Rita Sousa-Nunes

My choices have always sought to integrate my professional and personal lives. This includes adventure, choosing a place I imagine enjoying living in, with opportunities for things I like to do outside the lab, compatible with key relationships, and that stretches me on both realms.  I had originally envisioned doing a PhD in the UK and a post-doc in New York. However, by the time I was searching for post-docs my personal circumstances led me to remain in London.

I had been very tempted to work with Drosophila for my PhD but at the last minute fell in love for fundamental questions in early patterning of vertebrates. I returned to curiosity about flies in my post-doc, reasoning that I would be expanding my repertoire on many levels (organism, sophisticated genetics, cell biology) and could always move back to or include vertebrate work in the future.

My interests and selected location made my post-doc search very targeted. Nonetheless, after agreeing a position (on mechanisms of neural stem cell asymmetric division using Drosophila as a model) my future supervisor disclosed his intention to return to Singapore. His lab would be running in London for a couple more years and I had the opportunity to relocate at any point then to join him. My Second Supervisor of my PhD also made me an offer to join his lab afterwards; he too employed Drosophila to study neural stem cell behaviours. Altogether, this created an appealing coherent plan for my post-doctoral career, albeit quite different from what I might have initially designed. Two post-docs instead of one, first in Bill Chia’s lab in King’s College London, followed by a shorter period in Singapore, then back to London in the institution where I had done my PhD, with Alex Gould. This would provide me exposure to a number of diverse scientific environments, which I also considered important, whilst unified by utilizing fly neural stem cells to work on distinct aspects of proliferation control.

I was a post-doc for a total of 8 years during which I published two good first-author publications (one from each lab). By the time the second paper was finalized I had supervised a number of students of various stages, usually deciding myself on their projects and correcting their reports/theses. I had ideas about what else I wanted to research and felt ready to be independent. The final year-and-a-half of my post-doc consisted of gathering data for another publication whilst applying to become a group leader. I applied for lectureships, core-funded posts, and host institution support for fellowships and fellowships themselves; in the UK, France and New York. Among around 20 applications, my success rate was of about 1 in 4.

I am in my first post as a Principal Investigator, on a tenure-track position in the Centre for Developmental Neurobiology in King’s College London, holding a Cancer Research UK Career Development Fellowship. This Fellowship is like a generous grant with two posts in addition to mine; yet does not have the professional security of a faculty post. It is also a difficult transition for Fellows on the second half of their Fellowship when they do not have institutional support to cover applications for grants that would take us beyond the time of our guaranteed salary. We know how the bottleneck tightens with career progression and I always thought that the move from post-doc to group leader was the narrowest of them. Meanwhile I’ve been told that, actually, it is the transition from junior to established group leader that is the hardest. Who knows? For now, I am focusing on enjoying the process, learning from but not dwelling on the rejections, celebrating the successes and making original contributions.

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