How can a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowship make a difference to a researcher’s career? Current grantee Peggy Assinck, a Multiple Sclerosis researcher at the University of Edinburgh, shares her personal experience with Ka Man Parkinson from the EURAXESS UK team.
Why did you decide to undertake your research in Edinburgh, UK? What’s your experience been like?
After my PhD in Canada where I focused on spinal cord injury research, I was very interested in conducting research specific to Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and some of the best MS research in the world is happening at the University of Edinburgh.
I started my postdoctoral fellowship in 2018 at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine with Professor Charles ffrench-Constant who has an impressive track record conducting MS research, and I decided to apply for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions Individual Fellowship (MSCA-IF) to support my work in this new lab.
I've very much valued my experience both in the ffrench-Constant lab and at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine as there are researchers looking at a wide range of interesting research questions.
I've learned a lot from being an active part of that research environment at the University of Edinburgh, and importantly I've learned many new techniques and received valuable feedback on my work.
Why did you decide to apply for a MSCA Individual Fellowship? Could you tell us a little about your experience of applying and securing your Fellowship?
I decided to apply for an MSCA-IF as it was a great opportunity to both support my salary and bring in some independent consumables money for my project.
I found the application process very rewarding as it forced me to really think through my research questions and the research I was proposing and ensure that it was all feasible and realistic within the two-year MSCA-IF timeframe.
"On reflection, the MSCA-IF application process on its own was incredibly valuable, even if I had not received the award. The application itself was incredibly time consuming but I was very happy with the submitted application - and even more excited when I heard it had been awarded!"
Once awarded the MSCA-IF, I also applied for additional funds to remove some of the barriers in my day-to-day research life, due to me being a wheelchair user. Access to these additional funds were very important for my success as there is very little access to support for researchers with disabilities elsewhere.
Could you tell us a little about your research?
I am interested in how the body naturally repairs itself in the context of injury and my MSCA-IF project is focused on the natural repair mechanisms that take place in the context of Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
We know that MS causes the loss of myelin (the insulation around nerve fibres carrying information in the brain and spinal cord) which then results in disability. The body has some mechanisms by which it can repair myelin to a degree, but this newly formed myelin (insulating segments) tends to be shorter than the original myelin making it potentially less efficient.
The aim of my project is to understand why newly formed myelin is short and therefore less efficient in the context of MS repair with the goal of developing treatments to help improve myelin repair.
What might a typical working day might involve?
Every day is different as a researcher, and I feel very lucky to have such a diverse project where I get to have many different day-to-day experiences.
My project involves a mixture of in vitro (tissue culture) and in vivo (work in animal models) so some days I am working with cells in isolation and some days with mouse models, but the commonality is that the end product involves imaging the cells that are responsible for myelin repair under the microscope.
In addition, my MSCA-IF project involves communicating my research to other researchers and the community, so I also spend a portion of my time on this.
Is the pandemic impacting on your research and if so, how are you overcoming these challenges?
The pandemic created a lot of challenges to my research project and associated productivity, and has forced me to do a lot of problem solving to overcome these challenges.
Scotland had severe lockdown protocols and restrictions for researchers which meant very quickly we needed to stop almost all work, resulting in both losing a lot of ‘in progress’ work and having substantial delays before this work could be reinitiated.
In addition, the pandemic affected my animal work, both breeding of transgenic mice and my ability to run the experiments I had planned due to Covid-related restrictions.
Initially, I made the best of it and did some work on the project that I could conduct from home. But I later took the decision to suspend my MSCA-IF project for six months during the most severe period of lockdown. This essentially gave me a six-month extension to finish my proposed work. Some of my work has been delayed compared to my original timeline, but I have managed to bring most components back on track to the best of my ability.
You play and coach sledge hockey at an international level. Are there any synergies or crossover between your involvement in the sport and your research?
I think being a national athlete and coaching national teams has helped me develop my leadership skills and my ability to work as part of a larger team while working towards a common goal. I am hoping my continued experiences in sport will help me as I work towards my goal to run my own research group in the future.
What’s next for you on completion of your Fellowship?
Part of my MSCA-IF was to receive training in other labs as part of the secondment program and I conducted one of these with a lab at the University of Cambridge.
Upon completing my MSCA-IF, I will be starting a Banting Fellowship (funded by the Canadian Institute for Health Research) in this same lab at the University of Cambridge.
"My MSCA-IF opened this door to continue my work on myelin research and how it is affected by age, and I am excited to take on this next step in my postdoctoral training before starting to apply for positions to run an independent research programme."
Finally, what’s your favourite thing about living and working in Scotland?
Edinburgh is a beautiful city and I consider myself so lucky to have had the opportunity live and work here and experience all that Scotland has to offer.
My favourite part about living in Scotland was taking some small road trips into the Highlands (when restrictions allowed) to experience the beautiful scenery!
Peggy Assinck is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the ffrench-Constant Laboratory, Centre for Regenerative Medicine, University of Edinburgh, UK. Follow her on Twitter @pegylation
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