My first term leading a module during COVID also happens to be my first term leading a module at all – and of course I’m not just leading one, but two! Everything is new, and this brings with it lots of challenges, but also lots of support. While I don’t particularly know what I’m doing this year, the comforting thing is – nobody else does either!
Fortunately, all module & program leads at UCL were enrolled as students on a mandatory online module this summer, which was written to help us learn how to adopt the University’s ‘Connected Learning’ approach.
The module was packed full of ideas to engage students from their computer screens, get everyone involved & motivated, and explain complex concepts in simple terms without necessarily having live feedback or queries from the students.
It was brilliant.
It was also terrifying.
Frequently throughout the module, reference would be made to last year. How did you engage your students on this module last year? How did you collect feedback, and what did you learn from it? How much of this content was made available online last year? How will this need to change during COVID? For me of course, the answer was generally ‘…dunno?’
It’s a strange thing to start from square one during a year like this.
The massive positive, as I said at the beginning, was that everyone else was just as lost as me. Every time I (virtually) ran to someone for help and gave the disclaimer I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING, I was always greeted with a smile, a laugh, and a ‘me neither’. We muddled our way through together. Not one person told me off or said I should have already known the answer to something. A huge range of people patiently (virtually) sat me down and taught me the basics of the systems I was new to, that they were experts in.
One of the biggest challenges was that we re-wrote one of our modules from scratch this summer. As well as having new learning outcomes, themes and requiring 21 brand new lectures and hundreds of new randomized online exam questions, the content itself is also now entirely online and viewable directly in the course page. This includes interactive elements, videos, and different kinds of ‘check your knowledge’ sections from drag and drop answers to standard MCQs, all with a handy progress bar and navigation panels to make it as straight forward and accessible for the students as possible. The formatting was made consistent using HTML, which I was surprised to find I somewhat remembered, having learned it way back during the MSN Messenger days! This module was a team effort and a huge body of work that I’m very proud of having had a hand in.
Aside from developing new content in new ways, there was a lot of other tasks I needed to learn in order to lead modules this year. I was taught to use a range of different central college systems to arrange things like student timetables, exam marking, academic records, and even how to install virtual laboratory simulations within a course page (which by the way – is so much fun).
On that note – particular thanks to Atalanta, Kurinchi, Norman, Darren, Alvena, Zahra, Tope, Lauren, Umber, Faith & everyone else who has taught me how to lead modules over the last few months – I very much owe you all a drink if we ever see each other again!
The collective sense of WE WILL FIGURE THIS THING OUT TOGETHER was a truly inspiring thing.
To be quite honest, there can be times in academia where everyone around you is so deflated or overwhelmed with their own individual academic stresses, that peer support can be truly lacking. But in these last few months trying to get our new online teaching up and running, this could not have been further from the case. Everyone I mentioned above (and more) had time and patience for me when I needed it, and for that I am extremely grateful.
We’re a couple of weeks into term now, and so far we’ve had no major issues or setbacks. My first few Zoom lectures went off without a hitch – no technical difficulties, no complaints, not even one moment of ‘eh I think you’re on mute there Susan’!
The students I have met so far have been motivated, eager and engaged. Even with the majority of cameras off, I can still hear the smiles in their voices. They laugh along, they suggest things, they answer questions – the Zoom fatigue I had expected (that many of us around the world have fallen victim to) was not particularly apparent. I am sure over the course of the term this may change, but so far things are incredibly positive. They are here (virtually) and they are ready to learn.
During one of my online induction sessions I used a poll to see how students were feeling about completing a module virtually. I included a range of answers from ‘anxious’ to ‘lonely’ to ‘excited’ and was giddy to see that by far the most popular answer was ‘delighted to be able to attend lectures in my PJs’!
To summarize, my experience of being a lecturer during covid has been significantly better than expected – so please cross your fingers for me that this continues!
Everyone loves a fresh start. Founding a research group is an exciting time in anyone’s career, and allows a great opportunity at a clean slate, and to embed good practice within our team right from the get go!
For me, this is my first year as a member of faculty, and I’m hoping to recruit the first members of my research team as soon as covid settles down a bit. I’ve also been lucky enough to get involved in co-leading a postgraduate module on research methodologies this year, for which I am developing content on research integrity alongside a Professor of evidence based medicine. He has a wealth of knowledge on these topics, and has highlighted a range of evidence-based resources that we’ve been able to incorporate into our teaching. It’s great timing, so I also plan to incorporate these into the training that I provide for my research team, as we hopefully lay the foundations for a happy, productive and impactful few decades of ‘Heavey lab’.
Here are six examples of good practice that I plan to incorporate, along with some links if you’d like to use them in your own teaching/research.
Research integrity: this is key to ensuring that our work is of the utmost quality, that it can be replicated, validated and that it can ultimately drive change in the world. While this is something researchers often discuss ad hoc over coffee, there are also formal guidelines available, and these remove some of the ambiguity around individual versus institutional responsibilities related to this topic. Below you’ll find a link to the UK concordat to support research integrity. It is a detailed summary of the agreements signed by UK funding bodies, higher education institutes and relevant government departments, setting out the specific responsibilities we all have with regard to the integrity of our research. I intend to go through this with my team so they are clear on their own responsibilities as well as mine, and those of our funding bodies and institutes. https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/policy-and-analysis/reports/Documents/2019/the-concordat-to-support-research-integrity.pdf
Prevention of research waste: research waste should be actively avoided. This figure is a clear summary, and I’ll keep it visible to my team so that we can all work together to prevent wasting our own time and resources, and maximise the impact of our work. Some of these points force us to really raise the game, and I’m excited to get stuck in.
Figure ref: Macleod MR, Michie S, Roberts I, et al. Biomedical research: increasing value, reducing waste. Lancet. 2014;383(9912):101-104. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(13)62329-6
3. Prevention of misconduct: The word ‘misconduct’ may strike fear in the heart – but it describes a whole range of things, not just the extreme cases. Misconduct is not always intentional, and should be actively and consciously avoided rather than assuming ‘we’re good people, I’m sure we’re not doing anything wrong’. Here’s a quick checklist that you can use as a code of practice, to keep track of your research integrity and prevent research waste or misconduct. It’s not as detailed as the last link, and I plan to use it with each member of my team before, during and after our projects, to help us to consciously avoid misconduct. https://ukrio.org/wp-content/uploads/UKRIO-Code-of-Practice-for-Research.pdf
4. Prevention of ‘questionable research practices’: This figure below, from another blog, does a great job of highlighting many of the ‘grey areas’ in research that border on misconduct. Sadly, we’ve all seen some of these – from data secrecy (often due to laziness or lack of understanding rather than malice) to p-hacking (where someone runs as many statistical tests as they need to until they find/force a ‘significant’ result), or maybe it’s manipulating authorships for political gain, or playing games with peer review to win a perceived race. The ethical questions around these practices are often brushed aside as we try to ‘pick our battles’ and avoid conflict, but they can only be stopped if we’re open about them, and discuss the ramifications to the field and the wider world. I plan to display this figure and share anecdotes of bad past experiences with my team, so that they can learn from others’ bad practice in the same way I have. Unfortunately some lessons are best learned as ‘how not to do it’.
5. Making documentation visible: To adhere to our own personal responsibilities around research integrity, we need to be clear on which rules and regulations we are each beholden to. I will keep ethics procedure documents, protocols, patient information sheets and consent forms visible and easily accessible to those who are authorized. I want my staff and students to know exactly what they can and can’t do in their research practice. I will also ensure they are familiar with the intricacies of each project’s approval, which can vary significantly. This sounds like a no-brainer – but ask yourself, have you ever worked on a project where you couldn’t access the latest full version of the ethics approval? Where maybe you had laid eyes on a draft or an approval letter, but not the full application? This happens far more often than it should, and leaves researchers unable to adequately adhere to their own personal responsibilities under the concordat linked above. It’s required, it’s an easy win, and I will make sure it’s the case for my team.
6. Safe space: I believe it’s crucial to encourage a safe environment where team members can ‘speak up’ about any of the above. This requires extra effort in the world of academia, which often discourages this. The life of an early career researcher is fragile, as you bounce from contract to contract, always worrying about stability and fighting for the next grant, the next authorship. The slightest knock to your reputation can seriously affect your future career, and this conscious fear can lead to team members not feeling safe to call out questionable practice. It’s not going to be easy to foster an environment where the whole team feels comfortable speaking up about questionable practice without it leading to a conflict, but I’m going to try my best to achieve this. I aim to make it abundantly clear to my team that they will not face any retaliation for calling out others’ questionable practice or identifying their own – no matter the consequence, even if it means ultimately we have to scrap a massive project, I will thank them. I would much rather know that something has gone wrong so I can correct it, retract it or edit it, rather than continue on not knowing. Anyone who comes to me with an honest concern will be treated with gratitude.
These six measures are of course not exhaustive, and I aim to continue to appraise the literature on good research practices, so that as well as starting on a solid foundation, we can also build better and better practice as we go.
Onwards and upwards!
Particular thanks to Prof Kurinchi Gurusamy for pointing me towards some of these great resources!
I’ve always been a fan of writing ‘To Do’ lists – they’re great for keeping tracks of small bits of work that could slip between the cracks during a busy day or week, and they’re also great for a little dopamine burst when you tick off an item.
Of course the drawback is the list always grows longer, and never gets completed!
Recently, as part of my transition into life as a member of faculty, I’ve started occasionally writing the opposite version, which I’ve taken to calling my ‘To Did’ list. Yes, I realize some people go with ‘To Done’ – but it’s on my ear now and I’m sticking to it!
The list consists of things that I have taken care of in a given day or week, and forces me to take a few minutes to acknowledge the work that I have managed to get done, rather than always focusing on the mountain ahead.
It also allows me to visualise the spread of different types of work that I’ve done, to see if it aligns roughly with how I intended to balance my time between research, teaching, and other tasks.
This is useful, because I’ve received warnings from quite a few academics that in my first year as a lecturer I would likely end up doing virtually all teaching, and virtually no research, and that I should try to make sure my research isn’t neglected if at all possible.
I always wondered whether this early research-teaching imbalance is real, or whether us academics maybe just convince ourselves that this balance is shifted farther towards teaching than it really is. I suspect this could happen, because we have a tendency toward feeling perpetually behind on our research, and teaching ‘To Do’ jobs usually have harder deadlines than research ones, so we often feel like we’re being forced to spend time on teaching tasks instead of research ones…. Maybe it’s just a trick of the mind, and we are actually doing a bit more research than we think? Or maybe it’s true, and my research will take a huge hit in year one, that I should actively work to prevent?
Of course, with covid-era teaching requiring significant extra hours from teaching staff, and preventing new research experiments from being carried out within the lab during lockdown, I suspected that I might fall victim to this potential research-teaching imbalance even more than your average first year PI.
And given I am a scientist, the urge to collect data to answer this question was strong.
Hence the ‘To Did’ list.
Did it identify a huge imbalance toward teaching?
No, not really!
I’m writing this in the evening, having just written out my ‘To Did’ list for today. It seems nicely varied, with eight items that I spent roughly equal time on. The two most time consuming items (by only a small margin) were pure teaching, one item sat nicely on the teaching-research border, four items were pure research, and the smallest one was ‘other’.
Over the summer, before I brought in the ‘To Did’ list, I started going through old ‘To Do’ lists and highlighting research items yellow, teaching items green, and everything else blue, to try to collect similar data on how I was balancing these types of work. I found that yellow and green were almost perfectly equal, with blue less common. Which to me, seems ideal – between the results of the ‘To Do’ & ‘To Did’ lists, I am reassured things seems to be relatively well balanced so far!
An unexpected positive was that the ‘To Did’ list also highlighted for me how international my work has become, which hadn’t really clicked for me. Increasing my international network will (I hope) help my research career, and so it was exciting to notice items related to collaborations with Ireland, Finland, India and the US all in there alongside my main work in the UK.
Aside from the broad overview the ‘To Did’ list gives me of the variety of work I’m doing, it does also provide the same sort of dopamine release that ticking off a ‘To Do’ list does, only in this case, for me at least – it’s even better! Everything on my ‘To Did’ list is complete, even if it’s just a small step in a bigger picture. It’s something I’ve done that day, something I’ve accomplished, and something that is not hanging over me anymore.
One rule of my ‘To Did’ list, is that I do not allow myself to write ‘wrote/read emails’ as an item on the list. This is because I’ve had a bad habit in the past of putting myself down by saying ‘all I did all day was emails’, when in actual fact I may have been troubleshooting research problems, liaising with collaborators, submitting proposals, planning projects or reviewing papers – email was purely the vehicle. Calling those items ‘emails’ is a bit like spending three days on a wet lab experiment and saying ‘all I did the last few days was move stuff with my hands’ or teaching all day and saying ‘all I did today was speak!’ Writing these kinds of items on the list with verbs like liaised/reviewed/edited has made me acknowledge the reality of the work being done, and also helped me to feel better about previously perceived lack of productivity during lockdown, while I was really missing the lab!
So whether you’re trying to collect data on how you break up your time, or just looking for reassurance that you’re still getting s#!t done during the pandemic, I whole heartedly recommend writing a ‘To Did’ list.
I guess I can now add a 9th item to today’s list – writing this blog!
It was the final year of my PhD, and I was presenting a poster at a conference, alongside my supervisor Dr Kathy Gately. We were showing off our new panel of PI3K inhibitor resistant lung cancer cell lines, which we had developed and begun to characterize. We were excited to tease out which signalling pathways might be playing a role in resistance to these drugs.
Along came Dr Michael O’Neill, the co-founder of Inflection Bioscience, who had recently licenced a drug that targeted the PIM kinases. At the time, I had never heard of PIM. He saw our poster, and suggested we should test their drug in our cell lines. It seemed straight forward enough.
After a couple of quick ‘look see’ experiments, we ended up submitting a grant.
Then some student projects.
Before we knew it, this ‘quick win’ was becoming a driving interest for Kathy, and she was gathering researchers along the way (notably Dr Gillian Moore). I had left Kathy’s lab at this stage, but as a wider team we were beginning to build up a picture of how best we could potentially develop these drugs in the lung cancer space.
PIM research didn’t stop for Kathy, and it didn’t stop for me either.
When interviewing for a postdoc position in University College London with Dr Hayley Whitaker, I was asked ‘if you had access to human prostate cancer specimens, what would you do with them?’ On a whim, and with interview pressure weighing down on me, I responded ‘well there’s this really exciting drug target called PIM in lung cancer, I think it looks like it might be promising in prostate cancer too, so I’d probably run some experiments on that’.
I arrived home to Dublin that night, exhausted after a long day of travel & interviewing, and found out immediately that I’d been invited to a second round interview. This was great – but it would be in London again, in just a few days! I purchased a second pair of flights, cried over my bank balance for a moment, and then hunkered down in our basement office for the weekend, trying to pull together a presentation that had been assigned for the second round. The challenge that had been set was of course ‘if you had access to human prostate cancer specimens, what would you do with them?’ How could I present on anything other than PIM after suggesting it in my previous interview?!
I rushed a project pitch, which by chance turned out quite promising. There were a good few papers looking at PIM in prostate cancer, but not many looking at drug treatments, and none looking at the same co-targets that we were working on in lung cancer. I checked with Kathy if it was ok with her for me to present this, while rushing out of the building to get to the airport – but our conversation got slightly side-tracked when she told me she was expecting a baby! Safe to say PIM got a bit overlooked that lovely day.
The presentation went well, I got the job, and to my delight I was offered the chance to actually work on the project that I had pitched in the interview. What a wonderful opportunity for a postdoc to be given that level of freedom!
In order to differentiate my new prostate cancer project from the work Kathy was leading on, I set out to investigate a wider panel of drugs, including the PIM inhibitors but also quite a few others. The aim was to test promising late stage pre-clinical drugs in human prostate cancer tissue, using ex vivo culture and new omics technologies. I gathered some preliminary data and submitted it as a fellowship proposal, trying to position myself as someone who worked on drug development in general. Thankfully, I was successful.
It wasn’t mean to be a ‘PIM project’. But as luck would have it, PIM wasn’t going away.
One by one, the other drugs dropped off for one reason or another. Some couldn’t be investigated in an ex vivo model because they needed to be metabolised within the body, some needed to build up for a few weeks before an effect would be seen, some failed during concurrent animal testing, and some just showed disappointingly little activity in my model. By the time the work was close to publication, we were down to just 4 different treatments, and they were a very similar panel to what Kathy was leading on in lung cancer. I hope she forgives me!
Now, years later, we’ve just had our first original article come out on PIM in prostate cancer1. This is our first ‘flag in the sand’ where we put forward the idea of co-targeting PIM with the PI3K pathway. There are bigger and more detailed works to come from this in the future. If you’d like to read about the paper itself, I wrote a tweetorial that you can read unfurled here: https://threadreaderapp.com/thread/1300721602854871040
This paper came off the back of a couple of reviews on PIM as a drug target3,4, and there is of course more on the way.
Now, plans are brewing for wider PIM collaborations, and who knows, maybe PIM will stick around in my world even longer.
Did I ever set out to become a PIM researcher? No, not particularly.
But I suppose the lessons learned here are to say yes to opportunities, and to follow the data – if something isn’t your ‘plan A’ but it might make a difference to cancer patients in the future, then why wouldn’t you follow it?
Extra credit to my friend AJ (@AyoksAJ) for his very inspiring ‘Say Yes’ presentation to our postdoc networking group a few years ago, which still sticks around in my mind, and lead me to say YES to an opportunity that came my way this morning – let’s see where this one goes!
Thank you to Kathy, and to all the PIM friends I’ve made over the years.
Are the influential Professors who made their names guesting on talk radio shows or writing opinion pieces in the national papers a thing of the past? Will they be replaced by a generation of #scicomm advocates, sharing lab bench selfies and vlogs? I’ve seen the latter spark eye-rolling and accusations of vanity – could it be true that this new brand of public engagement is less impactful, or does it still do the same job of engaging with the public, and ultimately make lofty academics more relatable to the average Joe?
These are some questions I’ve been asking myself over the last few years, while actively engaging more with other academics and the wider public online. Am I building towards becoming part of a new generation of influential Profs in the future, or just making myself look like an attention seeker?
To pick this apart, let’s start with why academics seek to communicate with the wider community in the first place.
Effective communication is key to ensuring our research has an impact within the wider community. For us to enact change in any field of academic research, we need to have discourse with other non-academic professionals, patients, advocates, teachers, politicians – whoever it might be.
Additionally, with more and more papers being published each year, it’s hard to get ours noticed within the academic community above the sea of new data without publicizing our work in some way. As a result, researchers like myself are scrambling to draw attention to our findings everywhere and anywhere we can, living in fear that our work may go unnoticed, gathering dust in the depths of Pubmed.
But at what point does publicizing your work, or describing it for a wider audience, cross over into attempted-influencer territory? And if it does – is that a bad thing?
As with anything, opinions vary – but it’s certainly not rare in my experience to come across a peer who believes that an influential Prof who gets invited onto talk radio should be revered as a great communicator, while one who engages on Twitter, or god forbid, Instagram (!) should be dismissed as an attention seeker.
Will this continue? Will one or the other die out, or perhaps will traditional media and social media merge over time, with the distinction becoming less relevant? To me, this appears to already be happening, with some of those revered Profs gradually turning to social media – particularly Twitter.
Will tomorrow’s generation of great academic communicators summarize their think piece from the Economist with a viral TikTok?
Where do I fit in to all of this?
Let me share some of the numbers with you that encouraged me to start engaging more online myself.
In the ten years from 2009, when I was an undergrad, to 2019, when I was applying for my first faculty roles, the number of papers about cancer being published in Pubmed almost doubled, from an already massive to 123,530, to a phenomenal 222,784. That’s nearly a quarter of a million papers in just one field, in just one year!
More research is great – more papers, more data, more opportunities for our field to advance. But it’s also more papers for each of us to keep up with. We can’t possibly each read this colossal amount of work, while still conducting our own research. And what if a paper does get lost, and nobody reads it – nobody will ask the next question, run the next experiment, or take the next step. At that point – why did we bother doing the work in the first place?
With this in mind, many of us – myself included, who lack contacts or cred in traditional media, are turning to social media to get our work out there. We’re using the internet to try to improve our paper’s Altimetric score, something which puts a numerical value on how much attention a publication has garnered. Maybe it starts with a tweet, or a blog (ahem), or a post on LinkedIn or Reddit. Personally, I’ve tried all of these, as well as dabbling in producing lay YouTube videos describing our latest published work. I’ve even tried posting paper abstracts on Instagram at this point – which surprisingly did get a few likes despite semi-drowning in a sea of selfies.
All sounds fine, right?
But with social media, you have the same issue as with Pubmed – an ever increasing deluge of content, drowning out your little post among millions of others.
To fight this, I’ve been actively trying to build a following on various social media platforms, within the scientific and academic communities. I want like-minded people to read my papers, and for them to do that, they need to see the tweets/blogs/videos that describe or link to them, so I need more followers, more retweets, more likes, etc. etc.
I’ve actively gotten into a habit of putting spare moments here and there into tiny social media tasks, all with the aim of building my own following. You might catch me liking a post about someone else’s paper while I’m making a cup of tea, retweeting a video while I’m walking to the shop, or following a few fellow scientists while half-watching Netflix. Any content of my own such as a blog like this, a YouTube video or a more detailed Twitter/Instagram post is produced in bulk on the weekends, and scheduled to be released throughout the week so that it appears like I’m constantly engaged, even though I do actually have a ‘day job’!
And it has worked a little bit, getting me from a few dozen followers to a few hundred, and now heading towards a couple of thousand. Nothing huge. Social media is the signpost as far as I’m concerned, directing people to my ‘actual’ work, rather than the endgame in and of itself.
But is that how it comes across?
Do I just look like an attempted influencer?
I received a message from a stranger a couple of weeks ago, after I helped to launch a joint Twitter account with a few like minded academics called ‘Academic YouTubers’. The stranger said something along the lines of ‘prepare for an influx of academic influencers’.
It was the first time I had heard the term ‘influencer’ used to refer to what I had considered to be people working in science communication or ‘sci comm’.
To others, does it look like we’re trying to become influencers? Using papers to garner followers rather than the other way around? Using social media in an attempt at garnering fame or even financial gain?
The idea of being an influencer within academia does tickle me a bit, I must admit. Imagine if our next ‘Cancer Research Demystified’ video included a sponsorship deal, where we advocate the use of a particular brand of RNA extraction kits and offer a discount code on your next purchase, or happen to be wearing lab coats with a name brand clearly visible and ‘#ad’ in the video description…!
I would like to think it’s clear to our (few) viewers that that’s not the aim of our channel – we’re purely trying to connect with cancer patients to tell them about cancer research.
But is that really how it comes across?
One moment sticks out in my memory on this. I posted a story on my Instagram page a couple of years ago, toasting a paper acceptance with a flute of prosecco. I was happy about the good news, and it’s a habit of mine to share the positive moments in academia, as they can be few and far between! That evening I received a reply to the story, from an old friend I went to college with. It read ‘Sweet Jesus, Sue is insufferable‘. Within an instant they deleted the message, but I had already seen it, before they presumably sent it to whoever the intended recipient was. It hurt my feelings a little, and made me question my online presence. Is it too much? Too self-congratulatory? Too vain?
That message still lingers in the back of my mind today, whenever I hit ‘post’.
Am I doing the right thing to post frequently, trying build a moderate audience one day and grow better at communicating my work with the wider world, or am I simply alienating my peers, overloading their feeds and making them role their eyes at my perceived attention-seeking behaviour?
Furthermore, can I really argue against this label, when really attention-seeking is pretty much exactly what I’m doing, just for my work, rather than myself?
At the end of the day, when I take a step back from all the minor details and self doubt, I firmly believe that engagement between academia and wider society is key to the advancement of civilization.
And if I believe that, then I suppose I need to continue to do what I’m doing – communicate wherever I can get a platform, explain my findings, their significance and what I believe should happen next. And for that to get seen, I also need to continue the less substantive posts, the odd meme and a whole lot of retweets, that help to game the algorithms and build that all important follower list.
After all, that’s how the rest of society is communicating nowadays – so for academia to stay relevant, surely we should follow suit.
Furthermore, the benefits to me of engaging with other scientists online are immeasurable, and deserve their own future blog – I’ve learned so much from other researchers debating their views on Twitter, and this does allow me to better inform my own work.
I suppose I’ll just have to accept that for every ‘like’ I receive from a former colleague, I’m probably also receiving an eye roll from another. And for as long as my #scicomm attempts seem to stimulate some minor engagement and/or discussion, I’ll have to keep going.
To be honest, I still feel uncomfortable about the term ‘academic influencer’, but perhaps that will change. I look at the next generation – today’s undergrads, the #scientistsofinstagram (yes it’s real, go look) who I oftentimes see posting heavily edited selfies in their lab coats and plugging particular trendy stationary brands. They seem to be actively aiming for the ‘academic influencer’ label. Is there anything wrong with what they’re doing? I don’t think so, so long as they aren’t spreading misinformation. And if I’m not going to judge them for their brand of science communication, then I suppose I shouldn’t judge myself for my own version either.
As always, comments, thoughts and discussion welcome. Go on – tell me I’m insufferable, you know you want to!
Last week I spotted two tweets about opportunities. One said something along the lines of ‘stop telling PhD students you are giving us opportunities when really you’re dumping extra work on us’ and another implied ‘opportunity’ in a euphemism for unpaid labour.
I have to admit, both of these lead me to take a good hard look in the mirror!
Genuine opportunities for early career researchers are something I have always considered to be critically important in academia. Because of this, over the last few years I have consciously tried to offer PhD, MSc and BSc students what I saw as ‘opportunities’, in particular the chance to get their names on my papers.
This is something that is really important to me. I wasn’t lucky enough to get my name on other people’s papers when I was a student (except for one review!) and I would have killed for the chance to run a few PCRs or analyse some data to get an authorship. For me, this didn’t happen until I was 3+ years post PhD, at which point I had enough of my own first author papers that a co-authorship was less of a boost to my CV than it would have been earlier on.
As an undergrad or postgrad, if you’re hoping to become a PI one day, you already know that publications are key. But without the resources, funding, political sway or niche expertise that a more experienced researcher might have, you’re somewhat reliant upon others going out of their way to include you. Or at least that’s how I felt when it was me.
This is the reason I have made sure to include the students around me over the last few years, and as far as I was concerned – it was working! Recently three of my project students have gotten their names on two papers each, as well as a couple of the nearby PhD students getting their names on almost everything I publish. I must admit I’ve been giving myself a pat on the back for this… Sharing my modest success and building the CVs of the talented future PIs around me had felt like a privilege, and a rewarding endeavour.
But was I really just exploiting them?
Looking back, some of those students probably had no interest in building their CV towards a career in academia, and could probably take or leave the ‘opportunity’ to get their name on a paper. They of course each told me that they really wanted the authorships and were really grateful for them. But that’s exactly what I would have said too, regardless of how I felt – maybe they were just being polite!
With one student in particular, I remember getting a sense that perhaps they weren’t that interested in the ‘opportunity’ I had offered. It was someone I knew well, and I was comfortable being candid with them about this. I recall saying directly that there was no pressure to take it on, that I was happy to do it myself and the only reason I was offering it to them was to give them a chance at authorship. They insisted that they were keen to be involved, and went ahead and did the work, which amounted to a full figure and prominent authorship in the resulting paper. It was only afterwards that they admitted they actually had no interest in that particular topic, it was just extra work, and they had only done it as a favour for me.
I won’t lie, it felt like a bit of a gut punch. My ‘good deed’ had been perceived as unpaid labour.
Outside of academia, unpaid labour can be a huge problem, particularly now that social media has become so key in growing people’s businesses & careers. Stories of professional photographers or bakers getting asked to do weddings in exchange for Instagram posts, or artists being asked to create commissions for nothing but the offer of ‘great exposure’ are rampant, with some notable and entertaining examples on the ‘choosing beggars’ subreddit if you want a laugh: https://www.reddit.com/r/ChoosingBeggars/comments/gfkhqv/background_dancer_gets_an_offer_from_a_music/
Could this be the case with students in academia? Is authorship payment enough, or should we only offer to get students involved if we can actually pay them cold hard cash for the experiments they run or analyse? This would certainly vastly reduce the frequency with which I could give students authorships on my papers, as funds are generally not available to pay them with.
Is it enough to frankly say to a student ‘I have no funding to pay you to run X experiment, and you don’t have to do it, but if you do, I will put your name on the paper’, or does that run the risk of them going along with it out of politeness, as happened to me recently?
If I were to stop offering these ‘opportunities’, would keen students who want to be PIs one day end up missing out? Students who would have been just as excited as me to get their name on a paper?
How do we determine whether we’re offering someone an opportunity or purely exploiting them?
I wish I had the answer to this, but as with many other things in my first year of being a member of faculty – I have no idea.
This was one of the very first research questions I ever set out to answer, way back as a final year undergraduate in Trinity College Dublin, in 2010/2011.
Since then, over many years, a few papers, and with an ever expanding global team, it has remained at least a side project (and in some cases a driving interest) for some of my oldest friends in research!
For me, it began with my final year thesis project, which involved comparing a panel chemosensitive and chemoresistant lung cancer cell lines, developed by Dr Martin Barr as a tool to investigate response to chemotherapy.
We wanted to understand how lung tumours develop resistance to chemotherapy over time, so that we could find better ways to treat them!
We screened the cell lines using qPCR arrays, and identified a few potential genes of interest including NFKBIA, which is involved in regulating NFkB.
NFkB is a well studied transcription factor that seems to play a flexible and complex role in many biological processes.
This initial finding caught the eye of my project supervisor Dr Kathy Gately, who immediately began to wonder if NFkB could be a potential therapeutic target in chemoresistant lung cancer. The project ended up winning the Margaret Ciotti medal as the highest marked thesis in the School, and with the excitement of a new finding (and this early recognition boosting my confidence), it was an easy decision to stick around in Dr Gately’s lab to begin my PhD.
While the PhD project itself was focused more upstream on PI3K/AKT/mTOR, we did further develop our NFkB finding, and it ended up becoming both my first research paper and the first chapter of my PhD thesis. In this work, we used a drug called DHMEQ, which is an inhibitor of NFkB translocation developed by a Japanese collaborator, and we found that it was more effective in treating chemoresistant lung cells than chemosensitive ones.
I have fond memories of this work, as I got to try out a range of new molecular techniques for the first time, including the obligatory ones like cell culture, drug treatments, qPCR and Western blotting, but also things like high content immunofluorescence imaging, proliferation and apoptosis assays, and I even got to run some Sanger sequencing on a machine named ‘Spongebob’!
It was clear from the data that this work opened up a whole range of possibilities, and it was time to expand. My colleagues Peter Godwin and Dr Anne-Marie Baird each took aspects of this forward, with Peter publishing a great review on the topic that remains the most highly cited paper on my Google Scholar profile (thanks Peter!) and Anne-Marie being awarded a fellowship from the International Association for the Study of Lung Cancer to investigate a new take on the work down in Brisbane, Australia.
Anne-Marie’s work (alongside Dr Sarah-Louise Ryan) brought a fresh and exciting angle, interrogating the role of inflammatory pathways in NFkB mediated cisplatin resistance, as well as confirming that the NFkB translocation inhibitor wasn’t just more effective in chemoresistant cells, but in fact could be used to resensitise those cells to the effects of the chemotherapy itself.
Well, we’re certainly not the only ones investigating NFkB in chemoresistance…
With groups all over the world also teasing out the role that NFkB is playing in this setting, things are becoming increasingly clear, and also increasingly complex.
It turns out NFkB is quite a promiscuous player in cancer development and aggresivity!
With seemingly endless feedback loops, regulation and cross-talk with other pathways, it seems to have the capacity to drive wide ranging and even opposing phenotypes. Equally, it often appears to be a mere passenger, caught up in attempts at cell survival during times of stress.
With these flexible abilities, can we truly say that NFkB itself is a viable target for drug development?
Sadly, probably not.
But we do hope that our growing understanding of the role that it plays in chemoresistance will help us to identify better targets that work alongside it, and ultimately better ways to treat these tumours.
As ever, we keep searching.
Big thanks to Kathy, Anne-Marie, Martin, Peter and Sarah-Louise, as well as all the other researchers involved in these projects!
Naturally, when the COVID-19 lockdowns began, our laboratory based research had to take a pause, and we had to stay at home.
Is it possible to work from home as a scientist?
I made this video a couple of weeks into lockdown, where I explained that there is still plenty of science that can be done without a lab. I also promised to check in later with how things went, so I’ll do that here now!
It’s now about five months later, and things have largely stayed the same…
Pubs and restaurants have reopened but I haven’t ventured into one just yet. I’m still going out for walks, and almost always wearing a mask, even in open spaces (except during the occasional isolated picnic!)
A few weeks ago, our labs began to reopen, but at very limited capacity. I haven’t been back yet – I am leaving the space to those that need it most – the final year PhD students!
I have repeatedly found myself thanking my lucky stars that I am not trying to finish a PhD this year. For those of you that are, I am thinking of you, and if there is any way that I can help you, please let me know!
I have been busy preparing for the upcoming semester, when I’ll be delivering teaching online to our undergraduate and postgraduate students. Being a module lead is a new experience for me, so leading not one, not two, but THREE modules and adapting them for online learning is going to be quite a challenge! I am so lucky that the rest of our teaching staff have been so accommodating and helpful in showing me the ropes. I hope the students enjoy my modules…
Research still ticks along, with some data getting analysed, some thesis projects getting written up, and some papers getting published, but still no laboratory work.
My current plan is to focus on honing my teaching skills, writing and project planning this semester, and then if all goes well, get stuck back into some lab work in the new year, hopefully with some new students alongside me!
We recently published a review on this topic, and we’ll soon have our first data out investigating this in the lab too!
There are a few drugs that target PIM kinases, that have been investigated pre-clinically, or in early stage clinical trials. PIM kinases do seem like promising targets in prostate cancer – they are proto-oncogenes, they seem to be expressed more often in prostate cancer tissue than benign tissue, and perhaps also associate with particularly aggressive disease. But sadly the drugs available to date haven’t skyrocketed through trials to approval and use in the clinic. This is partly due to the drugs themselves (maybe the next generation of drugs will be better, we hope) but we also suspect it might be a better strategy to co-target PIM with other interconnected pathways, using combinations of drugs, or even individual multi-targeted drugs.
In our review, we summarized some of the drugs available to carry out research on, that directly target PIM, as well as ones that we think could be used in combination with PIM inhibition:
Overall, yes we think PIM is a promising target in prostate cancer as well as other cancers, and we suspect it will be best targeted as part of a combination therapy approach, and perhaps in the resistance setting.
Times are strange due to #Covid19 – so we’re coming to you not from our lab, but on a virtual blackboard instead, from home! This video aims to give a whistle-stop tour of the costs involved in carrying out cancer research. We get asked about this a lot – so we’re here to show you where those valuable funds raised in pub quizzes, sponsored walks & raffles all go! Do you have a guess at how much it costs to carry out a full PhD? Watch the video to find out!