Interview with Dr. Louise WALPORT, MSCA IF Global Fellow, University of Tokyo

Louise received her Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Oxford, where she undertook her final year research project with Professor Timothy Donohoe. Following this she undertook a DPhil in the laboratories of Professor Christopher Schofield and Professor Christina Redfield working on proteins involved in the epigenetic response. She now works as a MSCA GF in the laboratory of Professor Hiroaki Suga at the University of Tokyo.

- Louise, can you introduce your research interests to our readers?


I am interested in biochemical aspects of epigenetics (the study of changes in gene regulation that do not involve alterations to the underlying DNA sequence), particularly reactions involving lysine and arginine residues. During my DPhil I worked on a family of proteins involved in histone demethylation and am now applying the peptide screening technology developed in the Suga laboratory to these, and some related proteins, with the hope of developing probes that will help us further understand their cellular roles.


- You’re now under an MSCA IF (GF) mobility grant to Japan. Can you tell us a bit about your professional choices, and what particular circumstances lead to your work in Japan under this very specific grant?

Given the international nature of science, doing a postdoc abroad seemed like a logical choice. As an undergraduate, I spent a summer working in a lab at the Broad Institute in Boston and felt that this time I’d like to use the opportunity to live somewhere in Asia. Scientifically I was also keen to learn the display technology pioneered by Professor Suga, so applying for this fellowship in Japan married these two desires. Of the postdoctoral fellowships available, the MSCA GF was a particularly attractive option, as it gave me the opportunity to live and work in Japan for two years knowing from the outset that I also had funding to return to the UK for a further year at the end of that time.

The MSCA Individual Fellowships fund researchers looking to enhance their career development and prospects by working abroad. There are two types of Individual Fellowships.

European Fellowships are:

- Held in the EU or associated countries for 1-2years.

- Open to researchers either coming to Europe or moving within Europe.

- A support to restart research careers after a break such as parental leave.

- A support to reintegrate researchers coming back to Europe.

Global Fellowships feature:

- Secondments outside Europe for researchers based in the EU or associated countries (1-2 years).

- A mandatory one-year return period.

More information here

- How did you obtain the grant? Were there specific hurdles that you managed to overcome in order to secure the position/the funding?

Like all grant applications, the MSCA GF took a substantial amount of time to prepare so starting early was key, especially with the additional specific hurdle of coordinating between two different universities on two different continents! I was lucky that both my outgoing and incoming hosts were extremely helpful in making the application as painless as possible.


- Now that the grant is running, what would you say is its impact on your career?

As well as the most obvious impact of being able to pursue my own scientific ideas and the chance to learn from Professor Suga, the grant has a generous allowance for research expenses and professional development that has given me the opportunity to present my work at international conferences and to attend a course at Cold Spring Harbor. The new location has also allowed me to establish new collaborations such as with structural biologists at RIKEN. All these opportunities to expand my international network will be invaluable once I return to Europe.


- How would you say research environment compare between Japan and Europe?

Before I arrived here in Tokyo I was a bit worried that the research environment might be very different from Europe, but in fact, the Suga lab has a very international outlook with researchers from more than ten different countries, so day to day lab life is pretty similar to my days in the UK.


- What are the challenges of doing research in Japan for you?

Although we work in English in the lab, a lot of equipment and information from the wider university is, of course, in Japanese. As my Japanese level is still fairly basic this can be a challenge, but I’m lucky to have very friendly colleagues who are always able to help me out when needed!


- While being based in Japan, are you keeping ties with your former workplaces/labs/colleagues in Europe? If yes, how and to what end/objective?

I still have regular conference calls with my PhD supervisor and members of the lab. At the start of my stay in Japan we were still writing up papers from work during my time in Oxford and now as I will be returning to Oxford for the final year of my fellowship we skype to keep up to date with progress of my current project. Additionally, through a colleague from my old lab I have established a new collaboration with a lab in Edinburgh.


- From your perspective, how can/should researchers mobility flows between Europe and Japan (both ways) be improved? Also, what would be the barriers for research cooperation?

There are lots of good schemes like JSPS and MSCA that provide funding for the movement of researchers between Japan and Europe, but I think a lot of people are put off by the language and cultural barrier. In reality many labs now work entirely in English so these barriers shouldn’t put people off. However integrating into the research community beyond one’s immediate lab can still be difficult. Organisations like EURAXESS that help researchers once they have moved in country are invaluable in this respect and any extension of these initiatives would really help researchers get the most out of their stay abroad.


- A final, more personal question: how do you envisage your career and where once your grant is over?

I’m enjoying my time in Japan immensely, and will return with many great memories, but it is a long way from my family and friends, so in the long term I would like to establish an independent academic career working in Europe. I look forward to maintaining collaborations with people I have met here well in to the future, however.


Thank you very much Louise, and all the best for your career!