What it meant to me

“It is true that the third time’s a charm… for me anyway.”
Christopher Stewart

In Newcastle we say, “shy bairns get nowt.” This sums up my experience with the Lister Prize. It took three tries but I eventually succeeded. So, it is true that the third time’s a charm… for me anyway.

I remember going into the interview with some trepidation because I’d had a negative experience with a different funder. But the Lister panel was quick to put me at ease. It was clear they wanted to get the best out of me and I found the whole experience extremely positive.

They gave me time to gather myself and explain my group’s work on how microbial communities or ‘microbiomes’ develop in early life (pre-term infants), what factors influence this, and how that impacts short- and long-term health.

This sort of ‘deep characterisation’ work can eventually lead to breakthrough therapies, but it is often difficult to fund. The Lister Prize is unique in supporting such basic methodological work, which for my group will open up new research areas. Another major positive of the Prize is the flexibility around spending the money. I intend to use it primarily for recruiting and supporting postdocs, as needed.

Through the Lister mentorship scheme, I have also been lucky to have Prof. Dame Fiona Powrie agree to act as my mentor and she has already provided invaluable advice. The annual meetings have expanded my network with current and former Fellows, representing leaders in their respective fields, and spanning all career stages. I have no doubt the informal chats at these events will continue to elevate both my science and my career.

My memories of the whole experience are still quite fresh. When the Lister committee came to Newcastle University it was the first in-person event we had hosted since the COVID-19 closures. I invited my parents and fiancé (we got married a couple of weeks later!) and we went for a meal afterwards.

It was a genuine career highlight to share that day with my colleagues who had supported me so much, and more so my family who are not academics, but have always believed in me.

“A true gift in difficult circumstances”

I wasn’t aware of the Lister Prize until my Director of Research mentioned it to me and advised me to put in an application. It felt like a very (very) long shot for multiple reasons: I had only started my own independent group 18 months before the application deadline, but more importantly I was on maternity leave with my twin babies at home and the COVID-19 pandemic was wreaking havoc. However, I was motivated to put in an application because I knew that Lister funds people at an early stage in their career – just like myself. What also helped is that the application form is simple and straightforward – unlike many other funding application schemes. Eventually I submitted one minute before the deadline!

Despite all the nerves in anticipation, the interview was a very positive experience! It was challenging to give an engaging talk online, but there was a positive vibe from the start – I found the panel extremely supportive.

I’m already using the amazing flexibility of the Lister funds to employ two fantastic people; one is my amazing former PhD student who I’m now able to employ on this project as a postdoc and the other is a very enthusiastic, skilled and hard-working junior researcher from Spain. They are already making some very good progress using our new antimicrobial tools in pathogenic E. coli strains so I’m very excited to see what more this project brings.

If you’re thinking of applying for the Fellowship, don’t be put off by doubting if you’re good enough to apply. Getting feedback on your proposal from a wide range of scientists – experts in your field and outsiders – is extremely valuable, so make sure you have plenty of time to send your proposal for feedback. The same is true for interview preparation – mock interview panels are absolutely key to success, both to give you feedback on your talk and to query you on the ins and outs of your project.

“Creating a ‘research nucleus’ in my lab”
Dr Tim Blower

I was awarded the Lister Prize Fellowship in 2019. I’ve used the funding to hire a postdoctoral researcher. She started just as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and so, one month in, we were basically locked out of the lab. We were able to adapt and bring forward the genomic analysis of our bacteriophage samples, and now we’re getting back into lab work. I’ve also been able to give my first PhD student a one-year postdoctoral post to help consolidate our work and ensure transfer of knowledge. This has produced a tight research nucleus in the lab, that I hope will underpin our research aims for years to come.

We’re especially interested in how bacteria protect themselves from bacteriophages, looking at a range of defence mechanisms including Bacteriophage Exclusion (BREX). My pitch to the Lister Prize panel was that we knew this system stops phages and we knew it’s something to do with methylation of DNA, but it’s more complex than restriction-modification. That’s exciting, and it’s worth investigating further because historically, the phage-host interplay has been important for the development of so many useful technologies, such as restriction enzymes and genome editing tools.

I’d applied before, and alongside the crushing defeat, I received some positive feedback and bolstering support. So, I’d tell other early career researchers to persevere. If you do win the Prize the first time, then that’s fantastic, but don’t let it stop you from trying again if you don’t. I was also fortunate to have had some fantastic professors help with my application, and I think critical peer assessment of applications is essential. My Faculty gave me a mock interview, which, as it turned out, was much meaner than the real thing, but it prepared me well. The way I looked at it, I like giving lectures and I like talking about science, and I’d been invited to go and do that with an expert panel. If you try to enjoy it and view the interview as a fun scientific conversation, that takes the edge off.

“Joining a scientific community”

I started my lab in University of Dundee in December 2007. Previously I had been a PhD student in Cancer Research UK, London and a postdoc in USA at Princeton University and Dartmouth College. I was awarded the Lister Prize Fellowship in 2011. I had applied for the fellowship because of the flexible funding that it provided. Since receiving the fellowship, I have realised that that major benefit of being a Lister Fellow is being part of a community of pretty impressive scientists. The fellowship meets one day a year in Cambridge for some informal presentations, discussion and dinner.

This meeting is invaluable for discussing our latest findings and receiving advice on future steps. Every scientist in the Lister Fellowship works on a different area and therefore the perspective that other fellows have on our work often suggests directions and opportunities that I had not considered. The Lister Fellows form a spectrum from new group leaders like myself to those that are retired, and therefore is also a great resource for career advice.

“Flexible investment in a radical idea”
Dr Hayley Sharpe

At the time of applying, I’d just moved my lab from the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research to the Babraham Institute. It was an intense period.
A few different people told me I wouldn’t win the Prize, but luckily, I didn’t listen to them. To other prospective applicants, I would say that it’s not only about your track record. It’s also about what you’re proposing to do. Think hard about how it’s going to help progress your career, too, because I think that’s one of the things the Committee wants to understand. How would winning it help you take the next step?
Winning the Prize in 2020 has been helpful under the circumstances of the pandemic to help bridge people. And in the future, it will count that I’m recognised at that level because it’s such a well-known, prestigious award.
My lab works in an established, but quite unfashionable area of research, but we stumbled across a new way in which receptor-linked protein tyrosine phosphatases (PTPs) signal. I think that’s what captured the Scientific Committee’s interest.

Since winning, we’ve already managed to identify a useful mutation in one of these proteins. The Prize means we can jump quickly to making a mouse model that we can use to study it in disease contexts. The Lister Prize is such a fantastic, flexible pot of funding.

Having this extra funding to plough into something that’s new, relatively risky, and under- appreciated is incredible. It’s a big research challenge we’ve taken on, but if we’re right, then it opens up lots of new opportunities. I think the Committee shared in my excitement about that.

“Prestige, equality and inspiration”

Lister Fellowships have always been synonymous with prestige in the biomedical sciences and when my mentor, Professor Gwyn Gould, suggested that I apply for one of the first Lister Institute Research Prizes shortly after I moved to Glasgow to set up my own lab my immediate reaction was ‘that’s not for the likes of me’. However, I followed his advice and put in an application and was delighted when I was invited for an interview with the Institute’s Scientific Committee. At the time this consisted of Professors Richard Perham, Jean Beggs, Dame Louise Johnson, Simon Kroll, Birgitte Lane, Bob Michell, Linda Partridge and Alan Rickinson. One of the first things that I noticed about this list (apart from the high calibre of scientists on it) was that it was 50% female. This is in stark contrast to any other interview I have been involved in before or since, as either interviewee or interviewer.

I was, of course, delighted when I was awarded a Research Prize and excited to attend my first Fellows’ Meeting. It was there that I first met Dame Bridget Ogilvie who took over as chair of the governing body the following year. There can be no better role model for women in science than Bridget. Her enthusiasm seems never ending and her story (which she recounted as part of her Special Lecture in 2011) is truly inspirational.

“Recognition of a ’Cinderella’ area of science and flexibility”

I work in the ‘boutique’ (aka unfashionable) field of clinical toxicology, the specialty that cares for poisoned patients following self-harm or recreational use. There are just 16 consultant physicians in the UK and Ireland, sharing a national on-call rota covering 70 million people. Internationally, there are only two other full time clinical academics – both in Australia.

Most of my research has been done in rural Asia, in particular in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka where we have studied potential clinical and public health interventions to prevent deaths from self-poisoning with pesticides, plants, and medicines. We aim to lower global suicide rates by 20%, particularly by reducing deaths from pesticide poisoning. More recently I have combined this work with clinical, volunteer, and large animal studies of antidotes in Edinburgh.

Most of my funding has come from the Wellcome Trust (for Sri Lankan work) and from Scotland’s Chief Scientist Office (for UK based work). But all of this funding, except for my Scottish Senior Clinical Research fellowship, has been tied to particular studies. There have rarely been flexible funds available for pump priming work or for recruiting essential colleagues.

This is where the Lister research prize comes in. A colleague in Edinburgh, Andrew Jackson, had won one of the prizes in 2009. Somehow I heard about this – I can’t remember where or when now. It sounded extremely attractive – a national competition for £200,000 research grants, based on the quality of a project proposal but judged in the context of a whole research program. It offered a prestigious prize, a stamp of quality from a scientific committee that knew nothing about my work, and fellowship with a group of highly successful scientists.

I applied for the prize in 2009 with a proposal for a novel area of work but failed to make the interview short list. Over the year, I worked on the application, gaining pilot data, before submitting an improved application in December 2010. This time I made the interview.

Flying down from Edinburgh, I arrived at the Royal Society a long time in advance of the interview. I read for a while and mentally practiced my talk before getting bored and standing up to walk about. Starting to talk with a woman waiting in the same room, I found out she was meeting Prof Borysiewicz whom I had last met in Cambridge 20 years before during my part II in pathology. When he arrived, she kindly introduced me to him as an ex-student who was waiting for a Lister interview. He pointed out that he was a former Lister fellow before asking about my research. Hearing about our Sri Lankan work, he said that had just returned from India where injuries are a major problem and where he had been told in admiring terms about our Sri Lankan work. This was encouraging to hear, leaving me in an excellent frame of mind just minutes before the interview. Perhaps this boost was why the interview went well….

The funds have proved invaluable, offering complete flexibility. The first thing I did was recruit a research projects coordinator – someone to keep an eye on the research finances and logistics and to help me with grant applications as I do the science. I also recruited a PhD student to run the research project with me in a collaborator’s lab. Already she has reproduced our large animal work and is now looking at the mechanisms of the neuromuscular junction failure that occurs after organophosphorus pesticide poisoning. A better understanding should allow us to identify antidotes to prevent this devastating complication of poisoning and save thousands of lives every year. Without the Lister Foundation’s prize, this work would have been much more difficult to drive through.

“Developing a new research area”

I started my own lab at UCL with Career Development funding from the MRC. I am currently an MRC Senior Non-clinical Fellow focusing on the function and membrane trafficking of ion channels and organelles in healthy and diseased nerve cells.

I applied for a Lister award to develop a new area of research in my group to understand the molecular mechanisms important for regulating the membrane trafficking of organelles and in particular mitochondria within neuronal axons and dendrites. In particular we have been focusing on the key role played by the Miro family of mitochondrial GTPases for the delivery of mitochondria to activated synapses during neuronal activity. With the help of Lister funding we are focusing on how mitochondrial trafficking is regulated by neuronal activity and calcium signaling under healthy conditions and how disruption of these pathways contribute to neuronal pathology that underpins neurological disease.

The Lister award has allowed me open up a completely new research direction in my group and importantly has also given me the freedom to think up and then test out new ideas. Moreover the flexibility of funding provided by a Lister award has facilitated the opportunity to recruit and interact with very clever, energetic and enthusiastic researchers to my lab. In addition to the award itself, the yearly Lister research meeting that brings together past and present fellows is a great opportunity to hear about an outstanding breadth of biomedical research covering a diverse array of topics in the life and medical sciences.

“Ability to take risks and flexible funding”

My PhD research was undertaken in cell biology with Prof. Laura Machesky (now at the Beatson Institute, Glasgow), during which I investigated the role of the actin cytoskeleton in phagocytic cells. In 2001 I was awarded a Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) fellowship to change fields and move to the Hubrecht Laboratory in The Netherlands to work with Ronald Plasterk (now a member of the Dutch Parliament). Here I investigated the mechanism that drives cell-to-cell transmission of double-stranded RNA6 before developing an independent line of research, modeling infectious disease processes in C. elegans.

In 2005 I was awarded an RCUK Fellowship to build on this work as an independent Principal Investigator in the School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham, where I am now Reader in Infectious Disease.

I was awarded my Lister Fellowship in 2010, for a proposal to study the fatal fungal pathogen Cryptococcus neoformans using both in vitro cellular models and the zebrafish, Danio rerio. The award transformed our overall research programme. Most importantly, aspects of the proposal had previously been rejected by other funding bodies for being “too risky” – the Lister’s investment provided us with evidence that other funders had confidence in the strategy and enabled us to generate proof-of-principle data that subsequently encouraged research council investment in this approach.

By far the most exceptional aspect of the Lister Fellowship is the flexibility of the funds. Over the last two years this has allowed us to bridge salaries, buy critical small items of equipment and, in general, to maintain a rapid pace of research by ‘filling in gaps’ between other grants. In short, it is probably the single most important award I’ve received in my career thus far, so for anyone thinking about applying, my advice is “Don’t hesitate!”.

“Flexible funding aids creativity”

Following my PhD. at the National Institute for Medical Research in London, a Wellcome Trust Prize Travelling Fellowship allowed me to join Dr.Brad Lowell’s lab at Harvard Medical School in Boston, USA. Here, I became very interested in how the CNS senses, integrates and adjusts metabolic state and we investigated the function of hormone receptors in specific neuronal sub-populations in the hypothalamic regulation of energy homeostasis using state-of-the-art conditional genetically modified models of human disease. I spent a very productive and inspiring time in the Lowell lab, learning and applying cutting-edge science without significant financial boundaries. These 5 years of unconstrained creativity led to publications in Neuron and Cell.

I moved back to the UK in January 2006 and was fortunate to secure independent fellowship funding from the British Heart Foundation as well as establishing myself in a permanent position at the University of Bristol on the back of an RCUK Academic Research Fellowship. Unfortunately, neither of these fellowships came with sufficient funds to allow me to continue the state-of-the-art technologies I had applied in Boston. I was now interested in how hypothalamic glucose-sensing goes wrong in obesity and also how obesity-induced hypertension arises, particularly in relation to novel genes highlighted by Genome-Wide Association Studies. There were (and still are!) many unanswered questions around CNS neurogenetic pathways regulating metabolic and cardiovascular states, most of which can only be fully addressed using systems-level analysis of physiology; without funds to generate and analyse new genetically modified models, my research was in danger of being curtailed.

It was the Lister Institute for Preventive Medicine Prize which allowed me to perform research at an internationally competitive standard. Having a flexible £200,000 at my disposal enabled the creativity I had enjoyed at Harvard, allowing me to design a focused but adaptable research program.

With the Lister Prize I have generated new genetically modified models, retained and employed key staff between grants and delved into new (expensive but very exciting) avenues of next generation transcriptome sequencing. Critically, the Lister Prize further allowed my lab to keep running whilst I was away on maternity leave. The outcome of all this is not just continued publication in respected journals, but also preliminary data leading to BBSRC project grant funding, an ability to maintain international collaborations and last but not least progression within the University. A recent application for EC funds reminded me how refreshing and easy the Lister Institute’s ‘admin light’ approach to grant application, reporting and management is; again, it allows full focus on research.

Sadly, my time as a ‘current Lister Fellow’ is over, but because of the Lister Prize I am ideally equipped with publications and preliminary data to apply for a Senior Fellowships or the like. In addition, the annual Lister meetings make sure that all current and former Lister fellows stay in touch as an invaluable research community.