Tackling endometriosis – Fiona Cousins’ experience as a Research Visitor to Scotland

The RSE offers grants to support the research and scholarship of its Fellows and members of the Young Academy of Scotland (YAS). This includes the Visitors to Scotland Grant, which enables researchers, from any institution, to undertake a short period of collaborative research with an RSE Fellow or YAS Member.

In 2019, Dr Fiona Cousins visited Edinburgh as a result of RSE Fellow Professor Philippa Saunders securing a Visitors to Scotland Grant to further their mutual interests in developing novel therapies for endometriosis.

“This funding has fast-tracked my research.”

By Fiona Cousins
Fiona is a post-doctoral research scientist. She undertook her PhD in Edinburgh and is now based at the Hudson Institute of Medical Research in Australia, maintaining the momentum of her research by identifying new targets for endometriosis treatment. In her spare time she is a keen hockey player.


Can you tell us a little about yourself and about your project?

I am an early career researcher working on a project to improve diagnosis and treatment of women with the chronic pain condition endometriosis. My current project is investigating the role of interferons (inflammatory mediators) in endometriosis.

What inspired you to get into your field, and what excites you about your industry?

Women’s health, and more specifically menstrual health, is something that I am very passionate about. Endometriosis is a very complex disease which receives little attention even though it affects 1 in 10 women during their reproductive years. Treatment options are limited with many women having multiple surgeries. The driving force behind my research effort is to improve their treatment options.

“Biomedical research in women’s health is a truly international industry – I like the fact I get to collaborate with other researchers all over the world as this expands my ideas and increases my chances of achieving my goals.”

What was the key learning or finding enabled by this funding?

Australia does not have a national tissue bank for endometriosis and it is difficult to collect the range of patient samples I need for my research project. This funding allowed me to fly to Edinburgh to access the EXPPECT tissue bank, a comprehensive bank of patient-matched samples which has been collected over the last 10 years. Prior to this funding we did not know whether the cytokine I have been investigating was present in the endometriosis lesions that are the hallmark of the disease. Using the Edinburgh tissue samples, I was able to confirm and extend data I have generated in Australia.

How will you use the information and knowledge gained from this award in the future?

The novel data generated has been pivotal in planning the next phase of my experiments – knowing the cytokine I am working on is present in the patient samples means the work I have done to date using model systems and cells is clinically relevant. Since returning to Australia, I have planned and conducted a series of follow-up experiments investigating changes in cell function in response to this factor and working with local collaborators to develop new tests and therapies based on my findings.

What was the key outcome for this project as a result of this funding, and were there any unexpected outcomes?

The results obtained not only allowed me to generate data but also to present work to Edinburgh endometriosis experts and discuss the future direction of my project.


The green staining shows the expression of the cytokine Fiona is studying and is a very novel finding

How has your involvement with the programme and with the Royal Society of Edinburgh benefitted you?

This funding has fast-tracked my research by enabling access to an established tissue bank and the new knowledge gained has been useful in planning future experiments that will contribute to presentations and publications.

Do you consider the award helpful in terms of progressing your career or enabling opportunities for collaboration? If so, how?

This award has allowed me to strengthen collaborative links with Professor Saunders’ lab in Edinburgh, by actively visiting the lab and having hands-on access to precious tissue samples. Professor Saunders has also been my mentor throughout my PhD and beyond, and having time to sit and discuss my career progression in person has been very valuable. We have continued to talk over Skype since the visit.

Do you have any advice to offer applicants and future grant recipients?

I strongly recommend others to apply to visit their collaborators – the opportunity to have hands-on experience and face-to-face meetings is an invaluable way to move your research forward!

Looking forward, what’s next in terms of this project or your career?

The data generated from this project will be used as preliminary data for larger grant applications, e.g. to the National Health and Medical Research Council (Australia) and other philanthropic funding bodies.


Find out more about funding opportunities for RSE Fellows and Young Academy of Scotland members here