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Spotlight on UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship

Martina Zimmermann was interviewed by Susanna Cornick-Willis on the 19 January 2023.

Could you tell us a bit about your project?

It is a research programme on ageing that investigates the disconnect between how culture devalues ageing as neuropathological decline and how, in contrast, scientific accounts describe senescence as a lifelong biological process. What the project really wants to do is to offer a conceptual framework with which to overcome cultural pessimism about ageing and to influence policy change, especially with a focus on increased attention to quality care.

The project employs two postdocs and it reaches across disciplines and sectors. My own literature based study attends to the dialogue between cultural discourses and scientific models of ageing. One of the postdocs, Laura, a social scientist, undertakes empirical research that explores meanings of ageing with third sector partners and older people. Joe, the other postdoc, who himself is a literary scholar with a strong interest in policy and social medicine, leads on public engagement and impact in this research programme. In collaboration with the Policy Institute at King’s and colleagues from a range of disciplines and sectors, we want to develop policy change for an ageing population. It’s really quite a mix of things that we are doing!

The FLF is quite different to other, standard fellowship schemes; what made you decide to apply for it?

So, I’ve got a long-term discipline-crossing background in pharmaceutical sciences and literary scholarship. With that, I found it quite challenging to identify an academic home. Added to that, appointment panels continue to, understandably, prize their home discipline. The FLF scheme is quite unique in how strongly it emphasises the value of work evolving across disciplines and sectors. That really resonates with King’s own high-level investment in cross College activities.

How did you find the internal selection process?

I think the internal selection process is an absolutely important part of the process; it’s really integral to the whole process. It pushes you to think about the different areas where you are required to demonstrate initiative and vision. It is also a great opportunity to discuss your research with colleagues and further develop your research questions. So, it’s a period that helps you to develop a project. One of the things that I thought was very important during this period was seeking out third sector collaborators and to have discussions with them. These discussions were really essential for identifying some gaps in my own thinking and to identify strategies for filling these gaps. This process takes quite some time and it just wouldn’t work one week before the external deadline! So, having this internal selection process is really a strategy to support applicants.

Did you make use of any King’s support during the application process? For example, did you have a mock interview?

Yes, I did have a mock interview which was extremely helpful. It helped me to think about the interview as a conversation with other academics about my research. More generally, in King’s there was enormous support all the way through. There was constant support from the Arts & Humanities Research Development Manager in putting the application together and in pointing me to potential collaborators across the College, one of whom was the Policy Institute. There was also wonderful support from staff at the Science Gallery, with whom we now work, as well as colleaguesnow working in the Faculty Impact & Engagement team. I also felt very welcome in the Department of English because it has such a strong, multidisciplinary commitment that goes beyond colleagues’ investment in literature and science or literature and medicine. Most of all, I received tremendous support from colleagues in the Centre for the Humanities and Health. The Centre’s networks across the Faculty[of Arts & Humanities] and across the College also helped me to firm up connections with colleagues in IoPPNP, the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related Diseases, the Institute of Gerontology and, more broadly, Global Health and Social Medicine. The support I received from all of these individual colleagues in putting this application together and developing my thoughts was tremendous.

Could you share your thoughts on the external submission process to UKRI? Were you interviewed? How did you find that aspect of the process?

As I’ve mentioned, I think one of the main pieces of advice I received during the mock interview was that the interview itself would be more of a conversation with academics who are really interested in hearing about your work. I found the interview for this fellowship an exceptionally enabling experience. I think it’s an extraordinary moment when a panel of time-poor senior academics are there to listen to your ideas and visions and want to have a conversation about what motivates you.

It is always easier to reflect on such a moment from the position of having received the award, but every such interview is part of a learning curve and contributes to your development, in my opinion.

On the UKRI interview, there were five or six panellists, all from different disciplines within the Humanities and also one or two from outside the academy. I think this is actually very important to know from the outset, in terms of preparation so that you can begin considering early on how your work matters outside of the academy.

If you were to start the process again, would you do anything differently?

I have reflected on this quite often because I feel very lucky and privileged to have secured this funding. The answer is probably that I wouldn’t do anything differently but would come to this fellowship with a different experience base. I was very surprised by how little actual research time this fellowship programme leaves me. I’m truly excited about the work that this funding enables me to do with charities and other third sector partners and policy makers – work that ensures that the academic research I am doing matters at the frontline of care and how we approach ageing. This part of the project is highly prized by the institution, amongst others, because it provides the basis for a potential future impact case study.

The largest part of the application’s Case for Support revolves around the research that would be carried out towards writing a monograph. However, I am now in the third year of the fellowship and I find that there remains very little time still. This is problematic because monographs continue to be highly prized by my discipline in general. Reflecting on this and experiencing this on a daily basis, I hope that I can contribute to conversations in the Faculty about how the significant work going into impact and public engagement can be reflected in our workload model. I think it is very important that our academic work matters in society, but this takes up a lot of time and the time for actual research therefore shrinks very quickly.

So, as you’ve mentioned, you are now in the third year of your fellowship. Could you tell us a bit about how it’s going and what you have been the most excited about? 

There are several aspects. Ever since writing my first monograph on book published narratives by people with dementia, as compared to third person carer accounts, I wanted to find strategies by which this work could matter outside of the academy. This fellowship really encourages work with third sector partners, and I think this is a very exciting and productive part of the project. Related to this is the actual policy work that this fellowship enables me to do, including a policy lab I ran last autumn with one of my postdocs in collaboration with colleagues at the Policy Institute at King’s. 

Another important thing to mention is that there is a very strong development component in this funding scheme and I continue to benefit from training courses offered by the FLF Development Network*- incidentally, I gather that this is now also open to fellows funded by other schemes. A lot of my training revolves around policymaking, including an AHRC Working with Government programme.

I’m also excited, of course, about the actual research questions of the project but I’ve already mentioned that I wish there was more time to focus on this. The thing I’m most excited about is the enormous privilege to lead a multidisciplinary team that contributes to my daily learning. Mentoring two postdocsis probably the most rewarding aspect of this fellowship.

*[Note on the FLF Development Network: the network is available to all six cohorts of the FLF scheme, as well as a group of researchers and innovators nominated by the Research Councils – see link above for more information.]

Any other thoughts? Perhaps your top three tips to colleagues who may be embarking upon this route?

My top tips really emerge from my experience as the work evolves. My first piece of advice would be to start thinking about such an application very early, long before the next call comes around. My second point would be to seek out conversations with your colleagues from a range of disciplines, to have your ideas challenged and to learn about other methodological approaches that might synergise with your own ideas. Finally, there is a place for the humanities in this funding scheme, so reach outside of the academy to discover what the impact of your research could be. This is also one of the intentions of the Lifelong Ageing workshop we will be running for early career researchers in May this year.

Would you like to tell us a bit about the ‘Lifelong Ageing’ event taking place in Dementia Action Week 2023 you are running?

So, it is an event which aims to bring early career researchers, charities and other third sector organisations into conversation. It is really for ECRs to discover what the impact of their work could be, to develop further research questions, to begin networking with other ECRs working in relation to ageing. We hope that from there we can develop a further conversation within this network and create more opportunities to work with charities in this area.

This blog was first published on the King's Arts and Sciences Research Office Bulletin.

In this story

Martina Zimmermann

Reader in Health Humanities and Health Sciences


The Sciences of Ageing and the Culture of Youth (SAACY) is a project funded by a UK Research and Innovation Future Leaders Fellowship. It looks at how we talk and think about ageing and how…

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