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Helping postdocs break the mould

Lisa Genzel tells Eleni Courea how she won the 2014 Branco Weiss Fellowship, which funds unconventional projects in any discipline.

The Branco Weiss Fellowship from the Society in Science is run by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich). The next call closes on 15 January 2017 and is open to anyone who has held a PhD for five years or less. All applicants must be born before 1 January 1983.

The scheme is keen on proposals that depart from the mainstream of research in their discipline. A fixed amount of 500,000 Swiss francs (£400,000) is available over the five-year fellowship.

Lisa Genzel’s work centres on sleep and memory, especially how our brains decide which memories to retain and how memories are consolidated while we sleep. She is a postdoc at the University of Edinburgh.

What is your fellowship project about?

It combines animal and human research. In the first part, I disrupt a neural mechanism in sleeping rodents that is thought to be important in memory. We’re not able to get to that area of the brain in humans, but it’s possible in rodents, by implanting electrodes deep into their brains and using shockwaves to interfere with the oscillations. In the second part of the project we will test whether our findings translate into humans by looking at neural imaging. 

Branco Weiss fellowships are explicitly for novel and unconventional projects. How does yours fit the bill?

The combination of animal and human work is rarely done, especially not by the same person. My MD involved work with patients, and during my postdoc in Edinburgh I worked with animals. Because of my background in both areas, I am able to conduct both the human and animal aspects of the research.

What else do you think impressed the assessors?

I think they liked my decision to ensure I was in the best location for both parts of the project. Edinburgh is ideal for animal research, but I felt that the neuroimaging in Nijmegen was stronger and so I moved across halfway through. Most funders would not be happy to see this kind of mobility, but this scheme was highly supportive. 

The fellowship is for applicants who “engage in a dialogue on relevant social, cultural, political or economic issues across the frontiers of their particular discipline”. How did you interpret this?

This fellowship is certainly for people who are eager to bring their science to the wider society. This could be through direct public engagement or by researching solutions to societal problems. I think it’s presented quite vaguely because fellows come from diverse disciplinary backgrounds: there are historians, lawyers, astrophysicists, neuroscientists…

What advice would you give other applicants?

Consider how much time you want to spend planning your application, and then double it. People are tempted to start writing shortly before Christmas, but that doesn’t really allow enough time to get enough feedback from others. Because I started writing late, I received my feedback just four days before the deadline. This led to a very stressful situation, as I had to adapt the proposal at such short notice. So I’d encourage people to begin preparing their applications in November. Start now.

What useful advice did you receive?

Both for the writing and your presentation: the first sentence is important. You gain or lose your audience in the first sentence; it should be the best sentence of your life. Second, I was advised to keep calm and breathe during the presentation. People usually speak too fast, get out a good sentence, then stop and stutter. This seems simple, but it was the best advice I received. 

What help did you get from your university?

The university was very helpful with arranging mock interviews; my supervisor practiced with me and found another three people to help me. I had constant mock interviews via Skype. The university was also incredibly helpful when it comes to budgeting, but you don’t need to include a detailed budget plan in your Branco Weiss application. 

How important has the fellowship been for your career?

Very important indeed. It has helped me compensate for a publication gap, which I received the fellowship in the middle of. Also, when applying for faculty positions—whether or not you’ve brought in funding—is a major consideration. While funds like travel grants or smaller project grants are good, Branco Weiss looks fantastic because it’s a large, five-year award.

Lisa Genzel is a postdoc in Richard Morris’ lab at the University of Edinburgh. A more in-depth version of this interview was published in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight