The BBSRC Fellows' Conference took place in Manchester last week. At this biennial event, current and former BBSRC-funded research fellows met to share their work and experiences.
"It's a fantastic opportunity to come and talk to people who are at a similar stage in their career as you, building their own independent research, and to learn from their experience," said Dr Vinod Kumar from the John Innes Centre, who is two years into his Institute Career Path Fellowship. "At the same time, because BBSRC fellowships are given to leading scientists, you get a taste of what's going to be the next big thing in bioscience."
BBSRC fosters the next generation of world-leading life scientists by awarding David Phillips Fellowships to early-career researchers who have demonstrated high potential, to help them establish themselves as independent researchers. BBSRC also currently awards Enterprise Fellowships, Industry Fellowships and Returners to Research Fellowships.
The conference presentations demonstrated the breadth of the science BBSRC funds, ranging from ecology to biophysics. Dr Vinod Kumar from the John Innes Centre presented his research into why plants are less resistant to diseases when it is hotter.
As temperatures increase worldwide due to climate change, crops are becoming more susceptible to infection. Kumar's aim is to better understand the link between temperature and disease resistance, so we can begin to tackle this problem. His work has already gathered great interest from growers and industry.
Dr Matthew Rogers, a David Phillips Fellow at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, described his research into the parasite that causes leishmaniasis. This disease, which is transmitted by sand fly bite, causes disfiguring sores on the skin and in some cases can be fatal.
If the leishmaniasis parasite enters the skin via a sand fly bite, it is more likely to cause disease than if it is injected into the skin with a needle. Rogers hopes to find out why.
The key may be a gel secreted by the parasite when it is inside the sand fly. Rogers' aim is to work out how this gel makes the bite of a sand fly more infectious, which may help with the development of drugs and vaccines against the disease. The gel also has potential as a treatment for wounds, to promote healing.
As well as the scientific presentations, the conference included a panel discussion on the Research Excellence Framework (REF) and how to maximise the impact of your research, and a workshop on strategy. The workshop introduced the fellows to the way BBSRC sets its longer-term science strategy and gave them the chance to express their views on the next big challenges in bioscience.
Fellows had the opportunity to discuss their research informally at a networking session with a twist: alongside posters describing their work, the researchers exhibited an iconic object representing their project. These imaginative displays varied from a hooked foraging tool crafted from a stick by a New Caledonian crow, to a chicken embryo with a genetic defect, preserved in plastic.
"I think this is the future of conferences," remarked Dr Stuart Wigby from the University of Oxford, who has recently been awarded a David Phillips Fellowship to study the effects of ageing on male fertility, "because these objects make you want to go and speak to somebody about their research in a way that a poster of text doesn't.
Wigby also commented on the positive atmosphere at the conference. "It feels very supportive," he reflected, "I've spoken to a few people about how much BBSRC helps develop its fellows, so this has been a positive experience for somebody who's about to start; it feels like I'm going to have help along the way."