The Importance of Starting Up Grants For the NMRF

By Dr Leanne Stokes, Research Fellow, University of Sydney

Head shot of Dr Leanne Stokes

I am going to talk about where your money goes and about how being a recipient of funding from the Nepean Medical Research Fund has helped my research projects and my development as a researcher at Nepean Hospital.

I came to Australia in January 2007 to work for Professor Wiley, one of the haematologists at Nepean hospital and Sub-Dean of Research at that time. Professor Wiley was also one of the initiators behind the Nepean Medical Research Fund (NMRF).

From 2003-2006 I was working at the University of Sheffi eld in the UK performing research in a similar area to Professor Wiley’s research group. After I arrived here Professor Wiley was very interested in purchasing and setting up some new equipment in the lab for some experiments using a method I had learnt in the UK. However, we needed to raise around $100,000 to do this. I applied for a Fund equipment grant of $20,000 to get us started and was successful. I was really excited to get my very fi rst grant! To raise the rest of the money we applied for a Faculty of Medicine Major Equipment grant from the University of Sydney. For this we needed to have a minimum of 25% of the total cost and Professor Wiley contributed $15,000 from one of his research funds. We were successful in getting this major equipment grant and we were awarded $57,000 in October 2007.

What can this piece of lab equipment do that is so special and costs so much? Well, it is 9 pieces of equipment and allows you to perform an experimental technique known as patch clamp electrophysiology. I hope I can briefl y tell you what it does... The cells in our bodies, especially nerve cells in the brain and muscle cells in the heart, generate electrical signals. They are very small, measured in millivolts, so 1000-times weaker than 1Volt. To make these electrical signals tiny holes or channels in the cell membrane open and close allowing charged ions to move in or out. The patch clamp equipment allows me to measure these tiny electrical signals in single cells. I started purchasing the equipment in early 2008 and was performing the fi rst experiments in September 2008.

Since then my experiments have contributed to three publications in top scientifi c journals. The award of these two equipment grants from the NMRF and the Faculty of Medicine has undoubtedly contributed to my success in being awarded an NHMRC New Investigator project grant last year worth half a million dollars. Over the next 3 years this project will investigate a potential link between inflammation and susceptibility to mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.

I hope what this demonstrates is how important the Fund grant scheme is. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for that initial $20,000 award from the FundFund. In addition to the Research Project & Equipment grants, the NMRF also supports travel costs to conferences through the Isobel Corin Travel Award scheme. Researchers apply for funding to attend national or international conferences and typically there are 5 awards of around $1000. This may seem insignifi cant in comparison to the research grants but attendance at conferences is a very important part of the development of a good researcher.

Conferences give us an opportunity to gain new knowledge over a few days with many lectures and presentations crammed in. They allow us to meet other researchers, set up collaborative projects and formally present our work in posters and talks. They also raise the profi le of the University, the Hospital, the Fund and Penrith nationally and internationally.

Over the last three years I have been successful in receiving two Isobel Corin awards, one to attend an international meeting in Denmark, and the other to attend a national meeting in Canberra. Both of these were extremely important. I was selected to give a talk in Canberra and was able to meet many physiology researchers from all over Australia. In Denmark I had the opportunity to present two posters about my work and Professor Wiley and I held meetings with two sets of international collaborators.

If it wasn’t for my attendance at conferences I would probably not be in Australia today. I fi rst met Professor Wiley at an international conference in America in 2004 where he gave a seminar. Two years later in 2006, we met at the same conference in Italy where he interviewed me and offered me a job. In addition to learning new knowledge and presenting our work, attendance at conferences could play a role in recruiting the next generation of researchers to Nepean.

I hope this gives you all some insight into how the grants and awards from the Fund can help the researchers at Nepean Hospital and how grateful we are to have your support. I think it adds a real sense of community to our research which only increases our motivation to do the best science that we can do.