In our first Fellowship feature of 2024, we explore Senior Research Fellowships at Churchill and meet one of our newest SRFs, Professor Michael Coleman.

The College has had a category of Senior Research Fellows (SRFs) since its foundation in 1960 – an unusual feature since not many colleges had such things at that time. This signalled a special commitment by the College to support advanced research, which continues today. Early holders of an SRF were Tom Whiteside (1932-2008) whose pathbreaking work on the mathematical papers of Isaac Newton was sustained by the College, and British sociologist, social activist and politician Michael Young, Lord Young of Dartington (1915 – 2002).

SRFs are intended for full-time researchers and are particularly valuable in enabling the College to engage with the extensive network of academics not based in standard university teaching department, including those more geographically remote such as researchers at the Babraham Institute and Wellcome Genome Campus. The College has maintained links with the Genome Campus over many years through a number of Fellowships, including the late Mike Ashburner (1942-2023), who was an SRF when he was pursuing genetics research at the Genome Campus, to present day SRF Dr Sarah Teichmann.

Meet Professor Michael Coleman

Michael Coleman is the van Geest Professor of Neuroscience in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge and joined Churchill as a Senior Research Fellow in October 2023. His research group studies mechanisms of axon degeneration and synapse loss, in particular the mechanism of programmed axon death (or Wallerian degeneration) that can be activated by axon injury, gene mutation, toxins and viruses. When activated specifically, this mechanism can be fully blocked by removing the gene for SARM1, one of a number of observations that has led to SARM1 becoming an important drug target.

Michael has a growing interest in coaching and mentoring of academics, including leading an ECR peer mentoring group for Alzheimer’s Research UK. He is a strong advocate of efforts to modernise and improve the culture of academic research in this and other ways.

Michael grew up in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire where he attended a local comprehensive school during the 1970s when it was principally a coal mining area. Michael and his older brother were the first generation in his family to go to university but unfortunately his brother developed a psychotic illness in the second year of his degree at Southampton and had to leave. This family experience was a key deciding factor in Michael’s decision to follow a career in neuroscience research and to this day it drives his interest in understanding human psychology for the dual purposes of wellbeing and personal effectiveness. We met with Michael to find out more about his motivations for studying this area of research and plans for the future.

What inspired you to develop an interest in this subject area?

My interest in neuroscience generally stems from my brother’s psychiatric illness when I was aged 16. I realised how devastating this can be not only for the individual themselves but also for their entire family. However, when choosing my PhD I was concerned that understanding of psychosis was too underdeveloped (it still is!) so I chose to work first on Alzheimer’s disease with a view to returning to mental illness later in my career. In practice opportunities came up first in human genetics of eye disease genes with Kay Davies, and then in understanding axon degeneration with Hugh Perry, both in Oxford at the time. It was my second postdoc with Hugh Perry, with some highly inspirational input from Mary Lyon at nearby MRC Harwell, that allowed me to make the significant advances needed to establish my independent science career.

Nevertheless, my interest in psychology and mental illness remains to this day and ironically my greatest understanding in this area comes not from the actual research but from constantly looking for better ways to manage my own research group. Over the course of 25 years, I have supervised over 50 students and postdocs, and the process of understanding how best to work with each one, with the large range of personalities, together with my own personal development during this time has been truly eye opening. While I remain deeply fascinated by the science itself and excited about its practical applications, it would be fair to say that I find the interaction with so many different people one of the most interesting parts of research life.

What attracted you to the SRF at Churchill?

My time as an undergraduate at St Peter’s College, Oxford was the single biggest opportunity, and most transformative experience of my life. Thus, I have always felt it would be nice to contribute to providing similar opportunities for others, especially from backgrounds with less tradition of attending Oxford or Cambridge. While our family was young, however, the combined demands of family and running a lab left very little additional time for a college, so I only seriously started to look for a college affiliation a year or two ago. Cahir O’Kane was one of the people I contacted then to enquire about opportunities and he alerted me when the SRF opening came up at Churchill, and kindly nominated me. I feel that Churchill is particularly suitable for me both because of its strong focus on science and because of its famously “unstuffy” atmosphere.

What have you enjoyed most thus far and what are you most looking forward to?

I have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to hear from high profile visitors such as The Master’s conversation last term with Gillian Tett, as well as the opportunity myself to host Steve Peters, the author of ‘The Chimp Paradox’ and the psychological support behind a wide range of elite sports men and women. In turn I am looking forward to hearing from Vice Chancellor Deborah Prentice and the lecture on British politics from Lord Hague this term. My main hope though is to connect with postdocs and JRFs to provide mentoring support as the navigate these difficult career stages.

What drives your particular interest in mentoring post-docs and JRFs, especially those from less privileged backgrounds?

I think the main driver of this interest is my own personal experience of struggling with the transition from lab-based experiments to managing people. Although I have been what could be described as ‘successful’, I feel this has been far more stressful, and involved far more diversion of my attention from my family, than ever would have been necessary if I had known 20-30 years ago what I know now both about the nature of scientific careers and about the psychology of personal effectiveness and wellbeing. Not to pass on this knowledge to those who may benefit from it today would seem a huge waste so I am very keen to make the most of this opportunity.

It is early days for me still within Churchill but I am open to enquiries from anyone interested in taking up this opportunity (just email me at Outside Churchill, I have run a peer mentoring group for Alzheimer’s Research UK for 18 months, provided 1:1 mentoring support for a growing number of people outside, as well as within, my own research group, and I have written a number of blogs on this topic such as these our lab web page:

Finding your own path through the academic jungle: a guide for scientists

Peer review at a crossroads: the surprising power in your hands

I plan to considerably ramp up my blogging on such topics and also aim to get professional training in coaching during 2024. I believe academia has a huge amount to learn from areas such as sports and business coaching for optimising personal performance and wellbeing and I am keen to be part of delivering that.

What are your long-term plans?

I plan to continue running my research group and developing the next generation of scientists to take forward our own research topics. In parallel I aim to build an academic coaching career that I envisage becoming a full-time activity on my formal retirement from the University, which according to current policies will be 8 years from now.

In the meantime, I am really looking forward to getting to know more people at Churchill and working to enrich the lives of those there.

Senior Research Fellowships at Churchill

Senior Research Fellowships are non-stipendiary and are offered to persons whom the Fellowship Electors consider worthy to conduct research in any subject, taking account of experience and promise. Senior Research Fellows are elected for an initial period not exceeding five years, which may be renewed at the discretion of the Fellowship Electors.  Election is made in the Lent Term, after nomination by a Fellow of the College in the Michaelmas Term, with a limit of eight Fellows in this category at any time.