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Spotlight: Emily Southworth, The Institute of Genetics and Cancer, The University of Edinburgh

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.

Outside of work, I go kickboxing with my university. It challenges so many parts of your body and is a great way to keep fit and clear your head after a busy day!

Tell us about your career journey so far.

After loving my genetics modules, I opted to study it at university. My course was so interesting but I knew lab experience was limited, so I undertook a Year in Industry in the middle of my degree, at a biotechnology company.

I became so confident in the lab I even helped bring a coronavirus test to market. I loved it so much I went back to work there part time while I finished my degree. My final year research project concerned the genetics of childhood brain cancer. I loved investigating how different cancer genetics between each patient influenced survival, and it was exciting to obtain significant results that may help identify patients eligible for milder treatment. Because of this, I pursued a PhD in cancer genetics.

What was your favourite subject in school and why?

Initially, I struggled so much with science and maths, so much so I was daunted by it every lesson! It wasn’t until I was in my final years at school that, with the help of an amazing teacher, biology became my favourite subject. During our genetics module, we were taught one small change in your genetic code could be enough to make someone seriously ill. Using maths to work out the probability a child would suffer from a disease based on their parent’s genes, even if both were perfectly healthy, was really challenging and fun.

What subjects/qualifications/skills are useful for your role?

There have been many times I’ve gone to the lab with an experiment planned out, and I’ve noticed there’s a mistake in my calculations or the method. Being able to think critically and under pressure (especially when your co-workers’ work is relying on your own!) is key. If you want to pursue research at a university as a career, you usually need a PhD; for a PhD, you have to have at least an undergraduate degree in a relevant field. A Master’s degree can help your application, but isn’t essential.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

The project I’m working on is mine, which means, although I have input from my supervisors and help from my lab, I can research what interests me most! The results I collect will help guide what I investigate next, so no research plan is ever certain. That may sound stressful to some but I like it as it means no day is the same.

What is a normal day in your role like?

The lab I am part of meet weekly to discuss our progress and any problems with experiments. I also have a separate meeting with my supervisor to analyse results we have so far. For example, we have collected tumour material and are in the process of assessing how much certain proteins are present in each tumour. The presence and quantity of some of these proteins have been shown to affect survival of cancer in other studies, so we hope to see whether this trend is present in our cancer of interest. We plan to investigate the genetics as well as protein of these tumours, so I am currently purifying the DNA in the lab so that the samples are free of material that could destroy the DNA. Otherwise, we would end up with no results!

And what does your job title mean?

I’m studying for a PhD (Doctorate of Philosophy, although cancer is hardly philosophical!) which lasts 3-4 years. I am being trained to be an academic researcher – how to organise your project, what the first steps should be, what equipment do I need to perform tasks etc. I’m based at an institute concerned with cancer and genetics, so everyone who works here mainly aims to answer the unknowns of cancer, such as cause, and fill in gaps in patient care, such as why a subset of patients are not responding to a drug, and what other drugs could be effective.

Can you suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?

Punnett squares were used in school to help us learn how we inherit genes from our parents. You can try and work out the probability of inheriting damaged or unhealthy genes responsible for disease here:

Cancer is a common disease. Based on what I’ve told you and your own knowledge, can you write a list of things that influence why one person may get cancer, and another person won’t? What about if there are two people with the same cancer – would their cancers look or behave differently due to differences in their tumour genetics? If so, how?


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