Richard Wheeler is going to become the first IITM graduate to establish his own lab. During his DPhil, which he spent under joint supervision of Keith Gull and Eva Gluenz, Richard studied the cell shape of Trypanosoma and Leishmania parasites and how their shape affects their ability to swim. Now, six years after his graduation from the IITM program, Richard was awarded with the Wellcome Trust ‘Sir Henry Dale Fellowship’ allowing him secure funding for at least 5 years to establish his own research group.
“It is absolutely fantastic to have been awarded the Wellcome Trust Sir Henry Dale Fellowship; it will give me enough time and security to build a strong foundation for my own lab.” says Richard. The Sir Henry Dale Fellowship is specifically designed as the first fully independent position for postdoctoral researchers who want to become PIs. The fellowship covers laboratory expenses and one postdoctoral researcher, but those who think Richard will be stepping away from the lab bench are clearly mistaken: “I’ve got ten years of experience at the bench, including a lot of specialised technical expertise, and I think an important part of independence will be setting up a research group that builds on this.”
His new research group will be a continuation of his previous experiences and concentrate on Leishmania parasites. In particular, they will research how the parasites control swimming and how this is important in the life cycle of the parasite. Coming from a biochemical and cell biological background, he wants to put a stronger focus on the medical applications of his research while still drawing on the interdisciplinary opportunities on South Parks Road. Therefore, Richard will move with his lab to the Peter Medawar Building for Pathogen Research.
Being a PI requires a different skill set, admits Richard: “I feel the biggest changes to run a research group are seeing the bigger picture, the long-potential of a research field, and managing people – both of which aren’t necessarily part of postdoctoral or PhD level research. In hindsight, I think the IITM program was excellent at making me broaden my scientific horizons by working with more people with different expertise. I’d recommend making the most of the IITM rotation year to meet people and widen your scientific ideas.”
The prospect of discovery and new ideas were a major driver for Richard to pursue an academic career. Many of his friends did find similar opportunities for discovery and uncovering new ideas outside of academia in areas reaching from publishing to small biotech companies. “My advice is to any young scientist who is keen on becoming a PI is that it is extremely challenging yet extremely rewarding, if you love the chance to discover new things and drive new ideas and discoveries then it is fantastic. You must be pragmatic though, it is extremely competitive and there is no point beating yourself up to pursue something that just leads to stress.”
Before Richard can make new discoveries in his own group, he first has to go through a lot of paperwork, administration and establishing workflows. Some of this work will also comprise getting included on the supervisor list for the IITM program, to teach future IITM students himself: “The IITM program is an outstanding scheme full of outstanding students, and it would be fantastic to work with any future students. My experience of the IITM program was great, and I would love to have the opportunity to pay this forward to the next generation of scientists.”
Richard will start to advertise for post-doctoral and PhD positions in the near future, but he will be happy to hear from anyone interested in parasite cell biology, microscopy and automated image analysis. You will also find Richard’s group online, a ‘beta’ website at: wheelerlab.net.
Written by Felix Richter