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Embo’s newest fellowships help researchers change course

Many early career researchers whose plans have been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic will be on the lookout for a fellowship scheme that allows them to pursue a new direction. 

The new venture fellowships scheme launched by the European Molecular Biology Organization (Embo) in March could be just what they’re seeking. There are six short-term travel fellowships on offer in the initial pilot phase spaced over two calls: the first of which closes on 1 June with the second opening in spring 2022.

The fellowship is for life-sciences researchers seeking to enter a new field. Applicants should have at least two years’ experience after their PhD but no more than two years as a principal investigator, and winners will spend up to 90 days in a host lab working on joint projects.

It is open to researchers working in any of 34 countries which are either member states of the European Molecular Biology Conference or associated countries and partners. Embo will support fellows with travel costs and subsistence, which depends on the country of the host lab but ranges from €65 to €140 per day.

Kelly Sheehan-Rooney, head of the programme at Embo, gives the lowdown on the scheme. 

What was the motivation behind the new fellowships?

In 2019 the world lost an amazing scientist called Suzanne Eaton. At that time, her family and friends wanted to find a way to honour her achievements so they set up the Suzanne Eaton Memorial Fund. Considering that Suzanne was an Embo member who was passionate about exploring new avenues of science, the idea for this fellowship arose to help scientists venture into new areas of research. Most of the funding for the fellowships comes from the fund but Embo may financially bump it up to ensure six fellowships are awarded.

How are they different to Embo’s short-term fellowships?

The short-term fellowships support new, international collaborations, enabling the transfer of expertise unavailable in the home laboratory. In essence, they are scientific exchange grants. In contrast, the new venture fellowships are personal awards that help the applicant’s career development.

Do you think the fellowships are particularly timely, given the pandemic?

I hope so. Many people have changed their life plans because of the pandemic—they may be thinking differently in terms of their projects or which country they want to live in. Hopefully this fellowship will ease their change.

Considering the potential for travel restrictions, will Embo be flexible on start dates?

We always try to be flexible, and particularly in the current Covid-19 situation. The awards will be available from October 2021 in the hope that the pandemic is under control by then and the awardees can take their trips. We also split the scheme over two years, helping those who can’t travel right now to apply next year.

How do you define what counts as a topic outside a researcher’s current area?

I suggest looking at Suzanne Eaton’s career for some great examples. She moved across different fields from biophysics, to biochemistry, to cell biology, to developmental biology. The evaluation board will not want to see a straight continuity of applicants’ current work. Rather, the proposal should have the potential to take the applicant’s research career in a new direction.

Should they have experience in their chosen topic at all?

The new venture fellowship is unique because applicants don’t need evidence of success in the new area. So, if the aim of the proposal is to consolidate work that’s already well underway, then it will be given a lower priority for funding. Rather, I expect to see pieces of evidence that show the applicant’s inspiration to take their research in a new direction. For example, maybe they did a short course or attended a conference in a new field. Or maybe they see an exciting avenue for their research, but in a different field.

Do you need input from the host institution?

We do require a reference letter from the hosting group clearly stating their support of the applicant and their project. The letter should be written by the host lab’s principal investigator and provide evidence that the applicant has been in touch to discuss the potential trip and work plan. The host lab should also indicate how they are able to support the research visit.

Should visits last the full 90 days, or can they be split?

Single or multiple visits are allowed. The important point is that the timing and length of any trips are reasonable and justified.

Beyond the second call in 2022, are you expecting to extend the programme?

This scheme hits a niche in the funding arena—supporting scientists to explore a new area they have not previously experienced. It’s high risk for a funder. It’s for these reasons that I like the fellowship. We will keep in touch with the successful candidates to see what their next steps are and if it goes well, I’d love to continue the scheme, or a version of it, in the future. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com