Where does persistence get you? Vector Biologist Dr Jennifer Lord wasn’t sure she would even finish her PhD, let alone pursue a career in research. With the help of good mentors and funding support, she explains to us how persistence paid off.
Tell us about your current research and what you want to achieve
Most of my research at LSTM to date has focussed on tsetse, vectors of human and animal African trypanosomiasis. With respect to trypanosomiasis, and vector-borne diseases in general, I am interested in how ecological and environmental change impact vector and pathogen populations, disease risk and ultimately control strategies.
Alongside my research on trypanosomiasis with Steve Torr, the Director’s Catalyst fund and additional funding from Farrington Hopkins, has been fundamental in enabling me to develop my independent research on mosquito-borne viruses, which began during my first postdoctoral position at the University of Florida. I plan to expand on this work in the next few years, using the data generated from the Catalyst Fund project for grant applications focussed on one health approaches to Japanese encephalitis control, in addition to dengue virus transmission and control in megacities.
The (re)emergence of vector-borne disease results from complex interactions between the ecological and evolutionary processes of pathogen transmission and global anthropogenic change. Due to this complexity, I think interdisciplinary research is essential for developing improved targeted control strategies. My aim is therefore to establish a research group at LSTM that brings together individuals with diverse backgrounds from virology, to ecology and mathematics.
How does it feel to be the first recipient of the Hemingway Fellowship?
I think it’s still sinking in! I’ve been determined to establish a career in research since completing my PhD in 2010. It took me time to secure my first postdoctoral position, as I was working full-time in industry while writing my PhD thesis and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to re-enter an academic career, but persistence paid off. Similarly, having recently become a new parent, I was keenly aware of the difficulties faced in balancing being a mother with my career aspirations and had started to prepare other options, in addition to applying for lectureships. I am therefore very excited to have been given the opportunity to take the next step in my research career.
As a postdoctoral researcher, I’ve seen that individuals in the Department of Vector Biology endeavour to create a positive working environment where collegiality and comradery are highly valued. I am therefore grateful for the opportunity to establish an independent career in this Department. I am incredibly excited about the opportunity; it will provide the precious time I need to develop and submit competitive extramural fellowship applications, in addition to other grant proposals.
What impact will this have on your research?
It is career changing. Without it I, as I have been doing for the last year, I would have had to continue to apply for external fellowships, in addition to applying for lectureships in my spare time, which now that I have an 18-month old doesn’t really exist! I value putting time and effort into the development of initial research questions. Identifying questions most important for control, which are likely to have the most impact. Specifically, therefore, the fellowship will allow me to take more time to talk with external collaborators and individuals already implementing control programmes to help shape my research questions and direction. I also think that the internal fellowship, from an institute such as LSTM, will assist with my credibility as an independent researcher, showing to funding agencies that the School is invested in my career and also showing that I can demonstrate independence, which is particularly important for external fellowships.
Who have been your inspirations?
I can think of a few individuals I’ve worked with over the last five-ten years that have, at least appeared, to balance work and family life beautifully. Although they may have sometimes been stressed by maintaining this balance along with difficult funding conditions, deadlines and other stresses, they haven’t passed this stress on to the rest of their teams. Instead they have been able to create a consistent environment that nurtures creativity, integrity and consequently good science. They have maintained a passion for science and that has been infectious within their group, but also been open and honest about difficulties. Those individuals have inspired me and who I aspire to be like. I’ve been lucky to have had a series of excellent mentors, who have each contributed to the way I do science now and provided support above and beyond my expectations, to get me where I am now.
How did you get to where you are now?
In addition to some great mentors, a very supportive husband and a lot of persistence, I am also grateful for my colleagues in the Department of Vector Biology. They too have helped me to get where I am now. For example, research on mosquito-borne viruses is a relatively new area for our department. There have been some teething problems with some aspects of the research which are now sorted, but only because I have had colleagues prepared to work together as part of a team, despite being in different lab groups and having different goals. My postdoctoral experience in the US and at LSTM, involving field work in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa has been essential to helping shape my long-term research plans. I think it’s also been important for me to find a niche, so I’ve been slowly learning how to integrate mathematical modelling into empirical research projects.
What advice would you give to young girls who are thinking about a career in STEM?
Find good mentors, irrespective of what stage of education or career you are at. Whenever possible make connections with individuals that are further on in their careers and ask them lots of questions about their research/ job and how they got to where they are. Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice. Set your sights high and don’t focus on whether you think you can get there or not, just enjoy the journey. I never knew for certain I would get a PhD, or my first postdoctoral position, or my second, or the Janet Hemingway Fellowship. I just did my best at east stage, but also made sure I was happy along the way.