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The BHP Starter Fellowship – a catch-up with Karl

Karl PayneDr Karl Payne is currently an NIHR funded Academic Clinical Lecturer in Oral & Maxillofacial Surgery and a Surgical Trainee in the West Midlands. He undertook a Birmingham Health Partners Starter Fellowship in 2018 – 2019 and, having shared his thoughts with us soon after completing his fellowship, is back to update us on his progress in the years since.

Check out Karl’s 2019 interview here

When we last spoke to you, you’d just completed your BHP Fellowship and had ‘taken a gamble’ to use it as the first year of your PhD. What is your research topic and how are you progressing?

My research topic continues to be focused on a liquid biopsy in head and neck cancer. Specifically using a simple blood test to detect tumour specific markers that can could pick up recurrence or metastasis earlier than conventional methods, and hopefully direct treatment in these groups. I’ve been using a novel platform to capture circulating tumour cells and do multi-plex proteomic analysis. For the first time we can interrogate up to 44 proteins on cancer cells derived from a patients blood, far beyond current standards. We are progressing well. I’ve run my first pilot cohort and we are planning a larger trial also incorporating genomic assessment of circulating tumour DNA. I’m excited, but then I would be, it’s my project!….

Do you feel the fellowship was advantageous to you in your PhD, compared with a traditional route? 

Firstly, it’s always advantageous to be paid! That might sound a bit clichéd, but any salary-funded fellowship buys you the opportunity to spend time doing research outside of clinical training. I think what sets the BHP fellowship apart is the integration within existing clinical academic pathways, while also recognising the need to support those aspiring academics who haven’t been able to get an academic post in their training but need that first bit of help to get some pilot data.

It depends what route you are taking and which specialty, but certainly in surgery it was invaluable to have that first year funded to be able to get another grant. I was successful in achieving a CRUK funded clinical doctoral fellowship – which I wouldn’t have got without the BHP fellowship. The support and training was great, but you only get out what you put in – really it gives you the chance to really spend time on your research and make connections within the University. I think there could be a bit more peer-to-peer mentorship, but we are working on that so watch this space!

Has the Fellowship helped with any challenges you might have experienced while completing your PhD?

Getting your first research fellowship or grant is really hard. I failed several times before being successful with the BHP fellowship. So the best thing I got from the fellowship was the confidence that I could make my project work and that others believed in me and my research. My first year in basic science research was challenging, so the fellowship taught me a bit of resilience and determination.

Has the Fellowship benefited your career or opened up other opportunities besides the PhD?

Any career is a constant progression, and none more so than a clinical academic career. These days when I talk to students, I try and make them understand that its not just about climbing the ladder, it is about enjoying each rung and getting the most out of each stage of your training. I view my PhD as a continuum of the BHP fellowship, and indeed my training as a whole. While we all want a good paper from our PhD, it isn’t really about what you’ve done or discovered, it is about your journey and learning from mistakes on the road to research independence. In that sense the fellowship has enormously benefited my career, but its only a piece in a big puzzle and I’ve been learning along the way. Although, it has to be said, I didn’t know that at the start so my focus at the time was to get maximum research output from one year and move on – that attitude has now changed.

What do you plan to do next?

I finished my PhD a few months ago and I have just started an NIHR-funded Academic Clinical Lecturer post in the University. This allows me to spend half my time on research, while still getting the chance to operate and complete my training. I’ve always been interested in teaching and training, so I am always trying to help others and give something back to the programme.

Last time we asked what advice you’d give to someone applying for the fellowship. This time, what advice would you give to someone on the programme – how should they prepare for their post-fellowship career?

      1. Plan ahead, BUT not too far ahead. Don’t lose sight of the short-term goals you need to achieve.
      2. Having said that, always start planning ahead early!
      3. The project you start with, either a fellowship or PhD, will likely not be the one you finish with. Things will almost certainly go wrong, so have a plan B, C, D….
      4. Finally, take the time to make friends and nurture research connections within the University. Both at your level and mentors just above you. Research is always a team effort.

The BHP Starter Fellowship

Applications for the 2022-23 Fellowship are now open – visit our Fellowship page for application details and forms.

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