Edinburgh Clinical Academic Track (ECAT)

ECAT case studies

Read about some of our past and present ECAT fellows

Photograph of Dr Roly Megaw

Case study - Roly Megaw

ECAT Clinical Lecturer in Opthalomology

PhD from August 2012 to July 2015 in the Centre for Regenerative Medicine (CRM)

On moving to Edinburgh I had a desire to undertake a PhD but knew little of the relevant research that was going on at the University. In the first year of ECAT you are exposed to the full breadth of biomedical research taking place across the various institutes, units and centres. Following this you are given time to meet with various directors and group leaders to discuss possible projects, all of which takes place under the guidance of the ECAT directors. The result is a process whereby you learn the art of grant writing whilst developing an exciting project tailor-made to your disease of interest that expoloits the strengths of the University .

Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) is an inherited retinal dystrophy affecting 1 in 3000 people, causing untreatable blindness. During my PhD, to further understand the mechanism of disease, I devloped induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) lines from skin biopsies of patients with RP and their unaffected relatives. From these iPSCs, I developed a 3-dimensional retinal organoid culture as a novel model for RP. By combining these retinal organoids with a knock-out mouse model of RP, I was able to test my hypothesese as to the pathophysiology of RP.

I carried out my project in the lab of Professor Charles ffrench-Constant, then Director of the MRC Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine. Professor Linda Lako (Institute of Genetic Medicine, Newcastle University) and Professor Alan Wright (MRC Human Genetics Unit, University of Edinburgh) were co-supervisors. As with all these things, I made various collaborations along the way; both within the University and outwith it.

For any aspiring clinician scientist, you need a good idea, a good mentor and loads of money. ECAT offers all three. You have a year to discover the research taking place at the University, which helps you craft a sound hypothesis. The directors meet you regularly for advice and ensure you choose a lab that suits your needs. And Wellcome generously stumps up the funds for the fellowship. Post-doctorally, I am finding the advice and support of the directors (past and present) invaluable as I attempt to navigate the tricky transition towards securing a further fellowship.

The concept of ECATis fantastic. There is no way I would have secured PhDfunding were it not for the scheme. During the PhDis when you probably have least need for the ECAT team, as you are immersed in the lab and your goals are set. It is in the project planning phase and post-doctorally that it really comes in to its own. The initial year is probably the most exciting; discovering how much relevant research takes place at the University that is applicable to your speciality.

As medics we are met with a list of jobs every morning that we cannot deviate from; be that in clinic, theatre or on the ward. During your PhD you suddenly find yourself with (almost) complete autonomy and 3 years worth of 'blue sky' thinking. This is a fantastic opportunity and a couple of times throughout my project I came up with genuinely exciting ideas or results. In reality, however, it means you spend large periods of time where nothing works, results don't come and the head/brick wall interface comes in to play. Take the rough with the smooth; there is no feeling quite like a significant result.

18 months down the line and I am rarely in the lab. Clinical work as a trainee is all consuming and in my experience there is no way to combine full time clinical training with genuine lab work. This is not to say you must throw in the towel. My main piece of advice is to plan early. Tee up a new, postdoctoral project (ideally elsewhere in the University) before you go back to clinic. There are funds, both internally and externally, that can be applied for to buy you an extra pair of hands or time out of training to get a new project off the ground. By doing so you will hopefully be competitive when it comes to further funding applications.

Photograph of Katie Marwick

Case study:  Katie Marwick

Clinical Lecturer in Psychiatry

PhD from August 2013 to July 2016 in the Centre for Integrative Physiology (CIP), College of Engineering

Since completing an undergraduate research project I knew I wanted to do a PhD. During foundation years I researched the options open to me: an externally funded clinical PhD fellowship, a non-clinical PhD position, or an integrated PhD scheme such as ECAT. I opted for ECAT for the following key reasons:

  • Access to a year in which to select a PhD topic, maximising chances of picking a good one
  • Being part of a cohort of similar junior clinical academics
  • Mentorship from senior academics during PhD and beyond
  • Coupling of PhD fellowship with lectureship post PhD completion
  • Generous financial support and prestige of a Wellcome Trust funded PhD

I am passionate about understanding the pathophysiology of severe mental disorders. I opted for a project where I investigated the functional consequences of mutations in neurotransmitter receptor genes found in people with intellectual disability and epilepsy. The project hypothesised that these mutations caused the disorders experienced by their carriers. The project covered a broad range of questions, requiring me to learn electrophysiology, tissue culture, and molecular biology techniques. I had three different supervisors who all had expertise in different areas. They all had offices on the same corridor and worked with each other frequently, so this worked out really well for me.

I think the key strengths of ECAT are:

  • Mentorship from senior academics
  • Introduction year in which to consider potential projects
  • Security of run-through to lectureship
  • Requirement to defend your PhD proposal before commencing forces you and your supervisors to be really clear about the proposed experiments, getting you off to a great start.

I have immensely enjoyed my time as an ECAT PhD student. Getting the chance to find out new things about something I think is really important has been deeply rewarding. Having the opportunity to stretch my brain to understand new concepts and learn new practical skills has also been very satisfying. Being a member of a friendly, passionate scientific community has been really productive, and fun. I would certainly have had the potential to gain these benefits if I had done a PhD outwith ECAT. However, I think the support provided by ECAT in embarking on the right project for me, in the right environment, made it much more likely that I would be able to get the most possible from the experience. Common PhD pitfalls such as not getting on with your supervisors, trying to do techniques that no-one around you is working on or asking a bad scientific question were all mitigated against by the ECAT mentorship and supervision scheme.

Photograph of Dr Peter Fernandes

Case study – Peter Fernandes

ECAT Clinical Lecturer in Neurology

PhD from August 2014 to July 2017 in the Institute for Structural and Molecular Biology, College of Engineering

I always wanted to be an academic clinician and the ECAT scheme offered me the best possible opportunity to realise this goal. ECAT is highly regarded nationally, providing trainees with a comprehensive research education through a structured programme encompassing multiple disciplines and techniques. Before applying I had discussed ECAT with several existing trainees, who all spoke very highly of the scheme.

I work in the Institute for Structural and Molecular Biology in King’s Buildings, Edinburgh. My PhD project explores the role of phosphofructokinase, a rate-controlling glycolytic enzyme, in cerebral metabolism using a variety of biophysical and biochemical techniques. My primary supervisor, Professor Malcolm Walkinshaw, is Director of the Centre for Translational and Chemical Biology. A major theme in his lab is investigating how we can use structure-based drug discovery to treat bacterial and parasitic infections, as well as cancer.

The opportunities for research offered by ECAT – including access to experienced mentors, highly successful research supervisors, and superb facilities – are outstanding. There are many opportunities for cross-disciplinary projects and trainees are encouraged to broaden their horizons as much as possible. The academic support before, during, and after the PhD is amazing.

Photo of Tracie Plant

Case study – Tracie Plant

ECAT Clinical Lecturer in Respiratory Medicine

PhD from August 2015 to July 2018 in the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research (CIR)

I had completed my (ACF) Academic Clinical Fellowship in Yorkshire and had begun to look at the next stage of academic training.  More traditionally this meant an application to Wellcome or MRC with the mandatory “good” project and “good” supervisor desperately hoping they might deem me a “good” person to fulfil the triple criteria.  The ACF was an excellent opportunity but not without challenges; namely that the post is relatively time- and funding-poor.  I wanted to improve these in my next post.  After some advice and research, I stumbled upon the ECAT programme which offered an ideal solution.  The focus in the ECAT application process is on the “person” and encourages those who have a keen interest in science but who may not have cast iron research plans.  These plans are made during a lead-in year with 80/20 clinical/academic split (for the lecturer post). This ensures you hit the ground running when you commence your PhD and there is genuine flexibility around who you do your PhD with and the project itself.  The PhD is a full-time and generously funded Wellcome fellowship which leads into a clinical lectureship post (again 80/20) to springboard your future academic career.  This run-through academic training had everything on my job wish list.  Whilst I was fully prepared to bang on many doors to carry on with research, this for me was a perfect option.

My project focuses on the key role neutrophils have in lung injury and how we might positively manipulate these mechanisms by novel therapies. I am looking at proteins that have an established role in shaping neuronal growth and more recently have been shown to alter neutrophil migration. Neutrophils are fast moving cells and this means employing cutting edge imaging techniques in model systems to unpick this mystery. I will then relate this back to human disease with the aim of modifying pathological neutrophilic inflammation.

I think the key strengths of ECAT are:

  • The support: a nurturing and progressive atmosphere in center of excellence surrounded by a critical mass of world class researchers.
  • The environment: access to wealth of equipment ensuring you are well placed to do competitive cutting edge world class science.
  • The program: run through academic training where you are genuinely promoted as an academic training and given both time and funding to do a meaningful PhD with the real possibility of post-doctoral funding.

Nearly 2.5 years into the ECAT process and I can report that it lives up to the initial promises.  I am on track to deliver a solid PhD with the prospect of future papers and senior research positions that now seem slightly less unattainable!

Photograph of Dr Iain Murray

Case study – Iain Murray

ECAT Clinical Lecturer in Trauma and Orthopaedic Surgery

PhD from August 2011 to July 2014 in the Péault Laboratories, Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine (SCRM) & MRC Centre for Inflammation Research (CIR)

I entered the ECAT programme at the start of my ST2 year and used the protected ECAT time (up to 20%) in this year to meet with potential supervisors and learn basic laboratory skills through the techniques carousel.  I started my full-time PhD fellowship at the end of this year and was awarded my PhD three years later in 2014.  I am now back in clinical training at ST5 level and plan to use the protected ECAT time (up to 20%) to generate further data to facilitate future grant applications.

I undertook my PhD between the Péault Laboratories, Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine (SCRM), University of Edinburgh and David Geffen School of Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles, and the Henderson Laboratory, MRC Centre for Inflammation Research, Queens Medical Research Institute, The University of Edinburgh.

I heard about ECAT through medical and surgical colleagues who were already on the programme.  They all recommended the programme as a well-supported environment for research training.  At the time of my application, I had very limited basic science research experience but as I looked further into the ECAT programme I visited a number of laboratories and met a number of PhD students to try and learn more about their experiences.  Ultimately, it was the prospect of being involved in research that saw scientific discoveries be translated into therapies for orthopaedic patients that led me to apply for the programme.

As an orthopaedic surgery trainee with an interest in sports injuries I was keen to undertake PhD training that would equip me to explore the mechanisms through which musculoskeletal tissues respond to injury: in particular, their ability to regenerate and their predisposition to fibrosis and scarring. As such my PhD had two key strands: Strand 1:  Activation of perivascular stem cells for tissue regeneration (University of California, Los Angeles and University of Edinburgh) Mesenchymal stem cells are capable of becoming fat, cartilage, skeletal muscle and bone among other lineages.  In this strand I explored how mesenchymal stem cell that reside around blood vessels become activated to regenerate skeletal muscle and bone.  We established that the behavior of MSCs in response to tissue injury is regulated, at least in part, by signals from endothelial cells to which there are intimately attached in healthy tissues.  I performed this work in my supervisor’s laboratories at the Scottish Centre for Regenerative Medicine (SCRM) in Edinburgh and spent six months at his twin laboratory at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), making use of the expertise of each lab for specific aspects of this project.

Strand 2:  Alpha v integrins critically regulate skeletal muscle fibrosis Although not included within my initial project proposal an exciting opportunity arose for me to work with transgenic mice that allowed me genetically manipulate the mesenchymal cells that I had been working with.  Using this these mice and a number of models of skeletal muscle injury we were able to demonstrate that MSCs contribute to the pool of scar forming cells in skeletal muscle and that that this process is critically regulated by proteins called integrins.

With the generous support of ECAT I was able to present my work at national and international meetings and was fortunate enough to receive a number of prizes for my PhD work including the New Investigator Award at the United States Orthopaedic Research Society, Best Paper award from the British Orthopaedic Research Society, the Syme Medal from the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh and the Young Investigator Runner Up Prize from the Academy of Medical Sciences Spring Meeting for Clinicians in Training.

Mentorship and support from peers: A major strength of the ECAT programme is the mentorship provided by the ECAT directors, and the support of fellow ECAT trainees.  I found the advice of the ECAT directors particularly useful when I was choosing a project where I felt somewhat overwhelmed by all the potential opportunities and had very little experience of basic science research on which to base my decisions.   Administrative support:  Jo Ness (the ECAT Administrator) is central to the ECAT programme, providing support with a number of issues that would otherwise distract PhD students from the laboratory work.  Jo provided me with a huge amount of assistance in tackling much of the administrative and logistical aspects of setting up work in both Edinburgh and Los Angeles and her door was always open for a chat and advice! 

Generous funding:  The ECAT Wellcome Trust PhD lectureships are very generously funded in terms of laboratory costs and additional funding.  This enabled me to choose an ambitious project that involved a lot of in vivo work and to spend time living and working in Los Angeles which I otherwise would not have been able to do.  

I have thoroughly enjoyed being an ECAT trainee and it has provided me with fantastic opportunities both in and out of the lab, although it was certainly not without challenges. Contrary to my naïve expectations, the vast majority of experiments did not work first time and I quickly had to develop patience and be willing to change direction in response to emerging results.  However, I found the technicians, other PhD students, post docs and PIs in the labs extremely supportive and the vast majority of scientific and technical challenges that I encountered were overcome with the help of my colleagues in Edinburgh.

Submitting my completed PhD within the 3-year full-time research period before returning to clinical practice was a big challenge but well worth the effort for me.  This meant I was able to return to clinical work fully focused on surgical training and when opportunities did arise to do further lab work I was able to take these without having previously taken time away to complete PhD writing.  This was a key factor in easing the transition back to clinical work.

In my opinion, choosing an appropriate supervisor or supervisors is the most important decision when embarking on a PhD.  Key traits that I would look for in a supervisor are a willingness to meet on a regular basis (ideally weekly) throughout your PhD Studies, and someone you feel you can get on well with.  Joining a laboratory where there is access to experienced post-docs who can provide day-to-day support would be ideal.  I found it helpful, particularly when things were not going to plan, to remind myself that the PhD is a training degree that aims to equip you for a career in research. Therefore, the skills, techniques and scientific approach to thinking that you learn are just as important as the results you have.  

Photograph of Dr Fiona McQuaid

Case study – Fiona McQuaid

SCREDS Clinical Lecturer, Paediatrics

PhD February 2015 to April 2019 in the Institute of Immunology and Infection Research (IIIR)

I applied to ECAT as a paediatric ST4 trainee in London. Having spent a very enjoyable previous OOPE year involved with clinical trials, I knew I wanted a career as a clinical academic though I never imaged I’d end up in a laboratory as I had very little experience of basic science research. One of the great things about the ECAT scheme is that it gives you the opportunity to explore new fields which would otherwise be extremely difficult to access. In 2019 I completed my PhD working with Prof Alex Rowe on the molecular basis of rosetting in severe P. falciparum malaria which included both a ten months’ maternity leave and a month working with a lab in Harvard University, Boston. My project involved a lot of parasite and cell culture, microscopy, flow cytometry and a little CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing.

The abbreviated three-month run-in period for ECAT PhD fellows can be challenging as there is less time to complete mini-projects, choose a supervisor and submit the fellowship application. It is essential to arrange the projects well in advance of the start and listen to the wise advice of the ECAT directors. However, it does offer flexibility for those who might wish to return to their previous deanery at the end of the PhD. During my PhD, I decided I wanted to stay in Edinburgh rather than return to my previous deanery in London. This was quite challenging as I was first required to obtain an inter-deanery transfer for my clinical training, then apply for a SCREDS Lectureship. I’m due to start my SCREDS Lectureship, which allows 20% of time for research, in February 2020 (6 months after returning to clinical training).

I found it can take time to adjust to a lab-based PhD after making the switch from clinical training - for me it was like being a clueless FY1 again and the pace is very different to clinical medicine. Fortunately, I had a great supervisor and attending the quarterly ECAT Research In Progress (ECATRIP) meetings was very useful to learn from the experience of others. I also found academia significantly more family friendly than clinical work. A number of ECAT fellows, including myself, have young children and there is good support for maternity leave and working less-than-full-time. During the second half of my PhD I worked four days a week (80%) which was very easy to arrange and I really valued the flexibility of organizing my own time.

A huge amount of thought has gone in to providing ECAT fellows with everything an aspiring clinical academic could want- choice, opportunities to share research with peers, generous funding and support from experienced mentors. It’s still not an easy ride and academic work comes with many new challenges, but I know the training I have received will be invaluable in my future career as a clinical academic.

Photograph of Zoeb Jiwaji

Case study – Zoeb Jiwaji

ECAT Clinical Lecturer in Anaesthesia and Intensive Care Medicine

PhD from August 2015 to July 2018 in the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research (CIR)

My clinical background is as a dual-specialty trainee in anaesthesia and intensive care medicine in Edinburgh (South-East Scotland Deanery). I applied for ECAT at ST3 after appointment onto specialty training, carried out my pre-PhD year during ST4, and started my PhD at the beginning of ST5. I am now in the second year of my PhD, co-supervised by Giles Hardingham at the Centre for Integrative Physiology and Siddharthan Chandran at the Centre for Regenerative Medicine.

So, what made me choose ECAT? Well, ever since my first experience of laboratory science in my intercalated degree, I had the desire to get back into the lab at some point in my clinical training. Speaking to as many academics as I could, I considered several options, before deciding that Edinburgh and the ECAT programme were the best fit for me. This was principally due to Edinburgh’s first class reputation in biomedical research and the variety and scope of the potential projects possible under the ECAT scheme. Of course, the fact that it’s a prestigious, Wellcome-funded scheme, coupled with mentorship from senior clinical academics - and the added bonus of a funded clinical lectureship post-PhD - made ECAT a very attractive choice!

I benefitted greatly from being able to approach my project choice with an open-mind during my pre-PhD year.  Intensive care medicine as a specialty encompasses a broad range of diseases and diagnoses, and I was keen to explore as many different ideas as possible. During my pre-PhD year with ECAT, I had the chance to speak to top scientists from across Edinburgh University, and to explore a range of project ideas, spanning across different schools and disciplines.  I finally chose a project centred around investigating neuron-astrocyte interactions in the brain, and how signalling pathways between these two cell-types integrate to control important neuroprotective pathways in health and disease. The project utilises a range of cutting-edge biomolecular techniques, including induced pluripotent stem-cell technology, next-generation sequencing and metabolic imaging. I had no previous experience in neuroscience, and without the freedom from ECAT, I am sure I never would have had the opportunity to consider and undertake a project of this nature.

How is my PhD going? Entering a laboratory environment from clinical practice is certainly a steep learning curve. But as a clinician, I was used to having to learn new skills quickly, and that certainly helped. Coming from the rigidity of clinical training (with tick-boxes, assessments etc.) the freedom to decide my own path and to pursue my own interests is both liberating and occasionally daunting. Academia is certainly not an easy alternative to clinical medicine. You are always thinking, always planning, and there is a constant over-hanging feeling of things needing to be done (particularly when you are on holiday...)  But undertaking basic-science research has also been one of the most interesting and exciting things that I have ever done. It is incredibly satisfying to have the freedom to pursue my research interests, rather than what I must do to satisfy a curriculum. And nothing compares to the excitement of thinking about a problem or question, designing an experiment, and then seeing the results and knowing that you have (even in some small way) gained insight into something previously unknown. Laboratory research may not be for everyone, but for someone like me who has had a longstanding interest in an academic career, the ECAT scheme has been invaluable in giving me the mentorship and opportunity to make what will hopefully turn out to be a very solid start.