I grew up in a little village called Steeple Bumpstead in the south-east of England. I had always been encouraged to do well at school by my parents, neither of whom had been to a university. So when the time came to pick an undergraduate degree, I didn't think twice about moving all the way to the north-east of England to study biomedical science at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle-upon-Tyne. However, I hadn't predicted that a few years later my passion for science would take me to yet another east coast -- this time to the other side of the world in Australia -- as a Marie Curie Fellow.
My first proper taste of life as a researcher was my undergraduate final-year project in molecular biology. I liked it and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in haematology with a molecular genetics slant. I looked around for several Ph.D. studentships in the United Kingdom, but in the end, I picked a project across the road at the University of Newcastle Medical School. The work was on the role of interleukin-1 in the pathology of graft-versus-host disease (GVHD), the mechanism by which the new immune system, which a patient receives as a bone marrow transplant, attacks the patient's body following the transplantation.
From the early days, my Ph.D. experience was positive, something I know is not a given. I obtained data pretty quickly and was encouraged by my supervisors, Professor Anne Dickinson and Dr. Pete Middleton, to present the data at conferences. Among these was the annual American Society of Haematology meeting in San Francisco in 2000. It was a daunting but fantastic experience for me that opened many doors. In particular, during this meeting I got to chat with a Newcastle clinician, Matt Collin, about the immune responses following transplantation. This sparked my interest in the role of one type of immune cell -- dendritic cells--in GVHD, and I thought this could constitute a postdoc project. Matt introduced me to the work of Professor Derek Hart, a renowned dendritic cell expert who had moved his laboratory to Brisbane, Australia. This sowed the seed.
Planning, Perseverance, and Patience
I had been contemplating my next career move for a while, and several trusted people in Newcastle had advised me that doing a postdoc abroad strengthens one's CV. So I thought, why not Australia? As a career destination, Australia was more attractive to me than the United States, with the added bonus that I have relatives dotted along the east coast. I wrote to Derek Hart in Brisbane. He had recently become the director of Queensland's second independent Medical Research Institute, the Mater Medical Research Institute (MMRI). My inquiry led to a very late-night phone call from Australia, a subsequent trip to the institute 7 months later, and an invitation to work there. The consensus reached by Professors Dickinson and Hart and myself was that I was to pursue a collaborative project between Newcastle University and Brisbane, working as the investigator. It was easier to work in Derek's lab -- in bureaucratic terms -- if I brought my own fellowship rather than applying for a position in the MMRI that would be funded with Australian money.
Back in the United Kingdom, I applied to several funding bodies such as the Wellcome Trust and the Royal Society. I needed a fellowship that ran for a minimum of 2 years and one I could take abroad, which translated into limited and highly competitive opportunities. After a number of failed attempts, I received a small grant from the Tyneside Leukaemia Research Association ( TLRA), which had funded my Ph.D., to set up the initial collaborative research work in Newcastle while I continued writing other fellowship applications.
I had a stroke of luck, as one of my Ph.D. supervisors, Professor Dickinson, was an expert on the Life Sciences Panel for the European Commission (EC), and the 6th Framework Programme was launched around that time. She encouraged me to look into EC-funded fellowships; the Marie Curie Outgoing International Fellowship ( OIF) seemed to fit the bill perfectly. These are 3-year fellowships comprising an "outgoing phase" of 2 years of research outside Europe and a third-year return phase undertaken at a European institution (Newcastle). I applied and was awarded an OIF to investigate whether dendritic-cell-specific antibodies can be used as therapeutic options for GVHD.
My main advice for writing an EC application is to keep checking the EC Cordis Web site for the relevant and up-to-date handbooks and guidelines. The application format can change substantially even over a period of months. I also found the evaluation criteria of great help; subsections of the application are much easier to write if these are read carefully. It is important to bear in mind that various sections have weighted importance. In Newcastle, the university's European officer was extremely helpful throughout this process, and the university also had an outside consultant who read applications and gave advice.
There was a 14-month gap between the application deadline and setting foot on Australian soil. Administrative problems both in the EC and at Newcastle University held up the contract negotiations and caused a lot of heartache. But I managed to secure an extension to my funding by the TLRA and obtained bridging funding from the Medical School when Newcastle University entered into contract negotiations with the EC.
Official and Financial Considerations
I would recommend anyone going abroad to do their homework regarding visas, taxation, and health care. I have entered Australia on a Visiting Academic temporary resident visa, as officially I am employed by Newcastle University and seconded by the MMRI. We envisaged that it would take more than 4 weeks to get the visa, so I applied in March and included letters from both institutions, evidence of my successful fellowship application, and medical certificates, etc. But it took only 4 days for me to receive the visa! My visa was valid for just over 2 years, but owing to the delays in getting into Australia I now need to apply for an extension.
Bear in mind that there are some out-of-pocket expenses that won't be reimbursed, including the costs of the visa application, medical examination including a chest x-ray, and police record search. These cost approximately £300. You also have to pay for your yearly return flight ticket before receiving the travel allowance, which could cost up to £1000 depending on the time of year.
I have been in sunny Brisbane for 9 months now, and my project is up and running. I especially appreciate the intimate feel of the institute: It is quite different from that of a big university, although it is very active and there are many relevant meetings happening. Still, in some ways I do feel scientifically isolated from Europe working here, and I am reminded of the geographical distance when ordering reagents takes weeks to come from the United States or Europe.
Life outside work is very relaxed; the constant sunshine and generally guaranteed weather play a huge part. I love sports, so Australia suits me in that respect as well. Although I have made the majority of my friends through work, I am also now getting to know the world beyond the lab.
Still, it took longer to settle in at work and privately than I had anticipated. I thought that moving to a country where you supposedly speak the same language would be relatively easy, but that was without counting Australian colloquialisms! I guess too that moving across the road in Newcastle to do my Ph.D. didn't quite prepare me for the other side of the world. And I do, of course, miss my friends and family back in the United Kingdom.
I am happy here in Brisy but have not made up my mind yet if life "down under" is enough to make me want to stay indefinitely. Here, I can travel to work on a catamaran on the Brisbane River in beautiful sunshine. Funnily enough though, I miss British weather and aspects of the cold north-east of England! But on Australia's Queensland coast, I have only the summer storm clouds and numerous Brisbane River bridges to remind me of Newcastle.