Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
My name is Jean and I am a first year MB-PhD in Cancer Sciences candidate, funded by Cancer Research UK.
An MB-PhD is a dual degree programme which combines a medical degree (MBChB) with a PhD. This means that after completing three years of my medical degree at The University of Manchester, I have taken time out to undertake a PhD in Cancer Sciences, after which I will return to complete my medical degree.
I chose to do an MB-PhD in Cancer Sciences for a few reasons. My goal is to become a clinician scientist and to combine my clinical practice with research, ultimately to lead my own research group in the future. A PhD is a necessary step to achieve this. I chose to do my PhD now instead of doing it as a clinical trainee because I wanted to start developing my abilities as a scientist and build on those skills from an earlier stage. I was keen to work within the cancer research landscape at Manchester that I had gotten to know during my undergraduate studies and my PhD project offers the opportunity to carry out research that could potentially lead to a clinical trial.
What are you responsible for?
As part of my three-year PhD project, I’m responsible for exploring potential ways to reverse chemotherapy resistance in ovarian cancer – the sixth most common cancer in UK females, which only has a 35% 10-year survival rate.
Ultimately, my research could lead to novel treatment combinations and the development of biomarkers – molecules that can be used to predict how well the body responds to a treatment – which help clinicians identify the most suitable drugs for each patient.
What does your typical day look like?
My typical day starts by checking on the cancer cells that I grow in the lab. In a nutshell, my PhD project involves growing cancer cells, treating them with a combination of chemotherapy drugs and novel compounds, before examining if the cells die. I then study how and why this happens.
To drive my project forward, I perform different experiments and analyse the data I get from them to address my hypothesis, with the support of my supervisory team. For example, to study whether a drug kills cells, I might transfer my cells that have been growing in flasks to plates, before dosing them with various combinations of chemotherapy drugs and leaving them to grow over a period of time. I can then observe how they behave using a machine that takes pictures of the cells at various points in time as they are left to grow.
I might also attend lectures or talks given by external speakers, meet with my supervisor and research team, analyse any data I’ve gathered and read any research papers that might be useful for my project. I usually finish my lab work by 5pm and to end the day, I might spend a few hours training in the gym or teaching karate at the university karate club.
What’s the best part of your MB-PhD?
The best part of my job is that I have access to state-of-the-art equipment to support my research. This includes the Manchester Cancer Research Centre Biobank where I can access biological samples from cancer patients, including tissue, blood and cancer cells. My project gives me the opportunity to study purified tumour fraction samples in our lab’s biobank that have been derived from biopsy samples of patients being treated at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust. I find being part of the research landscape here in Manchester very inspiring.
What’s the most challenging part of your MB-PhD?
The worst part of my job is how steep the learning curve is, as someone going into a PhD with limited lab experience. My undergraduate medical degree did not provide many opportunities for lab work so I had to spend the first few months of my PhD learning the most basic wet lab skills, from something as simple as using a pipette to assessing how well my cells are growing in their flasks. Thankfully I have the expertise of my fellow lab members to learn from and that has made the transition from being a medical student to becoming a PhD student much smoother.
I chose to do my PhD now instead of doing it as a clinical trainee because I wanted to start developing my abilities as a scientist and build on those skills from an earlier stage. I was keen to work within the cancer research landscape at Manchester that I had gotten to know during my undergraduate studies and my PhD project offers the opportunity to carry out research that could potentially lead to a clinical trial.
What advice would you give to others who want to study an MB-PhD?
My advice is to try and make an informed decision before applying for an MB-PhD or PhD. Doing a PhD can be hard work at times so it is important to hear about the various challenges you could face and be realistic about whether it is something you can take on. Try and speak to people who are currently doing a PhD or have completed one and learn as much as you can about what is involved.
I think it is very important to find a research team where you feel supported and encouraged to learn; not just choosing a lab based on their accomplishments and research outputs. Nothing is more important than finding a team you can thrive in.
What do you want to be remembered for?
I want to be remembered for the potential impact of my research. I’d love for my PhD research to lead to the development of novel cancer treatments that could change the lives of patients with ovarian cancer.
If you weren’t doing an MB-PhD what else would I be doing?
If I wasn’t studying an MB-PhD I would still have taken time out of my undergraduate degree to do some independent research and gain more research experience because that is advantageous for future job applications to clinical academic training programmes, so perhaps I’d be studying a Master of Research (MRes) instead.
If I wasn’t in Medicine, I’d probably have studied Biomedical Sciences because I’ve always found human biology fascinating.
Alternatively, I’d love to explore my other interests – perhaps teaching karate professionally, working in science communications or working in the charity sector.
Outside of my PhD, I am involved in several extracurricular activities that help me switch off and take a break from my studies. I write about my experience of studying an MB-PhD and research on my blog (www.jeanlingtan.com/blog), I also lead a non-profit organisation for international medics based in the UK, called the Association of International Medics UK (AIM UK), and I am training as a 2nd Dan in karate.
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This article originally appeared in New Scientist Jobs: What does an MB-PhD Cancer Sciences student do?