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Fellowships for the bold


When world-changing ambition is expected of postdocs

The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, a funder initially set up with profits generated from the Great Exhibition, awards around eight research fellowships each year.

These aim to give early career researchers or engineers the opportunity for independence as they conduct their own projects. The commission is open to applications in physical or biological sciences, mathematics, applied science and any branch of engineering. For the 2023 round of fellowships, the deadline is 17 January 2023.

The fellowship pays for the fellow’s salary, which may be on a self-employed basis. There is also an additional allowance of £6,000 per year for associated costs.

Jasmine Lee, who won an 1851 research fellowship in 2021, is carrying out her project mapping conservation actions for Antarctic biodiversity at the British Antarctic Survey.

Can you give a brief overview of your project?

The primary aim is to map threats to Antarctic biodiversity. Antarctica is subject to multiple threats including climate change, human activity from science and tourism, pollution and invasive species. We want to know where each threat is occurring both now and in the future. Once that has been done, you can identify conservation actions that can be used to help mitigate those threats locally.

The fellowship projects must be separate from previous supervisors’ work. Was this difficult for you?

It was quite easy, because it was an idea I’ve had simmering in the back of my mind for quite some time. Antarctica is a little bit behind the rest of the world in terms of conservation. Some things that have already been done in other parts of the world, like threat mapping, have not been done in Antarctica. I stressed this originality in my application as it was especially relevant for 1851, which supports these kinds of applied projects.

Is your fellowship undertaken as an employee or a self-employed visiting researcher? 

As a self-employed visiting researcher. I had clear reasoning for that. One of the stipulations of the fellowship is the fellows should have a pay increase each year in line with a university pay-spine system. I am at a research institute, which is not a university, so they do not have that same system in terms of promotions and pay changes. It was just easier for me to take it as a self-employed fellow. The 1851 will increase it in accordance with the university pay spine.

Do you feel like you are at any disadvantage being a self-employed fellow?

I don’t think so. My institution treats me pretty much the same as an employee regardless. One advantage is that you don’t have to go through some of the hoops you might as a paid staff member, such as applying for leave online. If I want to take time off, I just email my supervisor directly. 

What parts of the application did you pay particular attention to?

The 1851 is very much about helping the community and providing opportunities for arts and sciences and for the greater public and not just the scientific community. One of the questions in the application is: “How will your work benefit society at large?” 

I think making an effort to answer that question, and incorporating some of 1851’s values into the research proposal, is useful.

What was the best advice you received?

In terms of more senior mentors, some of them stressed how important the reference letters are. Making sure that the people you put down as your references are going to write you a good letter is important. From peers, I knew someone who had applied in the past and their advice was to highlight the novelty of your research. The 1851 wants to know how their fellows are going to change the world. They asked that in the interview as well.  

How did the interview go? 

The interview was good—they were all very welcoming—but it is a bit intimidating, because you are talking to dames and sirs, a lot of very senior scientists. And they did ask questions like: “We have a lot of Nobel laureates in our past alumni, what are you going to do that can help the world?” 

Did you get any information on who they would be before the interview? 

I did not but I did Google the 1851 Commission and their board, so I was expecting some of them to be on there and they were.

What advice would you pass on in your turn? 

Be bold. Propose something that is potentially novel and out there but within the realms of achievability, of course. The commission will pick up on something that is too large-scale to take on. It is such a great fellowship scheme. We get to talk directly to the people who run the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 and meet them at fellowship events, which are wonderful, as you meet peers from diverse fields. It is well worth applying for; it is not a huge application, and very much worth a shot. 

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