The word leukaemia was occasionally mentioned when I was growing up, although I had no idea what it was. I was aware that a friend of the family had lost their battle with leukaemia and that another young member of that family was fighting leukaemia… a fight which she won and is still winning today!
I studied Applied Biology at Newcastle University due to my interest in disease in general rather than leukaemia specifically. Once I finished my undergraduate degree I noticed an advertisement for a Gordon Piller PhD studentship in Newcastle University funded by Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research (then the Leukaemia Research Fund) and I felt an overwhelming need to apply for the position. I am thankful every day to Professor Caroline Austin that I was successful and I have never looked back.
I love going walking and hiking with my family. Photo taken by Jennifer Martin.
I started my 4-year PhD studentship in 2008 and have continued to work as a post-doc for LLR since I finished my PhD in 2012. My PhD research and the research that I do today is concerned with investigating potential mechanisms by which therapy related leukaemias arise, in order to reduce and/or prevent patients from developing leukaemia as a side effect of treatment for a primary disease.
I often get asked what do I do in a ‘typical’ day and I always respond in the same way - “typical days do not exist”. Working in research consists of long days but never (in my opinion) tedious as there is always so much to do. Firstly, devising which experiments to do in which order in conjunction with my supervisors and fellow scientists is crucial. The length of time these experiments take can be anywhere between days and months. This is mainly due to repeating experiments for accuracy, but also events that cannot be helped such as fire alarms going off and experiments having to be re-started due to timing issues. As well as devising and conducting experiments, the methods and results must be written up in the following formats; lab books so you or anyone can repeat your experiment in the future, PhD thesis so your work can be assessed by experts in the field, manuscripts for publication so the work that you and your fellow scientists have done can be published and shared with experts in the field around the world.
Doing a bit of cell culture in the fume hood!
During my PhD I have also attended and presented work at conferences, which are a hub of information and are always vital in discussing new and evolving research and treatments in the field of haematology. On a personal level I have also recently started going to local state schools and talking to young students about my research and science in general in order to encourage young people to consider career paths that I certainly did not consider at my school. As a former state school student, the feedback I get from the students in years 7-13 is overwhelming. The most common response is that they had never considered science as a career path until either me or me and a team of fellow scientists had gone in to talk to them about science and research.
Although the majority of my time is spent in the laboratory conducting experiments, I have also spent time on the Haematology wards at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. The first thing that shocked me was the vast age range of patients on the ward and I was fortunate enough to be asked to follow a patients treatment and progress during my time on the ward and I continue to follow her progress to this day. I was also struck by the necessity of working as a team between the academic and clinical professions of haematology, for example the type of leukaemia a patient has is determined by scientists in the lab and the results are passed to the medical teams to devise treatment protocols for each patient. However, there is never a greater satisfaction or a more humbling experience than attending and participating in events to raise funds for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research and meeting the patients who have been affected or are currently affected by a haematological malignancy. Their strength and determination is infectious and continuously helps me to focus on the reasons I do the job that I do!
Beefy's Great British Walk 2012: Newcastle University LLR researchers, family and friends. Photo taken by John Willmore.
Throughout my PhD I have been struck by how much I both love conducting research and also communicating with patients, a skill which I constantly use as a volunteer at a local hospice. I therefore decided to apply to study medicine with the aim of working as a clinical researcher, hopefully for LLR! I was accepted to study medicine by the University of Sheffield to commence in September 2013. The hardest decision to make when accepting my offer to study medicine was leaving LLR after 5 years… but hopefully it will be temporary and I am looking forward to learning about the research funded by LLR in Sheffield and continuing to raise funds for a charity that has become like a second family to me!