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Dr Ashleigh Griffin

University Research Fellow
University of Oxford

Dr Ashleigh Griffin started off her career with a PhD on cooperative breeding in meerkats which has developed into a research program into novel methods of treating bacterial infections in the face of growing antibiotic resistance. The common thread throughout has been the drive to understand how selection favours the evolution of cooperative behaviour - why should an individual help others at a cost to their own reproductive success? With the support of the Royal Society through a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, and now a University Research Fellowship, she has had “the freedom to develop my research in imaginative and often surprising directions.”

In what way did the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship support you to start building your research career?
I started my Dorothy Hodgkin fellowship soon after coming back from work after a year’s maternity leave. I spent my first day back at work looking around for a cardboard box marked “GRIFFIN” containing Gilson pipettes and a colony counter. My “lab” was a windowless space about the size of an ice cream van. I was working part-time, three days a week. Not an auspicious start to scientific empire building. But I had a Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship! Which meant years of funding and, most importantly, the vote of confidence I needed to try out my ideas.

How was the flexibility of the scheme beneficial to you?
The most important thing about the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship is the way it validates the part-time working model as a way of doing scientific research. The Royal Society is saying “we know you might not be putting in the same hours, but we believe in your research ideas and want to help you achieve them”. It’s hard to put into words how important that was at certain points in my career.

What made you decide to apply for the University Research Fellowship and how did you find that application process?
First-and-foremost was the positive experience I’d already had as a Royal Society Research Fellow – I didn’t want it to end. I also knew I wanted to start working on clinical isolates of my study organism – the bacteria, Pseudomonas aeruginosa –but I really didn’t know if it was going to work. However, my track record showed that I could deliver and the Royal Society trusts its research fellows to work out a way of making things happen, or switch to a more promising line of research.

What support has the URF provided you in continuing to develop your research career?
Probably the most important support the University Research Fellowship has given me is time. One of my primary lines of research has involved clinical isolates from patients with cystic fibrosis. Building up such a collection takes time and wouldn’t have been possible in a standard duration three year grant. Now, it’s all starting to come together. I have five PhD students, an ERC grant, and my URF has given me the freedom to keep up my work on meerkats and birds as well as bacteria.

Have you needed to utilise the flexibility that is also offered as part of the University Research Fellowship?
No, although I occasionally dream of a four-day week…

How have you been involved with the Royal Society over the years?
I took part in the MP-Scientist Pairing Scheme: I think fair to say everyone came away a little dismayed by the way science is used (or not used) by government but with a great deal of respect for MPs…yes, really. And I have also been to some great parties at Carlton House - does that count?

What advice would you give a researcher who is considering applying for a URF?
Go for it - even if this isn’t your year, writing that long-term research plan is one of the best ways to give yourself permission to drop day-to-day concerns at work, pick your head up, and think about the important stuff – what do I really want to be doing with my time? The process will help you next time around.

Some practical advice: Find someone experienced, who is not in your immediate field of research, and ask them to give you comments while you still have plenty of time to work on your proposal. Friends and co-workers may not be so good at spotting where you need to work on broad appeal.