What it meant to me: Srikanth Ramaswamy

We spoke to Lister Fellow Dr Srikanth Ramaswamy about his experience receiving the Lister Prize, how he plans to use the funding, and what advice he’d give to a future applicant.

Can you tell us a little about your research?
My research looks into signalling chemicals called neuromodulators, such acetylcholine, histamine, dopamine, serotonin and noradrenaline. I’m looking at how they impact neurons, synaptic connections and microcircuits across mouse monkey and human brains. How do these neuromodulators function across different levels of organisation to shape the emergence of cognition across species? I am using biological knowledge to build computational models that predict how mammals learn, and how mammalian brains represent memory and other higher-order cognitive processes.

How did you come to apply for the Lister Prize?
It was a bit was a bit of serendipity and a bit of planning. I heard about the Lister Prize from two colleagues at Newcastle who are also Lister Fellows, Chris Stewart and Shoba Amarnath. It seemed the timing was opportune for me to apply, so I decided to throw my hat into the ring. I absolutely didn’t expect to get so far, or to actually receive the Prize.

It’s been a huge honour and a great recognition for an early career researcher like myself, as I’m just beginning to spread my wings and start my own research programme.

What was the application process like?
I remember very vividly that I was preparing my application until the very last minute.  I think I submitted my application when there were two minutes left until the deadline. So it was really down to the wire.

After submitting my application I would check the website now and then to track its progress, and at each stage, I simply couldn’t believe that I had got so far.

It’s certainly very competitive and I know a lot of very good people who applied and who didn’t get it. So I count myself really lucky to have received a Lister Prize. It’s been quite a remarkable journey.

Did you enjoy meeting the panel?
The panel members were all incredibly friendly and they put me at ease right away. I actually interviewed remotely because I was in Boston finishing my sabbatical at MIT and couldn’t travel to London. I was a little apprehensive about the interview process and I wondered if I would be at a disadvantage because I was interviewing remotely. But all those fears were put to rest and the panel made me feel very comfortable. It was a great experience.

What makes the Lister Prize unique in your eyes?
I think the unique selling proposition of the Lister Prize is the flexibility it affords. As someone who’s in the process of hopping disciplines, I think the Lister is indeed unique in giving me the opportunity to wear multiple hats. As a trained theoretician who hasn’t done a lot of experiments before it’s quite a risk for me to cross these boundaries. But thanks to the Prize it’s all seamlessly possible because I can use this money however I want.

Another great aspect is the opportunity to apply for summer students. Every year there’s a call for summer students and I think each Fellow can end up getting one or two. This is an extremely helpful aspect of the programme in addition to the money and the freedom that comes with it. I haven’t heard of many other schemes where studentships are offered in addition to funding.

What are your plans for the Lister Prize money?
I’m planning to use some of the money to hire a PhD student and a postdoc. And, of course, the remainder will help me with some consumables to get started with.

What’s your advice to someone who is considering applying for the Lister Prize?
Don’t be intimidated at all by the application process, because it’s not terribly time-consuming. All you need is a brief proposal, and it would be useful to have some preliminary data.

Also, think outside of the box. Your project shouldn’t just be an incremental continuation of what you’re already doing. I think this Prize is designed to encourage high impact, high risk research. Even if it’s an outlandish idea, I don’t think it would be considered at all too much for the Lister. So people should really give it a go.

Srikanth was awarded the Lister Prize in 2023. He is based at the University of Newcastle, and you can read more about his research here: https://www.ncl.ac.uk/medical-sciences/people/profile/srikanthramaswamy.html