Case Study: Scottish Government Personal Research Fellowship

“I have been promoted to Reader at my host institution, and the research enabled by the fellowship was quite instrumental in achieving this”

Source: Waclaw B, Bozic I, Pittman ME, Hruban RH, Vogelstein B, Nowak MA. 2015. A spatial model predicts that dispersal and cell turnover limit intratumour heterogeneity. Nature 525:261–264. doi:10.1038/nature14971

Bartlomiej Waclaw is a biological physicist at the University of Edinburgh. Bartlomiej was awarded a RSE Scottish Government Personal Research Fellowship in 2013, a five year programme which enabled him to research physical processes in the biological evolution of cellular populations.

Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a biological physicist interested in Darwinian evolution of bacterial and cancer cells. I have been studying how bacteria evolve resistance to antibiotics, how cancer cells become more aggressive and resistant to chemotherapy, and what processes affect the structure and genetic composition of bacterial colonies and cancerous tumours. In my work I use a combination of mathematical modelling and experiments.

Can you describe your project in no more than 50 words?

I investigated how physical interactions between cells in bacterial colonies and tumours affect their growth and evolution. I found that adhesion, friction, and cell movement determine the shape and internal structure of these cellular conglomerates, and that this affects the process of evolution and spreading of new mutations.

Did the RSE Fellowship contribute to the success of your research project? If yes, how did it help?

The fellowship allowed me to focus primarily on my research and less on teaching. This enabled me to establish new collaborations, and to develop an experimental counterpart to my (previously theory-only) research.

What would you have done if you did not receive RSE funding?

I would have had to focus on a single research subject and would not have time to explore other research areas. This strategy was perhaps not ideal short-term, but it has just started to bring in profits (high-impact publications, new collaborations).

What was your favourite part of the funded project?

Experiments on bacterial evolution. Even though they were quite time consuming, they have produced very nice results. Some have already been published. I hope to publish much more soon.

Were there any unexpected outcomes?

Although I did not initially plan this, I became interested (through my wife Justyna Cholewa-Waclaw’s work) in transcriptional regulation in mammalian cells. This has led to a collaboration with Justyna and Prof. Adrian Bird from the School of Biological Sciences, Edinburgh University. My work has helped to interpret the experiments and to test several hypotheses about the role of the regulatory protein MeCP2 that is implicated in several neurological diseases (to be published soon in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).

How did you disseminate your findings to your colleagues and/or the general public?

I published around 20 papers and presented at national and international conferences. I also demonstrated (with my colleague Elin Lilia) some aspects of bacterial growth and evolution to the general public during the university’s Doors Open Days. Some of my work on cancer has featured in national and international media, I have also generated graphics to illustrate the growth of tumours for popular magazines.

What have you done since the award finished?

I have been writing up several papers based on the research carried out during the fellowship. I have also started a few new projects related to bacterial growth on surfaces, urinary infections, and cancer chemotherapy.

Would you say that the award was helpful in terms of progressing your career? If so, how?

I have been promoted to Reader at my host institution, and the research enabled by the fellowship was quite instrumental in achieving this.

Do you have any advice for anyone considering applying for a RSE Research Award?

Only some general truths: start thinking about it well in advance of the deadline. Consult your idea with more experienced colleagues. Do not make the proposal too technical but be specific enough so that it is obvious what you want to do, and how. Make sure the host will be committed to help you with your career. If selected for an interview, do a mock-up interview with senior colleagues.