifies mechanistic pathways in atopic dermatitis. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2014;134(1):82-91.
- Baurecht H et al. Genome-wide comparative analysis of atopic dermatitis and psoriasis gives insight into opposing genetic mechanisms. Am J Hum Genet 2015;96(1):104-20.
- Brown SJ et al. Loss-of-function variants in the filaggrin gene are a significant risk factor for peanut allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol 2011; 127(3): 661-667.