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Since 2013 the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology has been running a Career Development Programme, a scheme to help early career researchers launch their own independent laboratories, and more recently the Innovator Investigator Programme to bring new technologies to core research themes.

Some of the CDP Fellows
(L-R) Audrey Gerard, Jethro Johnson, Alex Clark, Jelena Bezbradica Mirkovic and Angus Wann

It is said to be getting harder and harder to get a foot in the research door, something recognised by the Kennedy Institute of Rheumatology (KIR) when they set up the Career Development Programme (CDP) in 2013. Supported by funding from the Kennedy Trust for Rheumatology Research (KTRR), CDP is designed as a pathway for early career researchers recruited to the Institute to launch their own self-sustaining research programme. It provides regular review, mentorship and a transparent process which ensures researchers are fully supported as they work towards tenure.

Professor Michael Dustin led the development of the programme with the first director of the Kennedy Institute in Oxford Professor Sir Mark Feldmann, then with Professor Dame Fiona Powrie when she joined in 2014.

"The UK system for tenure track is quite different to the US," said Michael. "It's very much linked with teaching. But for a research institute like ours we wanted to create a career development programme as a way to provide a transparent process that lays out our expectations of the researchers, and what they can expect from us in terms of support. Our goal for junior colleagues is for them to build a self-sustaining, dynamic research programme that has good strategic fit with the Institute, while they successfully compete for external grants from funders like UKRI or the Wellcome Trust."

When it launched, CDP fellows were recruited onto the 5-year programme with funding from the KTRR for their salary, as well as a sum to establish their own research programme. The programme was then extended to fellows who receive short-term sponsorship from the Kennedy Institute and KTRR as they secure external fellowships. Annual internal reviews were carried out, and during the middle and end of the programme external reviewers evaluated the fellow's scientific activity and progress and provided feedback and advice on the best way for researchers to move forward.

The programme has just been reviewed and going forward will move to a seven-year fellowship on a five plus two arrangement. A review towards the end of the 4th year will identify if the fellow is likely to be successful for Senior Fellowships or the building of a programmatic grant portfolio within the next three years.

11 fellows have joined the programme since its inception. Associate Professor Tal Arnon was the first to be appointed in 2014. Her lab explores immune responses in the lymphoid organs including the lymph nodes and spleen.

"One of the unique things about the Career Development Programme at the Kennedy Institute is that it doesn't rely on your ability to come with a fellowship . The initial investment I received from the programme was very helpful to start building my research and establish my lab. At the end of the first year, I got my first external support from the Wellcome Trust, and most recently I have received a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award to explore how adaptive immune cells navigate between the various functional compartments of the spleen."

"Another very important part is the support the programme gives students. The Kennedy attracts excellent students and it's very competitive. The junior PIs don't officially have priority for students, but most people will get a student quite early on. I got my first student in my first year."

CDP fellows have been appointed across the different research themes of the Kennedy Institute including in the areas of inflammation biology, dynamics of the immune response, immune-mediated disease genetics and osteoarthritis pathogenesis. Professors in the Institute, who have different expertise in different areas, act as mentors. "The CDP was originally designed for more basic scientists, but it's been adapted to work also with the clinically trained PIs," said Michael. "To have medically trained people with us is really important because of our translational research goals."

Since 2020 KIR has also offered the Innovator Investigator Programme which recruits researchers with a focus on technologies and innovation. Alongside their own research, their role is to lead in the development of state-of-the-art technologies and their application across a broad range of research questions of interest to the Institute. Innovation Investigators receive funding from the Kennedy Trust for an initial five years, with the possibility of an extension.

Working closely with the Directors or Associate Directors of the Institute's technology platforms, KIR's Innovation Investigators cover cell dynamics, microbiome, data science and clinical science.

Marco Fritzsche, Associate Professor and Rosalind Franklin Kennedy Trust Research Fellow joined KIR under the initiative and leads the Biophysical Immunology Laboratory (BPI). The BPI Laboratory aims to unravel the impact of biophysics and mechanobiology on the human immune response in health and disease, and is developing custom-built molecular force probing and microscopy technology at the KIR and the Rosalind Franklin Institute (RFI). As Scientific Director Marco is also leading the new Oxford-ZEISS Centre of Excellence between the KIR, the Institute for Developmental and Regenerative Medicine, and the world-leading microscopy company ZEISS.

Marco said: "Focusing on revolutionary advanced live cell microscopy I've been building outstanding research infrastructure that supports productivity across KIR. For my team this has meant access to impactful collaborations at the interface of the best technology and world-class immunology. One of the most important aspects of my Innovation Investigator position has been the expertise and resources between the KIR and RFI made available to develop leap technologies with possibly significant future impact in the physical and biomedical sciences."

"In my view this would not have been possible without the exceptional quality of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students we could attract with this Innovation Investigator position."

Professor Dame Fiona Powrie said: "We are pleased to be able to offer two programmes for early career researchers transitioning to independence providing choice for early stage PI's at this crucial time. We are delighted with successes to date including promotion to Associate Professor for 5 of our junior faculty on these programmes."

Kennedy Trust CEO, Stephen Simpson, commented: "The Kennedy Trust is highly committed to the support of its scientific community and providing the right support at the most critical stages can make all the difference to a research career. The schemes designed and run by the Kennedy Institute are two exiting examples of how this can be achieved and the successes to date should be celebrated."