Prestigious EMBO Fellowship Award

Jack Collier is a third year Barbour Foundation Scholarship PhD student at the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research. He is currently studying a cohort of patients with an incredibly rare neurological disorder caused by defects in an important intracellular degradation pathway known as ‘autophagy’.  
Jack was awarded a prestigious EMBO short-term fellowship at Biomedicum, Helsinki University, last year under the supervision of Professor Tom McWilliams. He applied for the fellowship during his second year of study and tells us a little more here about what has contributed to his success and why he would recommend this type of award. 

Congratulations on your award Jack. What made you apply for this particular fellowship and how did you find the application process?

Thanks! I applied for the EMBO short-term fellowship for a number of reasons. First, the length of the funding was perfect as I had planned to visit Helsinki for three months and I could apply for funding covering anything between 7 and 90 days. The funding itself was also very generous, and the daily subsistence rate is determined by the cost of living in the country you are moving you. There is also some prestige attached to being an EMBO short-term fellow!

The process was very straight forward. After creating an account on EMBO’s website, the instructions were clear regarding what was expected within the application. There is a PDF document describing the process, and the forms are easy to fill out online.

What single piece of advice would you give to anyone thinking of applying?

I think getting a range of opinions on the research you are proposing is crucial, and make sure that you get others to read your application!

Where did you find support during the application process?

My supervisors, Prof Rob Taylor and Dr Monika Olahova, offered fantastic support throughout the entire process as I had never previously applied for anything like this before. Prof Tom McWilliams who hosted me was also very important too, particularly as it was his expertise in stem cell and neuronal biology which made this collaboration possible. There are sections in the application which require a good knowledge of what the host institute can offer and a solid understanding of the work you plan to do, so his input was key. All three helped massively with my writing technique, and the whole application process was one I actually really enjoyed.

Can you tell us about your top three highlights of the Helsinki Fellowship?

This was my first experience working with stem cells. Although they require a lot of attention, I enjoyed this a lot! Second was not only the exposure to the exciting research undertaken at Helsinki University, but the way in which they carry out their research. It was a great chance to pick out differences in science culture between Helsinki and Newcastle and there will be a few things I want to bring back and introduce in Newcastle. My main highlight outside of the lab was visiting Suomenlinna, which is a historical fortress off the coast of Helsinki – it’s a beautiful island with great cafes and lovely walks.

Were there any challenges to studying abroad?

The main challenges for someone moving away for a few months for research were addressed before I had even moved out there. My accommodation was sorted fairly easily, EMBO paid the funds quickly, and my host lab sent a welcome pack which explained how the lab runs, how to survive in Helsinki (places to eat, shop, relax etc.) and what was expected of me in the lab. This definitely put me at ease before arriving!

Would you do anything differently if you went again?

I don’t think so. Although our research plan changed slightly once I was there, I think being dynamic in scientific research is a really important attribute which I developed from my time there. We were bold in what we offered within the application, and I would encourage anyone applying to be so too.

Will you stay in touch with the colleagues you worked with in Helsinki? Or are there any plans for them to come to Newcastle?

On a personal and professional level I will remain in contact with my Helsinki colleagues. They were fantastic to work alongside and I experienced a lot of new and exciting science during my visit. We hope that Tom will be able to visit Newcastle to talk more about his work to the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research and meet with different groups within the Centre. Our collaboration remains strong and we will continue to explore this patient cohort together.

How will the experience/learning contribute to your studies back here in Newcastle?

During my time in Helsinki I generated and characterised induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from various patients within our cohort. We have begun differentiating these cells to neural cultures, with the hope of exploring pathogenic mechanisms in a physiological relevant model. I gained key skills in culturing and studying both iPSCs and neurons which will aid this project as it moves forward. I improved my writing ability through the application process which will be very useful postdoctoral and/or future fellowship applications.

How is your Barbour Foundation PhD Scholarship progressing?

I am enjoying my PhD studies a lot! I actually began working within the Wellcome Centre for Mitochondrial Research as a laboratory assistant during my second year undergraduate studies (BSc Biomedical Genetics). I then explored research as a possible career through a Biochemical Society-funded summer project under the supervision of my current PhD supervisors so it was a natural progression to continue working here! Although the group focusses on rare mitochondrial disorders, the opportunity to study a rare congenital defect of autophagy within this lab has been amazing and opened many exciting doors. Beyond this project I am involved in others which focus on mitochondrial disease, so I have been given a very broad training opportunity which will only be a positive thing as I moved forward.

What next for Jack Collier?

I am currently in the third year of my PhD Scholarship. If all continues to progress well, I am on track to finish around the end of this year. Beyond 2020 I’m hoping to explore postdoctoral opportunities, or apply for personal fellowship funding. I think it would be exciting to delve into another branch of rare disease research, but I’m very keen to remain focussed on undercovering disease mechanisms.

Image © Dru Dodd