A Daphne Jackson Fellowship meant I didn’t have to choose between a research career and family obligations

18 April 2023 | Blogs, News, Dr Melissa Marr news

The Daphne Jackson Trust spoke with former Fellow, Dr Melissa Marr, about her experience of re-entering her research career after a break.

After Melissa’s PhD she was offered two post-doctoral positions, but was unable to accept due to her mother becoming extremely ill and she became her primary carer.

Real world impact to conservation and management of biodiversity and endangered species have always been high importance in research for Melissa. After a two year career break, she successfully applied for a Daphne Jackson Fellowship, which was sponsored by NERC and the University of Edinburgh and hosted at the University of Edinburgh at the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine.

Melissa’s Fellowship project was entitled – ‘Conservation Genomics of red squirrels in Scotland: understanding diversity in a key stronghold’.

What are you doing since your DJT Fellowship?

I’ve continued at the University of Edinburgh with a post-doctoral position within a computational genomics group at the Roslin Institute. This is a post that I would never have gotten before my Fellowship. I’ve also recently been invited to apply for the permanent post of Core Scientist.

My Fellowship training and subject was very transferable to other areas of genomics, which really widened my career opportunities.”

Did you have in mind your research topic before your Fellowship?

“One of the main strengths of the Daphne Jackson Fellowship opportunity is that this is your opportunity to be imaginative and think about where you could take your research, because it’s probably the only chance that you’ll ever get to completely retrain. My Fellowship was training in Wildlife Conservation genomics.

My PhD was in a related topic, ancient DNA. The science was similar, but it’s quite different once you get into it. I looked at the genetics of extinct species and related that to past changes in climate. Ancient DNA is very degraded and this limits the types of data analysis you can do. With my Fellowship, I wanted to move into doing genomics with contemporary wildlife and livestock, as I’m doing now. This lets me work with big data sets and learn more in-depth genomics.

That’s something that I just wouldn’t have been able to do without the retraining of the Fellowship.”

What does that mean in terms of the actual science and what you are achieving now?

I’m still working on red squirrel genomics, and hope to turn this into a long-term research project. My main project at the moment is looking at the genomic basis of infertility in a rare breed of cattle called the Whitebred Shorthorn. This is one of the rarest breeds in the UK. We are working with some of the farmers and farming community on this project which has real-world application, which is something I have always been passionate about. I’m glad I can have an impact in conservation and rare breed survival through my research.

Any last pieces of advice for those looking to return to research careers?

The Fellowship provides a much-needed bridge back to science for those of us who have had to take career breaks through changes in personal circumstances. I would advise applicants to ‘think big’ when devising their proposals. It’s not often that you are presented with a funded opportunity to retrain in an area that may previously have been inaccessible. However, it’s also important to think very carefully about the timetable and program of research that they can feasibly complete in the time given, while also maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

If you are a new or existing Fellow, I would strongly recommend taking full advantage of the friendship and support offered by the other Daphne Jackson Fellows. They can provide a warm and encouraging support system and are always happy to listen and discuss the highs and lows of returning to research.

Thank you for sharing your success story Melissa.

Word of mouth works wonders to raise awareness of what the Daphne Jackson Trust do to support research returners. Please share our current opportunities with anyone you think would be interested.

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