As Yunji Wu Davenport was finishing up her Ph.D. at the California Institute of Technology in 2015, she decided it was time to face up to several years’ worth of soul searching. Davenport had been studying HIV antibodies and antigens — a topic she enjoyed, but one she couldn’t see herself pursuing long term. She had recently taken an intensive two-month course on microbial diversity at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts — a program supported by the Simons Foundation to encourage more people to move into that field of research — and the subject had captured her imagination. Davenport wanted to change her research focus, but the prospect was intimidating. “I would be entirely outside my comfort zone, and would have to learn everything from scratch,” she says.
Davenport decided to apply for a postdoctoral fellowship offered by the Jane Coffin Childs Memorial Fund for Medical Research. Daringly, she “simply wrote down the project and ideas that most excited me, without much regard for what would be fundable or popular,” she says. “I decided that trying to do the research I really wanted to do was worth the risk of failure.” Davenport’s passion for her subject came across: She was awarded a three-year fellowship sponsored by the Simons Foundation and is now at Harvard University, where she is studying the discovery and characterization of microbial small molecules.