Welcome to the next edition of Spectacular Scientists! This time featuring the brilliant Emily Richardson, the cancer researcher you may know as @biochemily! Hopefully reading about her journey into science will keep you inspired during this difficult time (let me know how you guys are keeping busy during lockdown in the comments).
J: Tell me about your current research position!
E: I am a final year PhD student at the University of Leicester, UK. My research is focussed on understanding how a specific form of lung cancer manages to escape the primary tumour site to move around the body. My main interest is how the skeleton of the cell (cytoskeleton) is manipulated in these cells to make them more active.
J: So you’re currently in the final year of your PhD, what’s that like?
E: It definitely feels like the last 3 years have gone super fast, but at the same time I feel like I’ve been doing this forever (in a good way!). I’ve found my final year to be pretty stressful – you suddenly realise there is an endpoint, and you’re rapidly sliding towards that cliff! But it’s great to see all your data come together too.
J: What’s your favourite thing about working in science?
E: My favourite thing about working in science is the feeling that you are possibly the first person in the world to know something – it’s very cool.
J: What’s your least favourite?
E: Least favourite thing is the personal pressure you get from working in academia. It can become quite personal and when things go wrong/don’t work the way you think it should it’s easy to blame yourself.
J: What’s your favourite experiment to do?
E: Microscopy! All day every day!! I’m a very visual person, so being able to prove things using images and videos is perfect for me. It also feels more “real” than a band on a western blot.
J: What would be your dream job/ dream thing to research? Why?
E: I’ve always loved cancer research. I find the mechanisms behind cancer absolutely fascinating. In the future I’d love to work on alternative models for cancer research (ie. something we can use instead of animals). Making 3D cell models of tumours and tumour environments is rapidly advancing at the moment and it’s very exciting.
J: Have you always been interested in science?
E: Not really! I was always an inquisitive child, but I was also massively arty. I sometimes struggled with science at school (especially physics and chemistry at times). When I was picking my A Levels I had to choose between art and science. Obviously I chose science! I do sometimes wonder where life would’ve taken me if I’d chosen art…!
J: What led you to biochemistry/ cancer research?
E: During my A levels I remember learning about the Krebs cycle and respiration and I loved the pathways involved. I then chose to study biochemistry and molecular medicine at university. During this time I learnt how pathways and proteins are related to disease, which was really interesting. My favourite modules at university were the cancer modules, in particular learning about cell division and all the proteins and mechanisms involved and how these can go wrong in cancer. I did my final year undergraduate project in that lecturers’ lab and loved it.
A catch up on the Krebs Cycle
The Krebs Cycle is a series of biochemical reactions that makes up part of aerobic (oxygen using) respiration!
J: Who were your inspirations when you were growing up, and who are they now?
E: It sounds cheesy, but growing up my parents were my biggest inspirations. They were both first generation university attendees, and have worked really hard to become successful in their careers. Growing up, they always told me to do what I loved, whatever that was. They didn’t pressure me to go for something that would get me the most money or success. Just “do what you love”, because then even when things are rubbish you’ll still be happy!! I still follow that advice now.
J: I love your instagram page- you always share a balanced and realistic insight into lablife, what inspired you to start it?
E: As I said before, I’m a very visual person. So pictures, and therefore Instagram, really do it for me! I’m also very into science communication and encouraging the younger generations into STEM. I think STEM is seen as a very “unsexy” subject, and so kids are often put off. On my Instagram I try to show all aspects of science to show it is not just an old guy sitting in a lab pipetting small amounts of liquid. I also am keen to show a full picture of a life in science so people know that it’s not just all huge discoveries and wonderful success! You have to be prepared.
J: How do you overcome discouraging moments during your journey into science/your PhD?
E: Have a good complain about it to lab friends or on Instagram!! Then listen to some loud music, jump around a bit, get annoyed/upset and then reset. I really do believe that some things often happen for a reason and you learn from difficult moments. Those difficult times only make you a better, stronger person.
J: What are you using this time in lockdown for? How are you keeping focussed?
E: During lockdown I’m starting to write my thesis. I was planning on finishing in the lab in June, then writing up till September. So now I’m just starting my write up early and hoping I can get back in the lab in time to finish the last bits of before September. This time pressure is what keeps me focussed (and up at night!). However when I don’t feel 100% focussed or up for writing I will always let myself have time off. There’s no point pushing yourself if you’re not in the right mood, as what you write/analyse will not be your best.
J: What’s your favourite thing to do out of the lab?
E: Outside the lab I love baking, exercising (mix of gym, running and yoga) and travelling. With all these things I can completely let work leave my head and just spend time with myself. When travelling I love going to remote places with good views to remind myself of the very small part I have in this big old world!
J: Oo that’s cool! Where’s the first place you want to travel to once lockdown is over?
E: My boyfriend and I were planning to do a big travel trip when I finish my PhD; we’ve got a number of places in mind- either New Zealand or around Cambodia/Vietnam/Thailand- both areas are beautiful so still making up our minds! It’s going to be amazing to go out and see the world again.. I can’t wait!!
J: That sounds amazing! Fingers crossed travel will be back to normal by then!
J: Back to science…Who paved the way for your research?
E: My research is based on work done by my boss – Prof Andrew Fry – and our ex-postdoc Dr Laura O’Regan. They have been working on a collaborative project for the past ~10 years or so on EML4-ALK – an oncogenic driver of lung cancer. Recently we published a paper which revealed a novel (potentially targetable) pathway in this lung cancer (O’Regan et al (2020). I am now doing further work on this pathway!
A catch up on cancer
Cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, which can be caused by specific proteins or reactions, such as the fusion between the two proteins (EML4 and ALK) that Emily studies!
J: Who is your favourite female scientist in your field? Past or Present!
E: I’ve picked a past female scientist who I’ve actually just discovered and is very apt for our current situation! June Almieda was the first person to discover coronavirus! She grew up in Glasgow in 1930 and had little education, but got a job as a lab tech. Years later, in 1964, she saw coronavirus under the electron microscope. They named it “corona”virus as the virus looks to have a crown when imaged! When they tried to publish, the reviewers came back and said the images were “just bad pictures of influenza virus particles”. Typical! It was later published in the Journal of General Virology, and she went on to gain a doctorate and became known as an expert in the virus imaging field.
J: What are your top tips for aspiring scientists?
Science is really tough. This is because you are not learning new things, but DISCOVERING them. This is not a thing most people encounter in their working life. It is the most difficult but also the most wonderful part of science. So you have to persist. The highs are definitely worth the lows.
J: Thank you so much for letting me interview you! Good Luck for finishing your PhD and Stay Safe!
And you can find the link to the other amazing scientists that I have interviewed!
Stay Safe, Stay Home, Stay Curious!