South African researcher on winning his FLAIR postdoctoral fellowship
This Q&A blog by Joseph Raimondo, a South African neuroscientist, and Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA) grantee under the Future Leaders – African Independent Research (FLAIR) programme, highlights the importance of the FLAIR Fellowship in establishing early-career researchers in independent research careers.
Tell us about your background, what led to your current research and why it’s important.
I’m a neuroscientist in Cape Town, South Africa, studying causes of epilepsy in Africa. I’m interested in how the brain works, but I also want to make a difference to the burden of neurological disorders in Africa. I want my research to inform the development of better treatment of epilepsy in Africa. It is a debilitating neurological disorder that directly affects approximately 50 million people worldwide. As the most common neurological disorder in Africa, it exerts a heavy toll on sustainable health and wellbeing. The prevalence of seizures and epilepsy here is considerably higher than the global average due to high levels of head trauma and brain infections including meningitis, malaria and neurocysticercosis. My research is studying mechanisms of epilepsy in an African context.
Outline your FLAIR funded research and some of its outcomes
My lab published an important paper “Excitatory GABAergic signalling is associated with benzodiazepine resistance in status epilepticus” in the prestigious neurology journal “Brain”, which explains why current first line-therapy for stopping seizures (benzodiazepines sometimes called "benzos", are a class of psychoactive drugs) doesn’t often work if the seizure has lasted more than about five minutes, as is often the case in Africa where it can take a long time to get to hospital. We showed that an old readily available drug, phenobarbital (also known as phenobarbitone or phenobarb, is a medication that is recommended by the World Health Organization for the treatment of certain types of epilepsy in developing countries), is preferable because it more effectively arrests seizures. We also have preliminary data which shows a possible mechanism by which tapeworm larvae in the brain might cause seizures. This could lead to new treatments to stop seizures following brain infection by tapeworm, which is a very common cause of epilepsy in Africa. We hope our findings will change how epilepsy is managed locally and globally.
What made you apply for the FLAIR Fellowship?
It provides very generous funding to support research: 300,000 GBP over two years. This has allowed our lab to purchase the latest equipment and reagents to study epilepsy in the African context.
Why do you think your application was successful?
I emphasised my previous research expertise studying the brain at the single-cell level. I outlined a cutting-edge research program that reinforces African research priorities and the causes of epilepsy which are common in Africa. I also ensured that it was polished and looked professional.
What tips can you share with prospective applicants to improve their chances of success?
Include figures of preliminary data where possible. Ensure that data are of publication level quality.
Tell us about your first year as a FLAIR fellow.
My first year has been a rollercoaster of trying to set up a lab and get research going, which takes time, but we are making progress. My advice is just to keep going as best you can! For example, the biggest challenge is continuing our research in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic; our university was shut down to reduce the virus spread.
Is FLAIR your first postdoc? How is gaining postdoctoral training adding value to your career?
I held a Royal Society Newton Advanced Fellowship prior to my FLAIR fellowship. Postdoctoral training is crucial for bridging the gap between a PhD and a fully independent research career.
How is this postdoc different from others available in the continent or globally?
FLAIR feels more like a “super-postdoc” or first independent fellowship to start a laboratory. Unlike FLAIR, most postdoctoral fellowships don’t come with resources to fund your own research program.
Why is postdoctoral training important for Africa?
Postdoctoral training is critical as it enables us to develop our own cohort of world-leading investigators in Africa.
What impact has the FLAIR programme had on your career?
It has been massive, enabling me to establish my own research group. It has also given me the confidence to do science of both local and global impact. I have also developed important relationships with FLAIR fellows in my cohort.
What ways would you like to see this programme evolve?
I think it is perfect.
About Joseph Raimondo
Joseph Raimondo is a South African neuroscientist and lecturer at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He is a Fellow of the Future Leaders – African Independent Research (FLAIR) programme which supports talented early-career African researchers who have the potential to become leaders in their field. FLAIR is implemented through the Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa (AESA), a funding, agenda-setting, programme management initiative of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the African Union Heads of Governments. FLAIR is supported by the UK Royal Society through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF).
You can also read this blog post on top tips for a great FLAIR application:
8 ways to make your FLAIR grant application shine (English)
8 façons de vous démarquer dans votre demande de bourse FLAIR (Français)