Science and Engineering in Derby and Derbyshire
It could be quite easy to get the impression that scientists have a very simple career path. That at 15, when picking their A-level/Baccalaureate subjects they know exactly that they want to do research into the influenza virus, and that is precisely what they end up doing until the day they retire.
“I think for many 18 year old it’s unfair for them to have to pick a subject and think this is what I’m going to do forever”
For some scientists that may well be what happens, but the career path of Dr Heidi Sowter, Reader in Oncology at University of Derby, and specialist in gynecological cancers, has been much less linear.
She initially followed her love of biology and diving to do a Marine Biology degree at the University of Swansea: “my parents were not happy about that”. Despite parental fears about future employment prospects Heidi followed her interests, but when she graduated found that sadly her parents’ forewarnings were accurate.
“The sort of jobs that were around for marine biologists when I graduated were things like working for Yorkshire Water and things like that, I had in mind diving and looking at sharks, and those kind of jobs are few and far between”
After three years of funding her through university her parents weren’t happy about the idea of her doing more study; so a PhD was off the table. Whilst Heidi, understandably, didn’t fancy a career looking at Sheffield’s sewage, so decided to write to every local science company she could find; “I do advise undergraduates to do just that”. One company, a laboratory which produced monoclonal antibodies (these can be used to identify whether a specific antigen is present) was luckily looking for a technician. It was a small company where some months, “we didnt get paid; we got paid twice the next month”, but Heidi did get plenty of Laboratory experience. One of the projects she became involved in was a study on improving the screening processes for cervical cancer by fluorescent labelling the two types of cells.
“I really liked it. I got to work with pathologists and people at cancer units at the hospital , but then I wanted more. I was a technician in that company; I wasn’t in control of that project.”
Spurred on by her new found interest she applied for a research assistant post at the University of Cambridge working in their cancer research team. At her interview for the job, in a moment of bravery, foolhardiness, or as she puts it, “I can’t believe I was that bolshy”, she told them she would only take the job if she could also do a PhD. Evidently the folks at Cambridge like a bit of confidence and so said yes, as long as she paid for the PhD from her wages. After six months settling in time she had her proposal ready, and supervisor selected, and was faced with a new choice. As a self funder she could choose which university she went through for the PhD:
“I was working for Cambridge University and could have done a PhD within Cambridge University-the fees for a year were £3000. I was only being paid £10,000. There was another university in Cambridge, Anglia Ruskin, and their fees were £500 a year”.
The cheaper option won out in the end, though she admits she did go through a phase wondering if the more prestigious option would have been better but, ” I was only 25 and I wanted a life.” Something that with Cambridge rents would have been impossible after paying her fees. Working on the PhD part time she had finished it within five years; going home from work every night to work on it. The PhD was a, “steep learning curve, bearing in mind I did a marine biology degree not a biomedical science degree. I missed out on a lot of human biology which would have been very useful.” Despite these challenges she wrote three papers whilst she was at Cambridge, and says that her time there gave her “all the things you want for the end of a PhD; you’re a properly trained scientist.”
After a period of applying for jobs and not really getting anywhere, one of her PhD assessors, Roy Bicknell, suggested that she apply for an open position at Oxford University. The post, which was based in the John Radcliffe Hospital, involved looking at hypoxic gene regulation in solid tumours.The centre of solid tumours have no direct access to oxygen and so genetic coding instigates a series of responses to ensure the tumour doesn’t die off. Part of her work involved looking at methods to interrupt the way that tumours build access. Her work in Oxford was successful, and though the post-doc was only a temporary three year contract (as is common) she likely would have been funded for more time. However, her boyfriend at the time had just found a job in London, and romance trumped science, so she approached the laboratory of Professor Alan Ashworth for a job. For a role in the laboratory, which was part of one of the UK’s major cancer charities, Heidi had to present a prepared research proposal to not only her future boss, but the whole staff too.
Her proposal was to produce a transgenic mouse to model familial ovarian cancer. Meaning that the research team would grow a mouse that had part human genetics, and that the mouse would develop the type of ovarian cancer that runs in families. The plan was then to use this mouse to test potential treatments that could ultimately be used on human women.
“However, this is where it stops being such a success story, as I made the mouse, but the model failed. It didn’t come out as I hoped it would come out. I made the mouse but couldn’t get anything out of it, its one of those scientific lessons; do you publish negative data or not, I left that post doc with very little which is almost career suicide.”
Fed up with the itinerant, and somewhat unstable life of a post-doctorate researcher she applied for a lecturer post at the University of Derby. Finding herself once more in very unfamiliar territory having to teach not only topics that weren’t in her area of expertise, but also rooms of 100 people at once. Teaching was just as steep a learning curve as cancer research: “my very first lecture, I remember it was mammalian reproduction, and it was a three hour slot and I finished in an hour and a half. I think everyone was sitting there a bit dazed.”
Gradually, as she got more comfortable in her new role she introduced some aspects of her previous career by first writing a very popular oncology module, and then resuming research again. Unlike her previous posts, at much wealthier institutes, Heidi did not have near limitless resources. However, she did now have the ability to follow her own research interests. Having worked with ovarian cancer patients for many years, who often have a poor prognosis, she decided to investigate non medical ways of supporting them through treatment.
“I wanted to do something that would help them practically rather than just the molecules that are being expressed.”
The trial, which uses yoga to support patients through their treatment, has been run by one of Heidi’s PhD students, Stephanie Archer, who is currently analysing the initial data. When designing the research Heidi spoke with patients as well as medics, “and they liked it, [but] one of the things that came out was don’t do it in the hospital.” Accordingly the study has been run at the at the university, so that the participants are away from the stressful environment of the hospital.
As well as investigating supportive non-hospital assistance for patients, she is also involved in a worldwide study on cancer tissues. When a patient has surgery for their cancer, samples, and in some cases the whole tumour, are kept by hospital laboratories. These samples are now, in an anonymous form, going to form part of a large database. Information about the type of cancer, the stage the sample was taken at, and how long the person survived will be used along with cellular information to design treatments. Being actively involved in research is important to her teaching: “I am able to offer students real life examples which I wouldnt be able to do if I wasnt at the sharp end.” Equally though, “teaching forces me to keep up to date with my field overall”, having to cover all aspects of oncology in the module she leads, not just those she specialises in.
Despite it filling her working days, she still loves science: “last summer I had a microscope on my dining room table. I do it all the time. You do it [the job] for the love of it.”