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How to succeed: Crick’s African Career Accelerator

In this exclusive Q&A, programme director Jenny Wilson talks about what it takes to win a fellowship in the second round of the prestigious Crick African Career Accelerator Awards.

The Francis Crick Institute in the United Kingdom has issued a second call for applications for its African Career Accelerator Awards, which help promising young African health researchers establish themselves as research leaders.

The awards target African researchers at postdoctoral level with two to six years’ experience. Winners receive funding for a spell at the Crick Institute in London, and at African partner institutions. The fellowships are each worth about £130,000 (US$170,000).

Ahead of the deadline for expressions of interest on 1 January 2019, Research Africa spoke to Jenny Wilson, the Crick African Network programme director, about the upcoming call and lessons learnt from the first.

From the Crick Institute perspective, how do you feel about the first round?

The Crick is really delighted with the first cohort of fellows, and can’t wait for them to get started. The applications were very high quality and it was a tough decision. Hopefully, now that we have the first cohort awarded it will be easier for potential applicants to the second round to see the type of research activities that can be supported, different ways of using the fellowship and the breadth of topics that can be covered, which then may inspire some new ideas. We are keen to see some more applications coming through our partner in Uganda [the Uganda Virus Research Institute], but one of the lessons we’ll be applying this round is predominantly around advertising and how to get the word out to the community who are eligible, which we were still finding our feet with in the first round.

Is there anything new in the second round that researchers should look out for or be aware of?

There are two main modifications. Because of the necessity to identify supervisors and supporters at both one of our African partner institutions and at the Crick, we found that some high-quality applicants were falling through the gap in research areas. The Crick has expertise in HIV, TB and malaria research, but while neglected tropical diseases are eligible in the scope of the call, applicants weren’t able to find a supervisor at the Crick to nominate despite having a great supervisor at the African partner institution. Therefore, if there is the knowledge and expertise in the research area provided by the supervisor at the African partner institution, it is now possible to have the focus of the time spent at the Crick with one of our 19 science technology platforms, which offer advanced training in cross-cutting techniques and access to the latest equipment, from microscopy to metabolomics. Hopefully this way, we can be more inclusive of research relevant to the diseases of poverty in Africa.

And the other?

The other modification is to be more explicit that we’re keen to engage with more institutions on the African continent: it’s not a closed club! The call text says that it’s a two year fellowship, and that proposals should include at least six months at the Crick and six months with one of our partners. This leaves a year that can be flexible. The thought process for this is that six months is just long enough to form long term connections that you could call up in a few years. However, if you’re currently situated in a place where you can, for example, collect your samples, or which has unique capabilities, then you could continue to spend some time there, or incorporate them into the research plan. Ultimately though, the locations and the duration spent there should be research-led, and that should come across in the proposal. This way, all partners of the network could benefit from more interlinkages between places doing great research in Africa.

Do you have any advice or tips for researchers who are keen to apply for the second round?

Do feel free to make an approach to a potential supervisor or mentor. However, make sure to do some background research first by reading their publications or watching a presentation they’ve done. What are their research interests? What is it about their research that has inspired you to approach them? Showing that you have some awareness of what they do and how your proposal could complement that work is definitely an advantage that you can give yourself. Because the African Career Accelerator award scheme is designed for people aiming to make the transition to research independence, it is important to demonstrate that you know what you’re aiming for and how this opportunity will progress you towards that aim.

Anything else?

A top tip that we’d like to promote is that it’s never too soon to start discussing research ideas with potential supervisors or mentors. This way, you can get input into the idea and find out what might be feasible as well as pushing the boundaries of the field. All group leaders and principal investigators have been in the position of trying to make that transition to independence, so they are happy to help the next generation work on the details,  if you come with an original idea. What they can’t do is come up with the idea for you!