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Openness to multidisciplinary perspectives is important, even with specialist funders

The Rank Prize’s new lecturer awards are grants that all early career scientists in crop science and nutrition should bookmark. Applications for this year’s competition closed on 19 September, but a fresh handful of grants will be available next year, with a deadline around the same date.

Intended for those at lecturer level within a UK university who have been in post for less than two years, applicants not on a permanent contract may apply but must show they have an agreement with an organisation that they can perform research with lecturer-level classification. Those working in a clinical role, or who hold a clinical fellowship, may also apply. 

The awards typically offer up to £25,000 per project, but as plant scientist Amanda Cavanagh, based at the University of Essex, explains, they can provide a career boost that is disproportionate to their diminutive size.

What’s your project about?

My project looks at the possibilities of exploiting a [biochemical] process that most crop plants use, so that we can boost temperature tolerance in them. The project investigates the brassica family. These are the leafy greens, essentially, and include cabbage, broccoli and rapeseed. There are ways to exploit variation in plants in fundamental processes like photosynthesis and photorespiration, to select varieties that can help to take advantage of temperature in better ways than others. That’s what the research focuses on.

How did you find the application process?

I enjoyed it. The application was great in helping me to solidify ideas. Also, because it’s an early career award, it has quite a bit of perspective on what your career intentions are and what this will do to help you. It was nice to have a think on not only the question of ‘Why this award?’ but also ‘Why me?’ This is something many female early career academics struggle with. And then the important questions are: ‘What would I do with this and how would this benefit not only me but also the research community?’

What else did you keep in mind as you wrote the bid?

I knew that I was not writing a proposal for only plant biologists. We get heavily siloed into our research communities and we don’t always think about the fact that proposals will be read by scientists in human and animal nutrition, who are not so interested in, to take my own example, the inner biochemical mechanisms of photosynthesis.

How did you counteract that?

I made every effort to send this around to colleagues outside my field, to make sure they could understand it and they’d think it was exciting. I also prepared for the interview with friends in other disciplines.

How did the interview go?

For me, the interview was one of the first chances I had to discuss science in person. It was actually exciting to be in front of a room full of people talking about my career, the way I see science and my plans for this pot of money if I were to get it. It was also good to be in the room and not on a Zoom call, just talking to a screen. It was a fun experience.

What were the questions like?

They were quite probing, but mostly the kind of thing that if you do this work, you expect to get asked. A few of them were a bit more out of left field and a bit more surprising, but there were no hostile questions, which I appreciated.

What do you mean by left field?

They were only left field for me as a plant biologist. If you’re interested in human nutrition and you’re evaluating a bid that aims to improve photosynthesis, it’s very reasonable to ask: ‘How’s the nutrition profile of that leaf changing, and what’s that going to do to humans?’ But that’s not something I spend a lot of time thinking about.

How did you cope?

The saving grace for me with most of those questions is that I have a lot of friends and colleagues who are really interested in that area, and they’re open to discussion. 

My advice for anyone who is applying for this prize is to not be too protective of that proposal once it goes in. Discuss it with your peers, your colleagues and your friends, and get a lot of input on it, because that will help prepare you for the questions other people have.

Any other recommendations?

Don’t be put off by the award’s size. I think a lot of people might think it’s not a high-value award, and it’s certainly not on the scale of a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Standard Grant, but it’s been a real boost for my research and me personally. That a group of people who I respect believe in me and believe in my ideas is highly motivating. 

I’d also recommend people to explore the Rank website—you can identify past winners and ask them for tips and tricks. You can also see who’s on the nutrition committee. Most people are googleable, so you can find out what they’re interested in and what they bring to the table as they’re reading your work.  

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