The Ups and Downs of Early Career Research

Kelly Anderson, Stephen Renaud and Luciano Sposato all agree that there are challenges to starting a research program when you are new to academia – but the rewards of the efforts are plentiful

By Crystal Mackay, MA’05

“Fresh approaches, enthusiasm, new expertise – we have a lot to gain from new investigators,” said David Litchfield, PhD’87, vice dean of Research Innovation at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. “They really do represent the future.”

With this sentiment in mind there has been a push in recent years in all levels of academia – from the desks of the academic research offices to the pocketbooks of the funding agencies – to encourage and accommodate early career researchers.

“It’s an intensely competitive funding environment that has traditionally been dominated by groups that are already established,” said Litchfield.

During the past two years, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research has taken a hard look at its numbers. After shifting away from a granting structure that favoured established researchers, the funding body has made a concerted effort to make grant application success rates for early career researchers more proportional to their submission rates. This would mean if more new investigators apply for grants, then more will be successful in receiving them.

Kelly Anderson, PhD, assistant professor in Epidemiology & Biostatistics and Psychiatry, felt extremely fortunate to receive a new investigator fellowship from the Ontario Mental Health Foundation early in her days as a new faculty member at the School. Her research focuses on the factors that increase risk of developing mental disorders and the ways that people access the health care system to receive care for mental disorders.

She says getting that initial funding was key, and can be tricky when you don’t have an established research program to draw from in your grant application.

“I was fortunate that I had previous successes as a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow, and I think having that established track record for me in this highly competitive funding climate was really crucial.”

Litchfield says this can be an especially challenging time because those who are just starting out as faculty members are often transitioning from the most productive period in their careers as postdocs, to basically starting from scratch.

Schulich Medicine & Dentistry’s research office has set up formal initiatives to aid new faculty in getting their research programs off the ground.

These initiatives range in depth and breadth from providing one-time seed funding to get early experiments started, to offering internal peer review for grant applications, to a formalized mentorship program that matches new investigators with more established researchers.

“The mentorship starts right from the recruitment stage,” said Litchfield. “When you recruit someone, you want to see them succeed.”

Mentors have been instrumental for Stephen Renaud, PhD, assistant professor in anatomy and cell biology, in easing the transition to a new university and helping with the initial stages of setting up a new lab. He says the most helpful advice came from his mentors sharing their own personal experiences of how they overcame the struggles and apprehensiveness inherent to the early stages of one’s career.

For Dr. Luciano Sposato, an associate professor in clinical neurological sciences, transitioned his research program from Argentina where funding for research was non-existent. Getting his studies underway again in Canada  began with just trying to understand the system, and he says having strong mentors and collaborators was essential to his success.

“This is one of the things that is so unique about Western University – you can take a walk on campus and meet people who you can collaborate with.” And he credits that collaborative spirit at Western with one of his first major successes as an early career researcher in Canada – a publication in Lancet Neurology showing the prevalence of atrial fibrillation after stroke.

He collaborated with an expert in metaanalysis who suggested some changes. “That collaboration changed the outcome of that paper for sure,” he said.

“The major challenge isn’t doing the research, but transforming those results into publications, and I was lucky to find a really productive team to help me do that.” —Dr. Luciano Sposato

Getting those papers out the door is one of the most important and daunting goals. “The major challenge isn’t doing the research, but transforming those results into publications, and I was lucky to find a really productive team to help me do that,” he said.

“Building a great team in any environment is a necessary first step,” said Renaud, whose work centres on using animal models and cells to find ways to ensure optimal development of the placenta in order to promote healthy development of the baby.

“You can fill your lab with lots of equipment and reagents, but if you have nobody to work with the reagents you aren’t going to get very far,” he said.

Renaud and Anderson were both recipients of Early Researcher Awards from the Government of Ontario, which provides funding for five years to help hire graduate students as part of the research team.

“That was a really big help,” said Anderson. “It ensured that for the foreseeable future, I could continue to have momentum in my research through my students’ work, which will allow me to continue my productivity and hopefully leverage those successes at the midcareer stage.”

Anderson says it is also a major confidence booster to be successful in funding competitions.

“I think a lot of early career researchers suffer from impostor syndrome, so it is really validating to know that your research program is on the right track,” she said.

Dr. Sposato says being a new researcher to Canada with new and out-of-the-box  ideas caused some initial hiccups in the grant competitions. His hypothesis takes a well-established clinical idea and flips it on its head – rather than atrial fibrillation leading to stroke, could stroke actually be causing atrial fibrillation?

“Sometimes when you have crazy ideas, especially when you are just starting out, it is difficult to convince those who have a more classical approach to invest in you,” he said. “But I have never thought about throwing in the towel, because I know there are ups and downs.”

Dr. Sposato, Anderson and Renaud all agree that as early career researchers,it’s that resilience and persistence in the face of failure that leads to growth.

“If you don’t have setbacks, then you don’t learn,” said Renaud. “It’s the troubleshooting that makes you smarter.”