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Inspiring the next generation of researchers

Professor Cathy Abbot is joint lead researcher at our new Doctoral Training Centre at the University of Edinburgh. In this piece, Professor Abbot explains how these new ‘PhD hubs’ will support the development of future leaders in epilepsy research.

In 2020, Epilepsy Research UK set a challenge to “go further” with the research it funds – to create an environment in which the research could flourish, and to nurture and expand talent in the field of epilepsy. One way in which the charity proposed to build capacity was by setting up Doctoral Training Centres (DTC) dedicated to epilepsy research.

While many of us will be familiar with the way undergraduate students are funded in the UK, fewer know how PhD students fund their studies and living costs (stipends). They largely obtain studentships via recruitment to DTCs, funded by government or charities. Importantly, PhD students are the lifeblood of medical research labs, and although they are trainees, they play a vital role in moving research forward.

There are a number of DTCs in the UK with a neuroscience theme, but this will be the first with an exclusive focus on epilepsy. Before I come to the specifics of the DTCs and the training they’ll provide, I must first pay tribute to Epilepsy Research UK and the innovative way the charity set up this funding scheme. Any university applying for a DTC had to provide matched funding. So, if a university was applying for three studentships (made up of stipend, fees and running costs), it had to also source additional funding from elsewhere for three more, resulting in six students researching epilepsy for the price of three.

“As a way of building capacity in epilepsy research, this is little short of genius.”

The overall aim of the DTCs is to carry out research into the causes and treatment of epilepsy, but the other, equally important goal is to inspire a new generation of epilepsy researchers. There are two new centres in Newcastle and Edinburgh, each of which will recruit and train at least six PhD students.

Doing a PhD can be quite an isolated experience as an individual project becomes more and more specialised, but through the DTCs we will build cohorts with shared training that spans the whole field of epilepsy research. This will also allow students to place their own research in the wider context of everything, from genetic diagnosis to predicting how seizures develop, from technology to drug development. The two DTCs are even going to work together to share training, building an even bigger and better cohort effect. Crucially, the experience of people with epilepsy will be embedded throughout this training – their input is vital to ensuring that research is appropriately focused, and who better to inspire the next generation of researchers? We can’t wait to get started.

Professor Cathy Abbot
University of Edinburgh

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