How I got my UKRI Future Leader Fellowship: lessons I learned from being a new PI
This is not an exhaustive guide on how to write a research fellowship, rather my personal experience of the process which led me to receiving a UKRI Future Leader Fellowship (FLF) in 2019.
Background: I had been a principal investigator (PI), a Lecturer in Cardiovascular Sciences in the University of Leeds (UoL), UK, since mid-2015 and had one failure after another in getting my research funded. Between 2014 and 2018, I had reached the final stages (interview or final panel) of a BBSRC David Philips fellowship, an ERC starting grant and an MRC New Investigator Grant. Despite some success with small grants from the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, fellowships and project grants seemed to elude me over the first 3 years (22 failed applications). As someone who belongs to the intersection of a few minorities in STEMM, I was acutely aware of obstacles which were beyond my control. In this post, I want to focus on how perseverance, investment from my faculty, a strong team and access to enabling technologies led me to a successful FLF application as a new PI.
Inception of FLF application: As a cardiovascular-focused cell biologist/biophysicist, I had been frustrated by how narrow and competitive the available paths of funding were. In April 2018, I attended an information session on the newly-announced UKRI FLF scheme, run by the Research & Innovation Team in the UoL. Their main message was that the scheme aimed to fund and accelerate the careers of researchers who had the potential for becoming “the future leaders” of technology, business and society. The focus was going to be on promising applicants who have not had substantial research funding . As a part of the session, Prof Cath Noakes gave an inspiring talk about how securing her first fellowship propelled her career and helped deliver her research into practice in the field of civil engineering. She spoke about the importance of coming up with a “big idea”, an idea which can transform our society, and forms the back-bone of the proposal. This advice set me free.
Instead of working within the gaps inside my chosen research discipline (cellular cardiology), I started to think about “the real world problems” that I had observed as a scientist. This freed me to think outside of the cardiovascular box.
The “big idea”: I had had a bit of practice with writing fellowship applications, but they never seemed to be quite good enough. The blog post from Prof Franciska de Vries’ blog post on how she got her BBSRC David Philips fellowship was a guide that I kept coming back to. Essentially, one needs to be really aware of the literature and the newest developments of the chosen field of research. It is only then one can identify The Gap, or a need, which motivates a proposal, its strategy and design. As a relatively new PI, one of my primary means of keeping up with papers was a Twitterbot which I had setup to collect papers and preprints which were relevant to me. It tweeted 3–4 papers everyday and I created a habit of setting aside time to comb through and read papers (on optical microscopy and its applications) which were relevant.
My big idea came from identifying that super-resolution microscopy, a technique which is regarded as a high-end optical technique among life scientists, had very limited uptake in certain arms of scientific research. I collected my own evidence/statistics to characterise (and convince myself about) the nature of the gap. Most of the background work which I did was to establish whether plugging that gap was going to transform how scientific or industrial research was carried out in the UK. In my case, it was tricky to prove the value of developing a technology which had never been applied to key sectors like the clinical sciences or field-based research.
I decided to write the fellowship about transforming an exciting and novel version of Expansion Microscopy into an imaging technology which could benefit the non-traditional Life Scientists. It involved a set of experiments which my team had started to develop along with a colleague just a few months prior to this. He became the Co-Investigator of my fellowship.
The goal(s): My personal goal for the FLF was a clear departure from the goals of all other fellowships I had written before. It was no longer just to publish high-impact papers and further my scientific field. This time, it was to produce something innovative and completely fresh whilst advancing my career as a leader. As someone who had started to grow weary of being just a university- and lab-based research academic, I decided to make my FLF an opportunity to broaden my horizons. I wanted the outcomes of the fellowship to have more far-reaching impact; and commercial value. I wanted my FLF to be a route to diversifying my collaborations. I wanted it to be ambitious and brave.
My approach: I wrote my FLF to demonstrate that I could lead my “big idea” towards a clear set of deliverables or what I would consider to be a “win”. I mapped out the full array of expertise/skills which I needed for it. I also wrote out the likely beneficiaries of this technology. “Winning”, for me, was demonstrating that these beneficiaries could use this technology to transform the way they did their science. I then went about building network of collaborators and mentors who would work with me me to integrate these skills, expertise and applications.
Two years ago, my collaborator network did not cover the full breadth of mentorship and support which I needed. Where my network lacked in expertise or reputation, I reached out to the very best experts that I could possibly reach. I developed a sales pitch and I shamelessly pitched it to academic experts and industrial contacts who I though could help me.
I also built support within my institution. I knew that the FLF applications were being triaged and only a limited number of the very best were allowed to go through. I ran mini-meetings within the university to survey interest for this type of tech. I pitched the idea to our Director of Research and Head of School well in advance of the first internal deadline for the round which I was aiming for. I explained to them that securing this FLF would help me to lift the profile of the faculty. This meant that, in addition to getting the written proposal through the internal reviews, I had buy-in to my FLF vision from the higher leadership of the faculty. When the time came, I had the green light from them to submit the proposal to the UKRI.
I drove some of the underpinning experiments which I had begun with my Co-I and one of the industrial partners, hard, towards a publication. By the time I submitted the proposal to the UKRI, we had a full manuscript of it ready for submission. This meant that by the time I had an invitation for an interview, I had the pilot data published through peer-review. Having this enabling work published as the lead author was a real feather in my cap as evidence of my leadership and expertise.
The proposal: I followed a 12-week time plan to develop the proposal. It needed to be in a full draft 30 days before the final deadline. This meant that the scientific case, all the attachments, the full costings and the letters of support needed to go into the first round of internal review. This was my first hurdle. The second round of internal review was just a week before the deadline and my proposal needed to win the approval of the UoL in order to be allowed to go through to the UKRI. Here is what I did to make sure that it overcame the internal triage and stood a high chance of a good review with the expert reviewers:
- The proposal was built around the “big idea” which is going to shape the future of science and technology in the UK. So, in addition to citing academic literature and experimental pilot data, I included data from my own surveys and really emphasised, with examples, the impact of the project. The idea needed to be exciting and “believable” (for the want of a better word). The local reviewers liked it.
- I resisted the temptation to seek out examples of previously successful proposals, as I had done with my previous attempts at applying for grants and fellowships. This meant that I approached my writing with a completely clear mind.
- The heart of the proposal identified “the gap”. I then crafted the argument that my approach is one of the most promising ways to fulfil this need, and that I was the ideal candidate to achieve it.
- In the candidate’s statement, I was very clear and upfront on my track-record and the leadership potential. I made it clear that this is an idea which I have led. This means evidence of the support which I have built and a strong letter of support from UoL.
- Writing with clarity was important. The proposal was the standard length (8 pages, but included additional sections like: outlook for Years 5–7, intellectual property and commercialisation, national importance etc). So, there was little space for lengthy text. I had to pick the details to include carefully.
- “The vision” section at the top of the document was very important. I spent a lot of time crafting it. In some of the locally-run information sessions in UoL, Faye Robinson and colleagues had some fantastic advice on how to structure the first paragraph of a grant proposal. I found this very helpful.
- I hand-picked only the essential pilot data. The challenge was to balance the amount of pilot data against other illustrations to help the reviewer. As a new PI, I used to make the mistake of including data relating to everything that I could do. I avoided this in my FLF. I tried to find a balance between data from my recent publications and unpublished data.
- I wrote the proposal in simple language that was easy to read. I structured the eight pages of the Case for Support in a way that was fairly logical and not too technical. I wrote about the risks and rewards of each approach, and the contingencies which I had for each goal.
- I had the draft proposal reviewed multiple times by colleagues, especially by those whose style of research (interdisciplinary) matched the style of the proposal. This type of peer review is not a proof-read. I sought out reviewers who could offer me genuine criticism, particularly from the perspectives of the expert reviewers and the panel reviewers. I also had mine reviewed externally because I wanted it to be brutally honest.
- I wrote my Pathways to Impact (P2I) and Impact Summary, side-by-side with the Case for Support. Prof Mark Reed has some really useful resources including a series of YouTube videos like this one, talking through how to do this well. I also found his resources on the Fast Track Impact website quite useful. Their algorithmic P2I tool was useful to understand the bare bones of what needed to be addressed. These resources completely overhauled my usual approached to the P2I. Finally, I had the P2I reviewed by a local expert on Impact. A note: you need to think about your impact goals and strategies for yourself before you use these resources.
Rebuttals for the external reviews: The FLF is unique as a fellowship scheme because you get to see the reviewers’ comments and scores ahead of an invitation for an interview. The scores do not always determine whether you are invited. The rebuttals follow a standard Q&A format to fit within the page-limit that you are instructed by the UKRI FLF team. I got my rebuttals reviewed by my collaborator network and Co-I. The key aspect to check was the tone of my response. I avoided defensive language and ensured that I evidenced each point in my response. In hindsight, the written response was not my last chance to respond to the criticisms. I had another opportunity to clarify my rebuttals at the interview.
The interview: Research & Innovation in UoL did an amazing job in helping me prepare for my interview. They organised a mock interview specifically for me with a panel which included senior academics who had experience with being panel members. They scrutinised my slides, my answers to the questions and my general approach to the interview. It was emotionally exhausting, but I am convinced that it made a considerable difference to me. Some general approaches that I took in preparing the presentation:
- I started by preparing the slides for the interview, and followed Prof Franciska de Vries’ approach of keeping things simple, to time, and easy to follow.
- I focused more on the context, “the gap” and the impact of the work. The impact considerations included the mission of the project and how it aligns with the UKRI strategy, case studies which I was proposing beyond the first 4 years of funding and a visual illustration of the types of scientific ventures which this technology would enable.
- I made sure that the presentation built towards the question: “why am I the ideal candidate to lead this fellowship”. Upon the advice of a colleague who had secured an FLF in the first round, I spoke openly about all of my leadership roles, including my work with various Equality & Diversity organisations championing women and LGBTQ+ visibility in academia. i.e. I felt more at ease in being authentic about my passions and priorities than to filter what I thought the panel wanted to hear.
- I concluded my presentation with a strong appeal on why it is really important that this project be funded through the UKRI.
Preparing for the Q&A part of the interview came down to the most likely questions that I was going to get. The mock interview had been instrumental in this. I wrote down the questions that I got in it and practiced repeatedly with friends and my partner, at home, how I would answer some of those questions at the interview. This, I feel, was the most important aspect of my preparation.
The interview was around 11am in Heathrow. I made sure that I travelled down from Leeds to London on the day before the interview, which meant that I could arrive at the interview with little travel fatigue. Whilst waiting outside the interview room, I listened to a compilation of “Barack Obama’s best comebacks and interview moments” which meant that I went into the interview room feeling happy (smiling) and uplifted.
During the interview: There were a few things that helped me make a positive impression:
- The 6 panel members were seated in a shallow U-formation facing a presentation screen. The PowerPoints were loaded onto a laptop on top of a desk at the corner of the room. There was a hand-held remote with a laser-pointer. I was given the option of either sitting down (either at the laptop, at the front of the room) or standing up. I opted to remain standing for the entire interview.
- Most of the questions were asked by 3 panel members and the chair, but I tried, within my capacity to engage the other panel members in answering the questions. I had done my homework to read about the backgrounds of each panel member (panels are normally announced by the UKRI about a week before the interview date), which generally helped me feel prepared. However, I avoided going into the interview with a pre-conceived impression of the panel.
- The interview focused on the academic (scientific), non-academic (in my case, commercialisation and broader impact) and leadership aspects of the fellowship. In my answers, I approached each of those areas with equal importance.
- I did not assume that every panel member had (A) read my proposal from cover to cover, and (B) understood the scientific details of the methods I was proposing.
- I was given a chance to share any final comments or thoughts with the panel. I had nothing more to add at that point.
Securing a UKRI FLF has been life-changing for me. This has also had some significant impact on my career path and trajectory. It is perhaps fair to say that a successful FLF application is a real combination of a lot of hours spent thinking and refining an idea which has some tangible outcomes, a supportive host environment and a brilliant group of collaborators who are willing to buy into your vision.
In a future blog post, I will write about how I went about using my FLF to add impact to my research, build a team which can help deliver my vision and negotiate with my host university to advance my career and research.