Dr Susan Heavey gives her top tips on applying for our Travelling Fellowship Award to accelerate her research career

The jump between PhD and postdoc, from student to independent grant holder is a big one, both mentally and in terms of accountability and responsibility. But for any aspiring scientist, it’s an essential step on the road to establishing your own research team.

Our Travelling Prize Fellowships are designed to help bridge this gap and help future leaders in prostate cancer research build the expertise and collaborations they need in their quest for independence, as well as starting them on the road to finding their own research ‘niche’.

Dr Susan Heavey is one of our current Prize Fellows. Her key piece of advice to anyone considering applying to this scheme is to focus on the project, rather than the writing. She says: “When I was putting my application together, the thing that really worked for me was to spend the majority of my time just settling on the right project, and getting the details clear. After that, the writing just followed naturally.”

Dr Susan Heavey

Navigating a new research question

But coming up with a completely new avenue of investigation isn’t something you can do overnight. Susan says, “To be honest, I probably started thinking about applying for a Fellowship about two years before I actually applied. I don’t want that to put anyone off – I don’t mean actually writing the grant, but I had the idea knocking around in the back of my mind even while I was finishing my PhD. Then I probably started having casual conversations about applying with people in my department a year before. I only started the proper heads-down planning when the call was announced, though.”

It’s no mean feat to come up with a question that no-one else is asking, that’s specific enough to give have clear deliverables and milestones for the duration of the project, but broad enough to pave the way to setting up your own research group. “Settling on the final project was definitely the hardest part of the application,” Susan agrees. “I just kept imagining a panel of people tearing my ideas to shreds and trying to work out which one would hold up the best. It’s a difficult balance between making sure you represent your own interests and skillset, but also being mindful that it has to be something that other people will find interesting, and agree needs prioritising too. And I got a lot of conflicting advice from all the people I spoke to.

“The idea for the project I eventually went with actually came from a conference I attended during my PhD. I heard someone talking about their work in breast cancer. They described how they cultured biopsy tissue in the lab, tested a range of drugs on it, and then treated the patient with the drugs that worked best for their individual biopsy sample. It just made so much sense to me. I remembered wondering why we don’t do that for all cancer types.

I was also lucky in that I didn’t have to navigate the ‘is this research I could take away to form my own group?’ question with my PI. The contract Hayley [Whitaker] hired me on for my postdoc gave me a lot of time to explore my own research interests, and that was something she was very keen for me to do. She was very clear right from the beginning that she wanted me to apply for my own funding. So because I brought this idea into my postdoc with me, it was a bit different from the rest of Hayley’s research, and I didn’t have to deal with any conflict there.”

Finding the right collaborator to help you spread your research wings

One of the key aspects of this award is the travelling element, so setting up a good collaboration is key to the success of the application, and the grant. “Finding the right collaborator is important. I knew I already had access to the patient cohort and the drugs I needed at UCL, so it made sense to use the collaboration for some element of the downstream analysis. I wanted to learn something new, and use a brand new methodology that wasn’t available at UCL, but that’s not really something you can just Google! I read a lot of journals, had a lot of conversations and got a lot of advice. One of the people I spoke to had heard someone speak about a new technique they were using at a conference. I set up a call with him, and we had a good connection straight away. We had a really interesting chat, and it seemed like we could make a workable collaboration. Most importantly, he was enthusiastic about me visiting his lab! I spoke to a few other potential collaborators on the phone too, but this one was by far the best fit.

“The travelling part of my Fellowship has absolutely been the highlight of my grant so far. I went to Cold Spring Harbour, and it was unbelievable. I learned so much; it was like being back at University again. I went to seminars almost every day, and learned so many new techniques that really honed my research skills.”

Keeping a plan B up your sleeve

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Susan continues: “The technique I wanted to use was so new that it was also very high risk. And sure enough, it didn’t work. So that would be my other piece of advice… have a plan B! I’m working on plan B now, and if that fails, I’ve got plan C up my sleeve too. Having a clear contingency plan will definitely benefit your application, and take some of the stress out of a mid-project change of plan too.”

So there you have it. Top tips for a successful Travelling Prize Fellowship application: focus on the project details, but have a plan B. Get as much advice as possible, and chose your collaborator carefully. Good luck to everyone hoping to submit an application. If you’ve got any questions, or want to talk anything through, drop us a line at research@prostatecanceruk.org.