Applying for a research grant opened doors I never expected

Abigail Liston

Vet school was a relatively last-minute decision for me. I had been through a really difficult time during my last years of school, my predicted grades were low, and the future seemed confusing and bleak. By the time results came I had already opted to take a year out from education.

On results day, I was filled with apprehension, concerned for my future and the limitations I faced. However, the day turned out to be hugely positive and so many doors opened up for me. I began to refocus my plans, think more optimistically about my future career and made the decision to apply for vet school that same October.

Beginning vet school after having a year out from education was exciting. I felt I’d had the time to enjoy a life without exam stress and pressure, while also looking ahead to a five-year commitment to hard work and success. I began vet school wide-eyed and optimistic. The first two years were tough, harder than I could have imagined and things changed quickly for me. I began looking for something beyond clinical roles as I realised my happiness was largely coming from other aspects of becoming a veterinarian.

I had always been fascinated with non-human primates, intrigued by their behaviour, social interactions, adaptability and hierarchy. This interest led me to contact senior lecturers at my university; I wanted to know what more I could do to further develop this as a potential career. I attended Surrey vet school, which fortunately for me puts emphasis on careers outside of purely clinical roles; however, looking back I think there is still much more that could be done to educate and open doors for vet students. 

It was at Surrey that I met Sarah Wolfensohn, who is professor of animal welfare at the vet school, which was a huge turning point for me. Soon after that initial meeting I was planning how to tackle a research project that involved working with non-human primates in a research facility. I came across the Animal Welfare Foundation (AWF) Student Research Grant early on and I knew that it would be a brilliant opportunity for me and my project. I began the application with no experience. I felt my chances were slim considering the competitive nature of research grants and the quality of students I would be up against. 

'I was beginning to identify a career that I felt comfortable and excited about'

Through drafting a grant application and negotiating plans for undertaking research, I created connections with researchers, senior lecturers, web developers, administration staff and facility managers within organisations such as the UK Health Security Agency. I began to realise that this alone was a huge achievement, I was beginning to identify a career path I felt comfortable and excited about, I felt confident and productive, and I was enjoying this new role. Finding out that I had been successful in securing the research grant was honestly one of the happiest moments of my personal life, as well as my career. I felt not only successful but content, I was excited about my future. 

Research began during my third year of vet school and continued into the summer between third and fourth year. The focus was to measure the welfare impact of novel enrichments when introduced to captive rhesus macaques housed in a research facility. I used Kong toys stuffed with shavings and raisins, as well as a water bath with bubbles, to measure the animals’ welfare using the animal welfare assessment grid (AWAG) developed by Professor Wolfensohn. The measurements were quantitative and were taken over an extended period, finding a positive correlation between introducing novel enrichments and lower AWAG scores (which indicates better welfare). I observed behaviour and selected scores accordingly within four main categories: physical, psychological, environmental and procedural.


Within each category were specific and relevant factors that could be scored on a scale of 0–10. Every day that I collected data for this project was unique; the primates showed me something new about their social interactions, their personalities and behaviours. I felt privileged to work so closely with such fascinating animals and I thoroughly enjoyed every moment.  

New skills

As a result of this research I used sophisticated data analysis, worked with editors to complete a written research project, cooperated with software developers to improve user interfaces and influenced an improved AWAG tool. 

I learnt how to communicate with a wide variety of professionals and developed skills in many areas – from research to public speaking and time management. Through applying myself to this project and creating something I was proud of, I began putting my research forward to relevant conferences and was selected to speak at three conferences – two national and one international – as well contributing to a poster display at a European conference.  

Undoubtedly, without securing grant funding it would not have been possible for me to do my research. The AWF grant funded the novel enrichments, travel expenses and publication costs. 

I felt proud to present my research at conferences and to display my research posters at events at which I would usually have been happy to simply attend and spectate. 

Successfully securing funding for a project gives you an enormous sense of purpose and success, it allows you to justify the worth of your project and to believe in your ability to succeed at what you have set out to achieve. 

Sense of purpose and success

There were times throughout the project when I felt overwhelmed or doubted I could complete it to an acceptable level. I think it’s beneficial to put some pressure on yourself to do something well and to want to deliver on something other people have invested in; however, what is important when completing research as a student is realising you are learning. This grant set me up to strive for more. It allowed me to realise my own potential; it gave me confidence to stand in front of experts in their field with years of experience and deliver a talk; it made me believe that opportunities are always worth exploring even if you think they are out of reach.

'The grant set me up to strive for more; it allowed me to realise my own potential'

Now that I have completed my degree and started my career in clinical practice, I look back fondly at this period of my training. Although right now I have focused my energy and time on becoming the best clinician I can be, I am still dedicated to going back into research long term, which I don’t think would be the case if I hadn’t had the opportunity provided by the AWF. 

This experience has not only strengthened my applications and job prospects, but has given me real-life, first-hand experience of research, the skills it requires and the qualities needed to complete research successfully. I have grown in confidence since taking the opportunity to undertake this project, which is benefiting my career as a clinician. Finding something I am passionate about and pursuing it really did change my outlook on veterinary practice and work in general.

  • Further information about the AWF Student Research Grant scheme can be found here

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