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Women in Science

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Interview excerpt: Persephone wrote six applications before she got funding. She learnt a lot in the process – including that she had to demonstrate her independence, and the value of pilot data.

Portrait of Persephone Borrow© Persephone BorrowWhat was it like getting your own funding for the first time? Did somebody encourage you to go for that?

Yes, I mean I think as you become a more senior postdoc then certainly it was a very kind of accepted career route that you then began to apply for grants for yourself. And at the time that I started applying for funding I was in the US, so I actually at this point was applying to the NIH, which is the main funding body, the National Institutes of Health in America. So it’s sort of equivalent of the MRC in the UK.

And at the time I was applying, they actually had a funding crisis, and you know, it seems to me this has been happening ever since, through my whole career but I think it was when funding really did become tight for the first time and the sort of pay rate for grants had sort of dropped down precipitously and it was actually very, very difficult to try to apply successfully for funding.

And I applied I think initially just for a regular grant and then I applied for something, I’m not sure if it exists anymore over there, called a ‘First Award,’ which is much more equivalent to the MRC’s career development Fellowships or Wellcome Trust, you know, Junior Fellowships. So it’s giving you support for your salary and a sort of small group for a period of five years. And I mean it wasn’t an easy process I actually, I think because you, because you put in an application in and you’re allowed to revise it and put it in again. So in total I made six applications with three different grants, each of which went in twice before eventually I did get this award funded.

But I think I learned a tremendous amount during that sort of whole process actually about what’s required to be successful with writing a grant because the first grant application that I wrote was an extension of the work that I’d been doing as a postdoc. And in essence the feedback that came from that was that it wasn’t, they weren’t really likely to fund somebody within their supervisor’s lab doing very closely related research. And actually this is something that having now, you know, actually I have rotated off but I used to sit on the MRC’s Career Development Award and Senior Non Clinical Fellowship panel here in the UK, recently and actually this is something that; they do look at very closely on the applications there so, ‘Is the person really independent?’ and I think some applications do come in from people where I think the supervisor, the Head of the lab had sort of suggested a project and in a way the person isn’t necessarily going to be independent and it’s quite hard to judge that I think…


...when you receive an application and you’re reviewing them. And I think if somebody either chooses to stay in the same place and work on something completely different or if the person chooses to work on, in the same area but is moving away physically from their postdoctoral supervisor then it’s much clearer to see that that person really is independent.

So I think the, the first application which I put in twice, that one I think, that was the reason that I was never going to be successful with that one. So then I thought, ‘Right, I need to work on something completely different.’ And so I chose something that I thought was interesting which I really had never worked on before and I did a few very quick preliminary experiments and wrote a grant on it and actually that was a complete failure as well, and I think the reason is because in America, and this is certainly much more of the case in America than it is in the UK, when you put in any kind of grant application, they expect you to have done, you know, a good chunk of the work already, and the fact that this was something that I didn’t have a track record of really in that area and you know, I had a couple of very quick preliminary experiments and I hadn’t done, you know, a big chunk of the work already, it was clear that was never going to go anywhere.