Life as a young lab head

Earlier this year, the Endocrine Society and the Endocrine Society of Australia published a paper titled ‘Career advancement: Meeting the challenges confronting the next generation of endocrinologists and endocrine scientists‘. Endocrinologists are facing challenges in reduced funding, competing responsibilities and gender issues. Giving us the personal side of the story, Australian prostate cancer researcher Luke Selth tells us about the ups and downs of life as a young lab head…


“As I sit down to write this, there is a foul odour permeating my cancer research lab. I know what you’re thinking: one of the PhD students has left a Bunsen burner on and I’m on butane high. I wish it was so simple.

No, the stench is a heady mixture of stress and worry. I am expecting the outcomes of two National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Project Grant applications this week. We also have two research papers currently under review at a prominent journal in the field of cancer biology (seriously, how can it take 62 days to review a paper?).

It feels as though the next week could literally make or break my career. Is this an exaggeration? Well, no, actually. Let me break it down for you…

pull-quote-2a

The grant applications

My lab’s research is focused on identifying the molecular mechanisms underlying prostate cancer progression, and developing new therapeutic strategies for this important disease. Both of my Project Grant applications are in this field and, realistically, there’s every chance neither will be funded.

I’d like to stress that this isn’t because they are bad applications. ‘You’re biased’, I hear you muttering, and I can’t argue with that – of course everyone thinks their own research is the most novel and exciting. However, I have evidence to back this notion up: both have made it through the dreaded ‘Not for further consideration’ cut, which means they were ranked in the top 50% of applications.

So we are through the first hurdle. However, given that last year’s success rate was 13.7%, this means that both grants still only have around a 1 in 4 chance of being funded. Of course, that’s if the success rate doesn’t decrease even further this year – there’s every indication that it will. When I started writing NHRMC grant applications 5 years ago, 22.9% of applications were being funded. This worrying trend, largely due to the lack of real increase in the overall NHMRC budget, has caused a lot of scientists to change professions or leave the country – a “brain drain” that will be difficult to recover from.

The low success rate means the outcomes often feel like a bit of a lottery. All of the applications still in the hunt are strong; it’s extremely difficult for a review panel to choose the best. In a perfect world (or, more accurately, a perfect Australian economy), most of them would be funded. But this isn’t a perfect world, and so some randomness ensues. This process of assessing applications in this type of funding scheme has been studied: Fang and colleagues provided evidence that the peer review process used by the National Institute of Health (USA) does not necessarily fund the best science – and that using a lottery-style system to awards grants would actually yield equivalent, if not better, research outcomes.

In short, a bit of bad luck could see both of my applications – which collectively took around 2 months of full-time work to prepare – down the drain.

pull-quote-3a

The papers

The old mantra of “publish or perish” is stronger than ever in Australian science. Consistently publishing in high quality journals is required for grant success, which in turn is required to keep consistently publishing in high quality journals; it’s a feedback loop that sadly consumes much of my attention.

The two papers that are currently under review are both strong bodies of work. But, again, there’s every chance they will be rejected – the current acceptance rate at the journal I have submitted to is around 20-25%.

The possible outcomes

OK, so what happens if my grant applications and research papers are both tossed out like old agar plates? Well, I will have just enough funding to keep my small research group going next year, but virtually nothing for the following year (not even my salary). The stench of worry in my lab will become even more pungent. I’m a passionate guy, and in such a situation I’d like to allow myself the release of smashing a glass beaker or two – but I couldn’t afford the cost of replacements…

pull-quote-4a

Alternatively, there is the possibility that I win the lottery. Sure, there’s been a lot of work done by my group, but in the end I truly believe there is a significant amount of luck involved. If the papers are accepted and grants are funded, suddenly the lab’s future and finances will look flush again. There will be no need to let anyone go, and I can cancel that online barista course I signed up for!

This roller-coaster we call a science career

Of course I’ve simplified things. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities between total failure and total success. But what I’m hoping to convey is the reality of life for a young lab head trying to make his or her way in the world of biomedical research. This job is a bloody roller-coaster, and it seems perverse that I spend up to half of my time applying for money so that I can simply do my job.

pull-quote-5a

I’m often asked by my close friends and family why I stick with it. One response is that I’m not sure any café would want a washed-up scientist as their barista! Seriously though, I love my job for many reasons, the most important being that I have a scientific curiosity that can probably only be sated by this type of research and a vision to improve outcomes for cancer patients. Fortunately, the satisfaction of discovery, coupled with a real chance to improve the health of our society, far outweigh my grant- and paper-related pessimism.

So, even if the grants and papers don’t come through this week, I’m going to persist – and I have many inspirational colleagues and mentors who do the same, year in and year out.

References:

  1. Fang FC, Bowen A, & Casadevall A (2016) NIH peer review percentile scores are poorly predictive of grant productivity. Elife 5.

Early-career grants: funding to get the all-important first proof of concept

The Society for Endocrinology provides early-career grants to support its members in a number of ways. In this article, Kerry McLaughlin explains how the grant helped her search for an elusive autoantigen, which made a splash on the BBC news page earlier this year.

Dr Kerry McLaughlin PhD JDRF Research Fellow
Dr Kerry McLaughlin, JDRF Research Fellow

 People who have type-1 diabetes lose the ability to control blood sugar levels because of the destruction of insulin-producing cells in their Islets of Langerhans. We know this is because the immune response targets four specific proteins (known as autoantigens), and while the fifth major autoantigen has been known to exist for over 20 years its identity was unknown.

Technical limitations at the time made it impossible to identify the fifth autoantigen, but we used a combination of biochemical techniques alongside high-tech mass spectrometry to discover that this fifth major autoantigen was tetraspanin-7, at last providing a complete picture of the immune targets in type-1 diabetes.

This discovery can now be used to help identify those at risk of future disease development through the detection of antibodies to tetraspanin-7, and to further research into strategies aimed at blocking the immune response to the major autoantigens in order to prevent the disease altogether.

This research came about as a result of work we were doing with a separate autoantigen (IA-2). My postdoctoral supervisor, Dr Michael Christie, was involved in earlier efforts to identify the fifth major autoantigen, and we realised that we could apply the technology developed for IA-2 for this purpose.

This was where the Early Career Grant from the Society for Endocrinology came in and provided some much needed resource to kick-start the project. While it took a little bit more time and effort to finally identify tetraspanin-7 as our elusive fifth autoantigen, this early funding was instrumental to the project’s successful completion.

I have since been awarded a 3-year fellowship by JDRF to continue my research into tetraspanin-7 in the laboratory of Professor Patrik Rorsman FRS, FMedSci at the University of Oxford. We published our study in Diabetes, and it was covered in the mainstream media by the BBC, at one point trending in the top 10 news articles, as well as by the Huffington Post. It was great to have the opportunity to share our research with the wider public, and I was very motivated to see how interested people were in hearing about scientific advances.

For young researchers, getting enough preliminary data to put together a competitive grant application for a major funding body can be tricky. The Early Career Grant from the Society for Endocrinology provides postdocs with the opportunity to explore a new avenue of research and can be used to provide that all-important first proof-of-concept.

The second advantage to this scheme is that it gives early-stage researchers a chance to go through the process of preparing an application for funding as well as managing an award,  but on a much smaller scale and without the heavy administrative burden of larger grants. I would certainly recommend the scheme to those keen to take the first step towards an independent career in research.

Kerry McLaughlin, originally from Cape Town, South Africa, was awarded her PhD in Immunology from King’s College London in collaboration with The Pirbright Institute. She then spent six years as a postdoc in the laboratory of Dr Michael Christie at King’s College London before taking up a JDRF fellowship at the University of Oxford in 2016.

For details on how to apply for our Early Career Grant, visit our website. The next deadline for applications is 27 November 2016.