Students

We offer four clinical or non-clinical fellowships every year. In September 2020, we also enrolled our first two students on our Intercalated MB-PhD course. 

Find out more about some of our recent graduates and current students below:

Clinical PhD students

Eleni Syrimi

What is your educational background?Eleni Syrimi photo

I have graduated from University of Athens medical school and moved to the UK for my specialty training. I am a member of the Royal College of Paediatric and Child Health and paediatric trainee at the West Midlands deanery. I am currently out of programme doing my PhD at the University of Birmingham. My career aspiration is to become an academic Paediatric Oncologist leading my own research in the field.

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

University of Birmingham is one of the top 100 Universities in the world leading international research with global impact. In a city that is situated at a prime central location in the country, Birmingham is a modern and vibrant city with a long cultural and intellectual heritage. By choosing University of Birmingham as a place to study I feel I am setting a firm course for my career in the future. University of Birmingham is linked to world leading university hospitals collaborating to bring health care innovation to patients. I am proud to enrol at a University which can name 11 Nobel Laureates among its alumni and staff, as well inspired by the hard work of the Birmingham heroes.

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

As a CRUK-funded scientist I can access different training and career development opportunities such as networking events and workshops for research communication. In addition, CRUK offers a variety of awards and prizes as well as travel grants to attend and present to conferences. Following the completion of my PhD I will have the opportunity to apply for many fellowships and funding opportunities to aid my career path such as the clinician scientist fellowship and postdoctoral research bursary. Being funded by CRUK you are included to a prestigious research family with world leading scientists in the oncology field.

How much clinical work will you get to do during your PhD?

I have chosen not to do any clinical work during my PhD as I wanted to dedicate fully to my research. However, this was a personal choice and other clinical PhD students might choose to carry on doing some clinical work once or twice a week.

What is your research focused on?

I have set up a clinical study, TRICICL, at Birmingham Children’s and Women’s hospital looking at the baseline immunity in children with cancer and how this change with chemotherapy treatment. With the guidance of Dr Taylor, Prof Kearns and Prof Murray, I have performed the first deep analysis of the immune system children of with cancer and age-matched healthy children. Our results identified important immunological changes in paediatric cancer patients that can be used as a backbone for selecting targeted therapies for paediatric cancer patients and designing future clinical trials. 

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

I have always admired the role of academic physicians embedded in both clinical medicine and academic research, providing the bridge between the laboratory and translational research. Inspired by their work, I have aspired to pursue a career path that enclosed both disciplines. This prestigious fellowship is a crucial step towards achieving my career goals as it is a fantastic opportunity to gain skills in basic science, research methodology, statistics and resource management, while delivering publishable research.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

Undertaking a PhD requires hard work and dedication. My advice for anyone who will walk this path is to ensure they enjoy the process, be passionate about their project and gain as many skills as possible throughout their studies. Science is about asking the right questions but also realising that working in teams and collaborating with others is vital to reach to an answer. Sheer determination and commitment will lead to successful career. 

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the results generated through my PhD project and the translational potential in the clinical setting. Analysing my results required training in different computational techniques that challenged me and enabled me to grow both as a scientist and a person. I am looking forward to further investigate the mechanisms that underpin my findings and provide the backbone for future clinical trials. 

Ik Shin Chin

What is your educational background? 

I have graduated from the medical school in University of Birmingham in 2012. Since then, I continued to pursue my junior doctor training and subsequently specialty training in medical oncology in West Midlands. I’ve completed a Msc in Clinical Oncology as a distance learner with Bart’s Cancer Institute and now currently out of programme from my oncology training to pursue a PhD at University of Birmingham. 

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

Having lived in Birmingham for more than 10 years, I have enjoyed my experience studying and working in Birmingham and have been well-supported throughout my training. I also had the opportunity to be supervised by an excellent team of oncologists and academics from Birmingham. Birmingham has also been well-known for its cancer research and studying here would enable me to achieve a valuable learning experience.  

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program? 

I was first introduced to the programme by senior academics who highly recommended this competitive PhD programme. Being a leading cancer research charity and organisation globally, the ability to be part of the CRUK team allows me to gain precious research experience within their scientific and clinical community. Their focus on training future clinician scientists and the well-supported CRUK fellowship and awards is a truly unique and attractive part of the programme. 

How much clinical work will you get to do during your PhD?  

I am currently participating in research clinics as part of my PhD project in the first year. During the next two years, I will be planning to participate in outpatient oncology clinics likely at a weekly basis to maintain my clinical competencies.  

What is your research focused on? 

My research project is focused on identifying genetic variants that would predispose patients towards developing chemotherapy or immunotherapy related toxicity. During the first year, I will be focusing on validating common and rare variants of 5-FU chemotherapy related toxicity on a sample set. Alongside this, I am involved in the running of a multi-site study named ICI Genetics where we are collecting blood samples and immunotherapy toxicity data. During the next two years of my PhD, I will be performing genotyping of these samples, while receiving bioinformatics training to help with data analyses. The results of my project will aim to contribute towards a predictive risk model of toxicities that can be translated to clinical practice.   

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career? 

Within the first few months of starting my PhD, I already had the chance to attend several research meetings and translational medicine related seminars held by CRUK that have been very helpful towards my future career planning. This has also given me the opportunity to network with other CRUK researchers, where I was able to obtain useful career advice. From the beginning, I have felt very well-supported by the CRUK team, which has given me the confidence in completing my PhD successfully and in pursuing my future career aspirations.  

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

Having the ability to perform scientific research with clinical work through a PhD is a valuable and important opportunity for a clinician. Be dedicated and committed to your research, always keep an open mind to learning new skills and knowledge from members of your lab team and most importantly, do not give up when faced with obstacles and enjoy the learning process.  

What are you most proud of?

Completing the Msc programme as a part timer and being one of CRUK’s clinical fellow are certainly proud moments in my career as they have helped form a strong stepping stone towards my career pathway. I am grateful and proud to be part of a team of inspiring supervisors and colleagues who I am able to gain valuable learning experience from.

Helen Robbins

What is your educational background? 

I trained at the University of Bristol, where I completed both my medical degree (MBChB) and an intercalated BSc in Cancer Biology and Immunology. After graduation, I continued my training in the West Midlands as a junior doctor. I was fortunate to be able to continue academic training alongside clinical through an Academic Foundation Programme and an Academic Clinical Fellowship. I am currently working as a specialist registrar in Medical Oncology. 

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham? 

The University of Birmingham has a very strong reputation for cancer research and produces work of international importance. In addition, the University has exceptional links with the neighbouring Queen Elizabeth Hospital, making it an excellent place to be working and studying as a clinical PhD student. Finally, my experience as an Academic Clinical Fellow has shown me that the University of Birmingham is supportive environment, and I feel confident that I will enjoy spending three years here.  

What is your research focussed on? 

In my research, I will be looking to identify new treatments that may be helpful in treating specific subgroups of lung cancer patients who currently have few treatment options. 

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career? 

I intend to pursue a career combining working as a medical oncologist and working in cancer research. A CRUK PhD provides fantastic opportunities and support, helping me to develop the skills and networks needed for a career as an academic medical oncologist. 

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD? 

Gain some experience working in a lab environment before applying. But otherwise, go for it! 

What are you most proud of? 

Working in a field with a potential to make real difference to people’s lives and health. It is a real privilege to work as an oncologist and research is the way we will be able to improve our treatments for patients of the future 

Karl Payne

What is your educational background?Karl Payne photo

I’m currently a higher surgical trainee in oral and maxillofacial surgery, having taken time out of training to undertake a PhD in head and neck cancer and genomics. What that means is I’m a glutton for punishment and have been a perpetual student my entire life - having completed both a medical and then dental degree I’m now back at university again (much to my wife’s bemusement!). 

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

I would be lying if I said location wasn’t a big factor. I’m a West Midlands trainee so Birmingham was the obvious choice. However, this was made all the easier by the fact that Birmingham has the Institute of Head and Neck Studies and Education, headed by Professor Hisham Mehanna. InHANSE is the epicentre for UK head and neck cancer clinical trials and can no doubt be considered in the top 10 head and neck cancer clinical research groups in the world. These factors, coupled with the reputation of the CRUK Birmingham Centre, made it an easy choice to not look further afield for a PhD.   

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

It’s not difficult to understand why being affiliated to the world’s largest charity dedicated to cancer research is a good thing – both for me on a professional level and the quality of research I aim to produce. Despite this, I had spoken to a supervisor and current student from the centre who explained the high level of support and funding you receive being a CRUK PhD fellow, in addition to accessing educational activities.

My project demonstrates the benefit of being based at a CRUK centre with researchers who have broad areas of interest  I have centre affiliated supervisors from clinical, immunological and bioinformatics backgrounds. This is crucial to produce high quality research that straddles multiple disciplines.

How much clinical work will you do during your clinical PhD?

In the early stages of my PhD I’ve chosen to fully focus on my research. I do occasional ad-hoc out of hours on-call shifts but do not have a regular clinical timetable. I do try and attend a theatre list once a month if I’m able, just to keep my hand in and remember what it’s like to operate! As my project settles down I plan on doing a bit more clinical work to prepare me for returning to surgical training but at the moment I’m not sure where I could fit it in…

What is your research focused on?

My research is focused on a ’liquid biopsy’ in head and neck cancer – using a blood sample to provide diagnostic, prognostic and therapeutic markers of disease. Specifically I am investigating circulating tumour cells as a means to provide tumour-specific multi-omic level data and using novel technologies (microfluidic enrichment and mass cytometry) to both isolate and enable multi-parameter characterisation of these cells.

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

I think you can answer this question in two parts: Firstly, the assistance you get during the fellowship from CRUK centrally is a massive help. Having only been going a few months I have already been to several CRUK fellow meetings and career days, providing guidance and an idea of the academic pathway after the PhD is completed. Secondly, at a local level the CRUK centre plugs you into everything the University has to offer. While this may be specific to your research area or needs, it also provides access to these resources and healthy funding to present your research on the national and international stage -  furthering your career and reputation.

I would be remiss to not mention that a CRUK badge on your CV is an obvious selling point for any researcher looking to advance their academic career. I think both the rigorous application process and expectation to deliver high impact research gives you the vindication and confidence in your research and ability when applying for further grants or funding. 

What advice would you give for someone applying for a PhD?

Probably the same advice anyone else will give you: find a good project with a good supervisory team. But most of all you need to know your subject matter inside and out. Apart from having an airtight scientific method, the application form needs to tell a story that highlights why your project is novel and what it will add to current knowledge. You’re not going to cure cancer, but you need to clearly articulate how your research piece of the puzzle will contribute to a translational line of sight to effect real change to cancer patients. When it comes to the interview you need to have a good sales pitch, but most of all clearly signpost the important/novel aspects of your project. The panel with have heard from several candidates and sometimes less is more - you want them to remember the take home message. Practice your presentation and practice being grilled and asked difficult questions – this is where your depth of knowledge comes in.

What are you most proud of?

Other than getting a CRUK PhD fellowship….. When I was in dental school I was doing extra shifts in oral and maxillofacial surgery. Through my own struggles I realised that the educational resources for junior trainees starting off were very poor. Despite taking almost all of dental school, myself and 2 colleagues wrote and published a book for junior trainees in maxillofacial surgery. The book is now the seminal text for all junior trainees, purchased in bulk by almost all postgraduate deaneries. That endeavour was a taster at how a novel but simple idea can have a real impact on patient care on a national level, and how perseverance can pay off and anything worthwhile is going to take a long time to complete.

Oliver Pickles 

What is your educational background?

I’ve been in Birmingham since 2006 and graduated from the University of Birmingham in Medicine/Surgery, as well as an intercalated BMedSc in Clinical Sciences. I’ve trained as a junior doctor in the region through foundation programme (two years after medical school), Core Medical Training and I’m currently a trainee in Medical Oncology.

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

I knew the University well from my undergraduate days, and undertook a joint academic-clinical training route (Academic Clinical Fellow) which allowed me to have protected time out of clinical work to develop a project and apply for research funding later down the line. The research was carried out at Birmingham, and I’ve worked with a few different groups and have generally found most people very helpful and passionate about their work.

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

I think oncology is one of the more academic specialities, both in the pace of change and constant stream of clinical trials and novel therapeutics, to the huge amount of basic science that is undertaken. I don’t see how you could function without a strong background and interest in the underlying science. My project is almost entirely lab-based and focuses on immunology and genetics. These are areas that as clinicians we are going to be constantly exposed to in the future, and increasingly will have to interpret the significance of genetic tests in patients. In oncology, we will have to identify targeted treatments and clinical trials for patients with ‘actionable’ mutations where we potentially have new drugs that could help them, based on their personalised genetic tumour make-up. This can even be done by ‘liquid biopsy,’ capturing DNA that has leaked out of the cancer cells into the bloodstream and monitoring how the cancer changes in response to treatment. Two years ago, I would have said this would be a decade away, but it’s already happening and is going to rapidly accelerate in the near future. 

How much clinical work will you get to do during your PhD?

I do a clinic in colorectal cancer every Friday morning, and this has been really useful to keep up-to-date with changes in the field, as well as keep basic clinical skills fresh. I have also done some on-call work when we have gaps on the rota, but I think it’s important that you dictate this and make sure it fits around your research work, rather than the other way around. 

What is your research focused on?

I’m researching colorectal cancer, which is particularly interesting as a model to study immunotherapy as we have two types of cancers that respond very differently. One type is really abnormally ‘hyper-mutated,’ and responds to immunotherapy well, probably because of all the mutations that are seen by the body as foreign. The second type that unfortunately makes up the majority of patients doesn’t respond at all. We are growing organoids (rather than growing cancer in the lab as a sheet of cells on plastic, these instead form spheres that function as mini-guts and are much more like the real cancers they come from) from colorectal cancer. We are using these organoid models to see how the cancer cells behave when we simulate attack by the immune system in the lab, and in particular how those foreign mutations are presented to the immune system. Hopefully, this will lead to ways that we can enhance this immune interaction, leading to better responses to immunotherapy in the future. 

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

Hopefully this will allow me to function much more independently as a researcher and my time has already given me a background in a number of techniques. In the future I hope to continue my research alongside my clinical work, and also move into clinical trials.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

Find a project that interests you and supervisors that you get on well with, it’s likely you’ll be working together for at least three years! 

What are you most proud of?

I think the emergence of immunotherapy over the last decade, particular in lung cancer and melanoma. These are cancers that were killing people quickly, and that our treatments with chemotherapy were toxic and actually really not very effective. When I was a house officer (1st year junior doctor) working on the oncology wards, we were getting the first few patients coming into the hospital with bizarre autoimmune side-effects from their new immunotherapy treatments. We have developed management protocols for these toxicities, an approach that was almost haphazard to begin with, as what we were facing was so different to chemotherapy. That said, in contrast to chemo, most patients were very well and didn’t have any of the usual side effects from chemo like mouth ulcers, infections and hair loss.

The pace of expansion has been remarkable, and some patients who had metastatic disease have been cured of their cancers. We still struggle with that ‘C word,’ and perhaps my biggest disappointment is that we are yet to really expand the fantastic benefit that we see in a few percent of patients to a larger group. Increasing response rates and predicting which patients respond to treatments must be the next hurdle to overcome in oncology, and will hopefully be something I am involved in.

 Non-clinical PhD students:

Ellie Sweatman

What is your educational background?

I gained my undergraduate degree in Biomedical Science from Keele University in 2019. During this time, I completed a placement in a pathology laboratory where I trained as a Biomedical Scientist. It was during this time I developed an interest in cancer biology which motivated me to pursue further study in this area. In 2019 I began a Master of Research degree in Cancer Science at the University of Birmingham, this experience motivated me to develop my research skills further and I am now starting my first year of a CRUK-funded PhD.

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

I have lived in the West Midlands all my life, so I already knew that Birmingham is a wonderful city and a great place to study. Personally, it was important for me to be able to commute from home to my studies and with excellent transport links and its own train station the University of Birmingham was the perfect choice. Another key attraction of the University of Birmingham is its global reputation for research excellence and its location within the largest healthcare region in the country. This unique setting means the university has strong partnerships with the University Hospitals Birmingham creating a perfect collaborative environment for the translation of research outcomes directly to the clinical setting to benefit patients.

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

In my view, receiving funding from the world’s largest independent cancer research charity, with a prestigious reputation for research excellence is the ultimate privilege for any aspiring cancer researcher. I was also attracted to the translational nature of the PhD projects on offer and liked the idea that my research could have a meaningful impact by improving patient treatment strategies. Furthermore, the CRUK place significant value on public engagement and the promotion of research activities, values which I share. As such, I am looking forward to engaging with the public and furthering these values during my PhD.  

What is your research focused on?

My research is focused on investigating novel epigenetic modifiers of PARP inhibition. PARP inhibitors are a type of targeted cancer drug that selectively destroy cells with defects in specific DNA damage repair pathways, including BRCA1 deficient cells. One of the major barriers in the clinical success of PARP inhibitors is the frequent development of resistance. A new method a PARP inhibitor resistance has been identified involving epigenetic modifications carried out by the lysine methyltransferase SETD1A. During my project I will examine the mechanism behind this novel method of resistance and investigate how resistant cells may be targeted with alternative therapies to improve patient outcomes.

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

The opportunity to produce high impact research during my PhD will be a huge kickstart to my career and will help to establish my credibility as an independent researcher. I also believe that being affiliated with the CRUK will be very attractive to potential employers in the future. Additionally, as a CRUK student I will have access to a wide range of support designed to aide me during my career development. Networking and training events will enable me to create invaluable connections with fellow researchers and access to travel grants will allow me to present my research at international conferences, increasing the visibility of my research and aide me in building a strong reputation.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

In my view, one of the most important considerations when applying for a PhD is to ensure you have a good relationship with your supervisor as you will have to work closely with them for the next four years. Therefore, my number one piece of advice would be to arrange to meet with potential supervisors whether in person or virtually. This is an excellent opportunity to gain a better understanding of the project and allows you to gauge whether you and your supervisor will have a good working relationship. I would also recommend starting your search and applications early, I personally began applying for PhDs at the beginning of my masters degree. Some PhD applications can be lengthy and require detailed and thoughtful answers, so starting your applications early will give you plenty of time to perfect them.

What are you most proud of?

It goes without saying that I am extremely proud of being awarded a fully funded CRUK PhD position, this feeling is heightened by the fact that neither of my parents attended university and I have navigated the world of academia independently. However, in addition to this, one of my proudest achievements is completing my masters degree during a global health pandemic. This was a very challenging period which required staff and students to rapidly adapt to very uncertain situations. Closure of the labs meant I could not complete many of the experiments I had planned which was very disheartening at the time. However, I endeavoured to make the best out of the situation, and I wrote up all the results I had so far and took the opportunity to analyse existing data in a new way to obtain additional results. Once the labs reopened, I worked intensely for a couple of weeks before my thesis was due to complete as many experiments as possible. The hard work paid off and I successfully passed my (virtual) viva examination and I was awarded a distinction.

Katie Ellis

What is your educational background? Katie Ellis

I studied Biochemistry for four years at the University of Sheffield, graduating with a First class MBiolSci (integrated undergraduate and master’s degree) in 2014. I spent the last nine months of my degree on placement studying the Fanconi anaemia pathway at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine (WIMM), University of Oxford. This was my first real taste of DNA repair research. After my degree I stayed at the University of Oxford and worked as a Research Technician at the Structural Genomics Consortium (SGC) for three years, then moved to the Jenner Institute as a Research Assistant for two years where I worked on malaria vaccines.

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

My positions at the University of Oxford helped me decide that research was a career that I enjoyed. My work on malaria vaccine clinical trials at the Jenner Institute showed me the rewards of translational research. However, I also realised that my true passion was in oncology, so I began to look for PhD projects in translational cancer research. By far the most interesting PhD project I found was with Prof Jo Morris, and I was impressed with the scientific experience and prowess, as well as the friendliness, of the Morris group.

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

I was attracted to the CRUK PhD program because it is well-funded and there is lots of support for students on the program to access. The CRUK program is prestigious and well-known for excellence.

What is your research focused on?

My project is focused on DNA repair and replication stress in cancer. I have come full circle since my master’s research project!

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

A CRUK PhD will give me training in lots of scientific techniques and methods, up-to-date knowledge of current areas of interest in oncology, and experience of the academic process. These skills will open up various career options for me after my PhD, where I hope I can continue to add to our knowledge of cancer and how to treat it.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

Contact the PI or a postdoc in the group before you apply for a PhD to find out more about the project and the group. Convey your interest in the project and the subject area as much as you can during the application process, read recent papers from the lab, ask questions etc. Don’t apply for a PhD unless you are genuinely very interested in the project - you don’t want to be stuck doing something that you don’t like for four years.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my former colleagues and friends at the Jenner Institute who have worked tirelessly on the Oxford- Astra Zeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Jack McMurray

What is your educational background?jack-mcmurry-image

I graduated from the University of Sheffield in 2015 with a Bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Science. After making the decision to pursue further study, I moved to the University of Birmingham in 2016 to complete a Master of Research degree in Cancer Science, and subsequently applied for a CRUK-funded PhD at the University. I am currently in my 3rd year of my PhD. 

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

I initially moved to the University of Birmingham as I was highly passionate about the city. With roots in the midlands, I have watched the city of Birmingham grow exponentially since I was young.  However, I always admired the way in which the city maintained its tradition of success and innovation. The University itself has a strong reputation for ground-breaking research, and the calibre of ongoing research was evident as soon as I arrived. This, coupled with the high quality of teaching, made my decision to continue my studies at the University of Birmingham an easy one.

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

I became attracted to the CRUK PhD program after attending Birmingham’s Cancer Research UK status announcement. The excitement around the room was evident, and there was a shared feeling that the announcement would be the start of something special for Birmingham; I wanted to be a part of that. I knew that I would be incredibly proud to call myself one of the first alumni from the CRUK Birmingham Centre since it regained its status, so was determined to be successful in my application. Furthermore, CRUK places great importance on engaging with the public about their research and I strongly believe public engagement is vital to the success of science. Communicating the complexity of scientific issues to the public is of utmost importance, not only to increase awareness, but to raise funds to continue investigating pressing issues.

What is your research focused on?

Activating the immune system against cancer has transformed the lives of patients but these treatments rely on a pre-existing immune response to the cancer. Cancer is a disease driven by mutation, small changes in the genetic code which nullify or boost certain gene function. If these mutations occur at key sites, such as in places controlling cell replication, then cells will divide out of control and cancer will manifest. These mutations, in addition to causing cancer, also highlight these cells to the immune system and thus the amount of mutations can be highly predictive of the ‘immunological heat’ within a tumour. Unfortunately, most malignancies have ‘immunologically cold’ cancers due to a low level of mutations. My research focusses on a subset of bowel cancer patients who have a low-mutation burden, yet high immune signature, tumour. By gaining an understanding of the mechanisms involved, we hope to be able to devise new treatments to increase the ‘immunological heat’ inside the tumour for the majority of patients, and combine such approaches with current immunotherapy drugs to unleash a powerful immune attack against low-mutation burden cancer. The project may therefore unlock the potential of these game-changing new immunotherapies for a wider range of patients.

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

Despite a recent change of heart regarding my future career, resulting in a want to diverge from working as a researcher, I believe a CRUK PhD will benefit me in a variety of research-based roles. CRUK places high emphasis on collaboration, developing multiple interpersonal skills that will successfully prepare me for multiple different roles.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

I have two bits of advice. Firstly, only apply to PhDs that you are truly passionate about. A PhD is extremely mentally taxing, so why make it harder by being in a PhD that you don’t care about? Secondly, and probably most importantly, go and talk to the prospective supervisor of projects you think you’re interested in. It’s vital that you believe you are suited to your supervisor’s management style, so this is your chance to interview them!

What are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of being the first person in my family to go to University. Coming from a non-academic family, choosing to delve into the unknown world of academia was an incredibly daunting experience for me and proved difficult at first. It is extremely rewarding to know that despite the various setbacks, I have been able to obtain not only a Bachelor’s degree, but also a Master’s degree and soon a PhD. In addition to this, my younger sister recently told me that she would not have gone to University if it hadn’t had been for me going and I am honoured to hear that I inspired her to follow suit.

Laura Grange

What is your educational background?

I graduated from the University of Sussex with a degree in Biology in 2017. I loved Sussex so much that I stayed for a further year to study for an MSc in Genetic Manipulation and Molecular Cell Biology, before applying for a CRUK PhD at the University of Birmingham. I have just started my 3rd year here.

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

During my master’s and undergraduate degree I undertook a number of research projects at Sussex’s Genome Damage and Stability Centre, where I developed an interest in DNA damage and human disease. I was certain that this was the area that I wanted to pursue in a PhD in. In light of this I was particularly attracted to the centre for Genome Biology at the University of Birmingham, which has numerous clinical links and a large focus on DNA replication and repair. This is central to the university’s reputation for ground-breaking research in cancer sciences. I was excited to work within Birmingham’s collaborative department performing cutting-edge research that could directly impact patients.  

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

The CRUK Birmingham Centre dedicates funding to a number of key departments within the university, including bioinformatics and next-generation sequencing teams. This CRUK funding not only majorly boosts the university’s research resources, but also provides its students with generous travel grants and networking events, as well as numerous chances to communicate their research. Of course, there is also the prestige that comes with researching cancer whilst funded by the world’s largest cancer research charity!

What is your research focused on?

My research focuses on replication stress: a cellular state in which DNA replication is slowed or stalled. I investigate how replication stress contributes to the development of human diseases, including cancer. This involves using cell lines derived from patients in order to try and understand how different genes normally function to manage or prevent defective replication. Whilst my work is based in cellular biology, these clinical links allow us to further understand how these genes relate to proper neurological and immunological development.

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

My current plan for after my PhD is to pursue a career in academic research. This CRUK PhD is a prestigious programme within which I have always felt well communicated with and encouraged by the charity. I have confidence that that CRUK’s generous funding and support will enable me to successfully complete my PhD and aid me to hopefully publish my findings.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

Don’t be dissuaded by knock backs, either during your PhD, or when applying for one. Regardless of your passion or knowledge for a subject, science is full of ups and downs, and the application process can be similar. There’s no one path into a PhD, so just make sure you’re passionate about the programme(s) your applying for, have confidence and persevere. I actually connected with my PhD supervisor through a PI that I had previously interviewed with, so even rejections can turn into networking opportunities!

What are you most proud of?

A PhD is mentally demanding, but I’m proud of the resilience that I’ve built up. Whilst I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made and the results that I’ve produced so far, I’ve also learned how to deal with complications- when assays have failed, cells have died or when I’ve produced unexpected results. It’s easy to be proud of the positives, but I’m also very happy with how I’ve learned to live with and bounce back from the negatives too!

Sonia Piasecka

What is your educational background?

I have obtained my bachelor degree in Medical and Pharmacological Sciences at Coventry University with first class honours. My dedication from here on was set to pursue a career in the field of cancer and further expand my knowledge by studying a master degree in Oncology at the University of Nottingham. This has made me exceptionally motivated to extend my passion for science by undertaking a PhD in cancer research.

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

The University of Birmingham has attracted me as it provides a real impact on people's lives by focusing on comprehensive and innovative research. I knew that undertaking a PhD at the University of Birmingham will be a great opportunity for me to work with world leading scientist and gain knowledge and experience from them. Moreover, the university has a great research facilities and very good laboratory equipment which is also important.

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

The CRUK PhD project attracted me as it is focusing on considerably new and exciting area of cancer research with a great potential to develop novel anticancer therapies. Undertaking a CRUK PhD program will give me an extensive training in a range of laboratory skills together with opportunity to collaborate with other PhD students and post-doctoral scientists.

What is your research focused on?

My research is exploring the role of protein hydroxylation in cancer, with a particular focus on how hydroxylase mutation and inactivation promotes tumorigenesis.

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

I believe that CRUK PhD is an amazing opportunity for a young scientist like me as it will help me to build a great foundation for my further research career. The fact that the project requires a multidisciplinary approach including biochemistry, cancer genetics and tumour cell biology is very exciting and will allow me to gain knowledge and skills in various areas. This will considerably enhance my possibilities of career within the academia which I am intended to pursue upon the completion of the PhD. Moreover, undertaking a CRUK PhD will allow me to enhance my transferable skills and my employability by participating in research conferences and meetings as well as to network with other PhD students and scientists.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

My advice for someone applying for a PhD would be to focus on preparing a strong CV and cover letter and to be determined and to not give up. It is also extremely important to apply for the project that appeals to your research interest.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the fact that I have moved from Poland to England in order to study at the university here. I think it was the best decision of my life as it gave me an amazing opportunity for both personal and professional development. 

 Intercalated MB-PhD

 

Beth Woodward

What is your educational background?Beth Woodward photo

I have been a student at the University of Birmingham for 6 years. I completed by undergraduate degree in BMedSc Medical Sciences in 2017 and I thoroughly enjoyed the content and scientific training in this course. During this degree, I undertook two laboratory research projects in the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences in the area of the DNA Damage Response. However, I decided that I would like to pursue a career in Medicine knowing I could continue to carry out research as an academic clinician. I started on the Graduate Entry Medicine course in 2017 and have completed 3 years of that degree prior to starting my PhD.  

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

I wanted to study at the University of Birmingham as I was impressed with the broad range of content, facilities and structure of the BMedSc course and the opportunities to get involved with the wide range of academic research happening here in Birmingham. I found it unique that the programme was situated within the Medical School where students are taught by both scientists and medics and we had the chance to be exposed to both basic laboratory science and translational science.

Having been a student here already, I was desperate to be accepted onto the Medicine programme because I felt Birmingham Medical School has lots of opportunities for Medical Students to be involved in the research taking place both in hospitals and in the laboratories. Birmingham also has a very diverse patient population which means we learn so much from seeing a range of patients and conditions. Furthermore, the facilities to train as a doctor here are excellent.

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

I knew that I wanted to be an academic clinician at the start of my Medicine programme and had an established interest in Cancer Genomics. During my clinical placements in Oncology I realised how much I enjoyed the speciality and I got a really positive feeling that I could see myself doing the job. I also noticed how important an understanding of underlying science is when making treatment decisions and communicating with patients. I could see how Oncology would be a great speciality to pursue my interest becoming an academic clinician. When I was made of aware of the opportunity, I genuinely could not have thought of a more perfect opportunity given my intended career.

What is your research focused on?

I chose my project based on my previous experience and interest in the DNA Damage Response. I will be working in both the Stewart lab and Stankovic lab where my project is working on using a synthetic lethal approach to specifically target Atm deficient lymphomas. My aim will be to study the genetic interaction between Plk4, Cdk6, Cdk9 and Atm in vitro, identify the cellular mechanism underlying this synthetic lethality and to determine whether chemical inhibition of these kinases can be used in vivo to specifically kill Atm deficient tumours using a mouse xenograft model.

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

The CRUK PhD will be immensely helpful in my career path as an Academic Oncologist. Carrying out a PhD would not only enable me to develop my laboratory skills but would also provide me with an invaluable experience relating to how academic research is carried out. The experience will be vital for me learning how to devise a research project, how to problem solve, how to properly control an experiment, how to properly analyse my data and lastly, how to convey my results to an audience. The University of Birmingham has a strong translational orientation I hope to establish collaborative links with both clinicians and academics that will hopefully facilitate the development of my career.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

I would say that it is important to be yourself when writing your application, be honest and let your enthusiasm shine through in your writing rather than writing what you think people want to hear. Highlight your specific interests and how a PhD will help you in your career. I think its also important to speak to PhD students and get an idea of what is it like so you know it is definitely for you before embarking on one.

What are you most proud of?

I am really proud of the data I produced in my BMedSc research projects because I was quite inexperienced, and I produced data of publishable quality. It was very rewarding to produce quality data and it gave me confidence when applying to the PhD programme that I was capable.

However, I am most proud of being awarded the CRUK PhD Studentship. I know I have only just started but it is such a prestigious award and such a unique and exciting opportunity. I am so grateful to have been selected and I am really enjoying being back in the lab!

Magnus Yap

What is your education background? Magnus Yap photo

I am a medical student studying at the University of Birmingham since 2016 who has completed an intercalated BMedSc (Medical Sciences) in 2018. I am now about to embark on an intercalated MB-PhD under the supervision of Dr Gianmarco Contino at the Cancer Research UK Birmingham centre.

Why did you want to study at the University of Birmingham?

As a local student, Birmingham was one of my top choices when I applied to study medicine. This was not only because of the course and the quality of medical education here, but also due to the university’s close links with cancer research institutions. Being incredibly interested in the pathogenesis of cancer and how patients are cared for in oncology, I realised that Birmingham was the perfect place to start my medical training and pursue my interest at the same time. And so, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to enrol as a PhD student at the centre, a leading player at the forefront of cancer research.  

What attracted you to the CRUK PhD program?

When the intercalated MB-PhD programme was first announced, I was very excited. To hear that the centre was looking to recruit medical students and turn them into competent clinical researchers, this was something that I really wished to be a part of. The landscape of oncology is constantly changing, and it is now even more crucial for aspiring clinicians to make sense of the latest research for their patients.

As well as developing the skills to carry out high impact research, the programme allows us to collaborate with expert academics and even offers support for us to present our work at conferences around the world. These are just a few benefits, which I hope to fully take advantage of over the next four years.

What is your research focused on?

My research is focused on the genomics of oesophageal adenocarcinoma (OAC), a cancer most commonly found in the West. It is a disease that sadly has not seen much improvement with limited treatment options available.

OAC is a highly heterogenous cancer with cells containing all kinds of complex genomic alterations. Large-scale events are considered to be the main drivers of OAC but so far remain uncharacterised. Using organoids to model the disease in vitro, I am looking to identify some of these large-scale events and explore how these cancer cells adapt to these genomic changes. The hope is that future findings can be applied to improve patient stratification and may uncover new vulnerabilities to exploit therapeutically.

How will a CRUK PhD help you with your career?

During my training, I hope to learn and apply a broad range of research skills, from mastering specific techniques to independently designing and managing my experiments. Over time, I hope to gain the confidence and experience to pursue an academic career after the programme.

My end goal is to be an academic clinician helping cancer patients at the bedside and benchside in the future. A CRUK intercalated MB-PhD will be instrumental in achieving this as my current aspiration is to become an oncologist who is both scientifically-informed and clinically-experienced.

What advice would you give to someone applying for a PhD?

The most important piece of advice I can give is to make sure you are absolutely passionate in your subject. A PhD is a strenuous yet rewarding experience – one that I have only just begun! Be sure that your research is in your area of interest. 

I would highly recommend you reach out to PhD students and potential supervisors when you apply. Current students will be able to tell you what it is like to be on the course. Talking to supervisors will help you learn more about their projects but also find a supervisor you can work with.

What are you most proud of?

Being selected as one of the first medical students for the intercalated MB-PhD programme is one of my proudest moments along with getting into medical school. As mentioned, there will be much to take on board, but it is a journey that I am looking forward to. Undertaking a PhD in cancer genomics whilst at medical school is something I never thought was possible. I cannot wait to see what comes out of the project!