By Kerry Hughes, Queen’s University Belfast.
Kerry will be standing on one of our soapboxes in Belfast, on the 20th of June. Her talk: “DNA damage, using chemistry to treat biochemistry”
It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be. Though when I look back to my childhood I think I was always destined to be a scientist, the microscope age eight, the chemistry set age twelve, the numerous field trips to investigate plants and animals in the nearby forest or at the beach. Not to mention the number of clocks and broken electronics I took apart to see how they worked and tried to fix (and most likely broke!).
My parents have always been behind me in everything I’ve done and I think they were probably instrumental in my path to being a scientist, as although my parents aren’t scientists any science book or piece of science kit that I wanted as a child and they could get for me I was given. They also encouraged us as children to investigate, took us on long walks at the beach or in the forest and allowed us to explore, all this spurred me on and made me want to find out more. My parents have also always let me decide where my life should go and even when I was eleven they argued with my primary school principle that if I wanted to go to a certain secondary school then that was where I would go and not somewhere he or they had chosen. I think having had the freedom to make these decisions and make many mistakes on the way has allowed me to do things I enjoy doing and eventually find a career I love.
But science wasn’t my best subject at secondary school, I did better in art at GCSE, prompting teachers to see a career as an artist, but I loved science. I especially liked the practical side of science. Learning the theory I found quite dull but getting to put it into practice and get your hands dirty was right up my street. I’ve never gone for the easy option when given a choice and went against my teacher’s advice and studied science based A levels at the local technical college rather than the easy transition from one secondary school to another like everyone else.
When I applied to University I had no clue what I wanted to do, and with little careers advice I looked through the numerous course brochures hoping to be inspired. I liked the idea of Pharmacy and naively not understanding how drugs are developed thought that by being a pharmacist I could develop new drugs to treat diseases such as cancer. Having had my family go through the up and downs of cancer diagnosis and treatment two years before, I thought I could make a difference to people’s lives. But I had to also be realistic I couldn’t choose six courses the same so I also opted for a number of biology based degrees as biology had always interested me, I enjoyed it at A level and I knew there were a number of career options that I would have with a degree in biology.
When it came to decision day I opted for a degree in Biological sciences at Queen’s University Belfast and off I went. But after a year of plant biology I was regretting my decision and approached my tutor to change degree. During that first year I had got the chance to do some modules in Chemistry and had loved it, so I decided to change to a degree in Chemistry much to my tutor’s dismay. This change in direction was the moment where my future career came together, I loved chemistry, especially the lab time and I got to do an undergraduate research project synthesising enzyme inhibitors for use as lead drugs. From that point I was hooked, I did my PhD in medicinal chemistry designing lead drugs for use in the treatment of Tuberculosis and I also got to spend some time in local pharma company Almac.
I now do research in the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen’s University and I love it, every day has a new challenge and something new to learn. It’s fascinating that an idea could be developed into something to be used to treat a patient and make a difference. Medicinal chemistry allows you to design new drugs that no one else has thought of or made before and take that concept from paper to a series of experiments in the lab that gives you a product that you can test. My current research looks at targeting an enzyme which is upregulated in a number of cancers including prostate and breast cancer and is linked to tumour invasion and metastasis. To design a lead drug molecule that could stop this enzyme and improve prognosis in the clinic is both fascinating and rewarding.
The CCRCB looks at every aspect of cancer including the identification of targets, design of new drugs, testing, clinical trials, pathology and survivorship so it’s a real eye opener when it comes to research where we all want to try and make a difference to people’s lives. I love working in the labs and working as part of such a diverse team with the same goal in mind.
My talk in Belfast will be around the area of DNA damage, a hallmark of cancer and how we can use chemistry to help overcome cancer. Cancer affects one in three people so everyone has been touched by it at some point in their life. Being able to talk to such a diverse audience about my work is a really exciting challenge and if I can inspire someone to think differently and be excited about the work that I do then I think it will have been a success. To show the public the exciting research that is being done by women on their doorstep at a Soapbox science event is really exciting. I have three young daughters and I would love them to have the opportunity when they are older to say they were inspired by an event like Soapbox science, something I wish I had got the opportunity to see when I was younger.
For anyone thinking of following a career in science I would say do what you enjoy, take chances and be open to new ideas and if opportunities come up to get involved in something different, to try something new, then go for it, even if it scares the hell out of you, its normally the things that are scariest that end up being the most enjoyable!! Step away from the misconceptions that science is for a certain type of person and prove them wrong! I often get amazed stares that I didn’t go to a high flying secondary school and still ended up getting a PhD, so anything is possible.
Now I look back at how I wanted to make a difference to people’s lives when I was trying to decide as teenager what I wanted to do with my life and I think I might actually have got a career that I enjoy that lets me do that.