Dr Jessica Blair, BBSRC David Phillips Fellowship

blair-jessicaWhich independent fellowship do you hold and what is your main research goal?

I currently hold the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) David Phillips Fellowship, awarded in 2015. My main research goal is to develop inhibitors of bacterial efflux pumps that can improve antibiotic efficacy.

What was your academic background prior to the award?

I received by PhD in Microbiology from the University of Birmingham in 2009, and I was a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University from 2009 until 2015.

What attracted you to your fellowship?

Five years of funding, total academic independence, sufficient funds available to found a new lab and for the project to be well-funded for five years. This fellowship also gives me the freedom to submit further grants during the fellowship period (this is not true of the MRC CDA).

What notable outcomes have arisen from your fellowship so far?

I’ve had an invitation to speak regarding my fellowship work and to chair sessions at various international conferences. The work I’ve done so far has also allowed me to get two PhD studentships funded, so the lab will be growing soon and hopefully this will accelerate the outputs. Connected to the fellowship, I’ve also been asked to be involved in lots of public engagement projects including some recent filming for a BBC documentary about antibiotic resistance.

Do you have any advice for fellowship applicants? 

The best advice I received was to get as many perspectives on your idea as you can. I was able to pitch my basic grant idea to a panel of more senior academics that were a mixture of subject specialists and non-specialists. This was one of the most useful things I did to prepare to apply. It made me formulate my ideas logically and highlighted the parts that did/did not make sense. If people on a panel like this don’t ‘get’ what you are trying to do (or importantly, why) then a grant panel will have the same problem. I recommend anyone applying for this sort of fellowship pitches their ideas in this way. Similarly, once I had written the application I gave it to a range of different people to read to get feedback. Again, this included specialists and total non-specialists – remember that a grant panel for a fellowship will include scientists of totally unrelated disciplines and they need to at least grasp what problem you are trying to address and your broad approach.

As you can see from my academic history, I did my PhD and post doc at Birmingham and successfully applied to do a fellowship within the same institution. This used to be unheard of but it is no longer completely necessary to move institutions at this stage of your career and the funding agencies are gradually removing this as a criterion against which you will be judged. However you will still need to carefully justify your choice of institution and show that it is the best place to do your particular work. Staying in the same institution presents its own challenges but if Birmingham is the best place to do the work you want to do then this shouldn’t stop anyone applying. Additionally, I have taken a break from my first year of the fellowship to have 8 months maternity leave, and I experienced no problems in doing so.