DCF Awardee: Stuart Ainsworth

Dr Stuart Ainsworth works in LSTM’s Centre for Snakebite Research and Interventions. He was awarded a Director’s Catalyst Fund (DCF) grant in 2017, the scheme’s inaugural year.

You have probably heard of necrotizing fasciitis - it's essentially flesh-eating bacteria. When certain bacteria, such as Streptococcus pyogenes, are able to infect your soft tissues they can sometimes begin to grow rapidly and secrete toxins. It’s these toxins that contribute to tissue destruction or cause excessive, self-damaging inflammation. This can happen very rapidly, and unfortunately the only treatments currently available are antibiotics to kill the bacteria, which do nothing to disable the toxins. Surgery to remove the infected tissue is required most of the time.

I am based in the Centre for Snakebite Research and Interventions and my research involves developing antivenoms – treatments for snakebite. We had been aware of the similarities in the destruction caused by necrotizing fasciitis and snakebites which result in tissue destruction for some time. Both diseases are caused by the rapid action of toxins spreading within tissues, so we thought ‘why not apply a snakebite therapy to necrotizing fasciitis?’ I decided to develop this idea further, so applied for a DCF grant to pump prime in-depth research into the idea. My application was successful.

In terms of the science my study ran into a few hurdles and has yet to have a definitive outcome, but as an overall experience the DCF journey was invaluable. At that point I'd only been a post-doctoral researcher for a couple years and DCF provided me with a real lesson in managing a research project – an experience I hadn't had before. I had to get clearance from the Health and Safety Executive to work with the recombinant toxins, organise training, apply for a project license through the Home Office, negotiate with third party suppliers – it was all really interesting and a great experience.

The DCF gives you exposure and the experience of managing your own research project, and we are not talking the small grants that are generally available to people at that stage of their careers. Other institutions I’ve worked at offer early career researchers really small grants of £1000, or maybe £5000, which is not a lot of money. But the £50,000 on offer from the DCF gives you the opportunity to do serious work and undertake proper grant management, and more importantly fund your own salary or employ others for a limited time. And when you consider that there are other LSTM schemes with similar amounts of funding that post-doctoral researchers can apply for as well you can see that there is real potential here to develop your own ideas into something to build a career on. You simply don't get those opportunities elsewhere.

I was one of the first people to be awarded a DCF grant and since then I've been involved in providing advice to the next round of DCF applicants. The process has been a learning curve for both the school and recipients, but now the support applicants and successful candidates get is great - peer-review of their applications, interview drills (which are very, very tough!), feedback on applications and interviews, financial grant management training, etc. Even if your application is not successful it is a proper learning experience; a really valuable dress rehearsal for when you start applying for larger research grants or tenure track. Looking at the senior staff involved in the review and interview stages, professional services resources committed, and the not insubstantial amount of money on offer it is clear that LSTM has a lot of belief in the DCF and puts in the resources to match.

The DCF is also a springboard to other opportunities. I was successful with a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship - a really prestigious award and UKRI's flagship scheme to identify future STEM leaders. I was awarded £1.2 million for a project on snakebite therapies, and I honestly don't think I would have been successful without the DCF. The experience it gave me – putting together my application, preparing for an interview, being able to put a £50,000 grant on my CV at that point in my career - was massively helpful. The DCF gave me a huge competitive edge.

There's no doubt in my mind that this scheme can aid you in launching your own career as an independent researcher, and LSTM is a good place to prepare you to do that with its unique resources and global reach. The DCF has directly led to new collaborations, new skill sets and new funding potential for me and really empowered me to develop my career. I'm a big champion of the scheme!