Case study: Professor Rebecca Kilner

Wolfson Research Merit Award and Theo Murphy Blue Skies Award
University of Cambridge
The role of microbes in animal evolution: leaders or followers?

Rebecca Kilner is Professor of Evolutionary Biology in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, and a Wolfson Research Merit Award holder. She was awarded the Theo Murphy Blue Skies Award to investigate the role of microbes in animal evolution.

What was attractive to you about the Theo Murphy Blue Skies Award?
I really liked the emphasis on projects that were high risk but potentially groundbreaking. We had a new idea that we wanted to develop, based on some pilot data, but nothing concrete enough to underpin a larger grant application.

What challenges influenced you to seek support?
To flesh out our idea we needed to do some more experiments – but these are not cheap to run and can’t simply be tacked onto our existing funding. So we were in a bit of a catch-22 situation: we needed more money to develop our idea, but our idea was too risky to be attractive to most funders. The Theo Murphy scheme offered the perfect way out of this dilemma.

What do you hope you will achieve with this award over the next 2 years?
I want to get a better idea about the role that microbes play in influencing animal evolution. Figuring out the answer to this problem could keep us busy for the next 10 years. Right now, I want to gather enough data to make compelling case for a larger grant to really develop our new idea about this. It will involve new techniques for our lab, and developing new protocols. With my teaching time bought out by this award, I now have the time to focus on this work.

What challenges do you look forward to solving in the future?
We have a relatively good idea about how we can use laboratory experiments to understand ways in which microbes might influence animal speciation. The next challenge is to work out how to relate this work to patterns of biodiversity in the natural world.

How do you think the support of this scheme will help you overcome specific challenges?
This scheme gives us the security to fail when trying new techniques, so that we can find an approach that we know will work before applying for further funding.

What impact might your research have in the future?
In general terms, I hope it will give us new insights into the processes that generate biodiversity and therefore a better understanding about what needs to be done to conserve it. One of the joys of doing research is the unexpected direction of travel, and the unimagined destinations. I certainly didn’t think we would be embarking on a project like this two years ago, so who knows where we will be in two years’ time!