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Funding more clinical academics than ever before

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

3 July 2017

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We are providing flexible and tailored support for clinical academics working in cancer research (Photo: Imperial Science Imagery)

In 2015 we introduced changes to our clinical academic funding opportunities to ensure we’re providing the right support at critical and often challenging points in a clinician’s career. We’re now funding more clinical academics than ever across our complete pipeline and across a range of medical expertise.

Tailored support

Undertaking a clinical research career presents a range of unique challenges. Two years ago we reviewed our funding opportunities and worked in partnership with other funders to understand the barriers faced by clinician scientists and how we can support researchers to overcome these. The outcome was that we developed tailored support and introduced two new funding opportunities:

As a result of these changes, we are supporting a broad portfolio across a range of medical expertise and throughout different career stages – from clinical trainees to senior clinical academics and all stages in between. Our ambition is to double the number of fellowships that we fund and develop a more flexible framework to allow greater time for awardees to carry out research – this includes increasing the length of our clinical fellowships to five years. Here we’ll hear from clinicians who talk about how the changes are supporting their research careers.

Forging a clinical academic career

Mr Sacheen Kumar is an NIHR Clinical Lecturer at Imperial College London. During his PhD he researched volatile organic compounds in exhaled breath and how they could be used for non-invasive diagnosis of oesophago-gastric (OG) cancer. Thanks to our new Postdoctoral Research Bursary Sacheen is diversifying his research with a project that explores the influence microbiomes in the stomach have on the production of volatile compounds, with a view to improving early diagnosis. Sacheen explains how the bursary is helping him forge a career as a clinical academic.

“I love my role as a surgical registrar but I also want to make a difference to survival rates for OG cancer in the long term and to do this I realised we need to find novel ways to diagnose the disease. We know that OG cancer has a clinical unmet need and people are often diagnosed late. My research project is working towards taking understanding of volatile compounds into the clinic and improving diagnostics.

“I’m in the postdoctoral phase of my career and I’m not yet in a position to apply for a large grant. The CRUK bursary is exactly the right fit to allow me to start developing my ideas and diversify my research.

Securing the bursary has given me a great deal of confidence – it’s the first grant I’ve been awarded as a principal investigator – and I would strongly advise researchers in a similar position to apply”.

Autonomy and flexibility

Dr Serena Nik-Zainal began her career qualifying in medicine, specialising in clinical genetics. She then progressed on to a PhD and a postdoc position, hunting down the patterns of mutations that occur in cancer cells. She’s recently been awarded an Advanced Clinical Scientist Fellowship to develop a more detailed understanding of mutational signatures. Here she explains why she chose CRUK to further her career.

When it came to considering fellowships, I knew applying for the Advanced Clinical Scientist Fellowship would be the right choice for me. The five year award gives me the ability to spread my research wings.

“The fellowship provides a great level of autonomy and flexibility, which is very powerful to advance research. I can achieve my aims, however and wherever I can, with an opportunity to explore what I believe to be the most important aspects of the science to make my work useful.”

Security to build a research specialism

Professor Tim Underwood is a Professor of Gastrointestinal Surgery based at the University of Southampton. In 2016 he was awarded an Advanced Clinician Scientist Fellowship to continue his work on oesophageal cancer. He is pleased that the fellowship allows him to build on his research specialism which is also a strategic priority for CRUK.

“Whilst I was training I recognised there was a desperate need for research into oesophageal adenocarcinoma and at the same time CRUK revealed their research strategy which featured oesophageal cancer as a priority. This presented an opportunity for me to work in a field where I could make a real difference to patient outcomes.

The fellowship is now providing me security for my laboratory research at a really interesting time as I’m establishing my independent career but not ready to get a programme grant. It offers the ideal next step for me to help bridge these two phases in my career.

We hope that our expanded portfolio of career funding will continue to help clinical academics progress their careers and leave them in a competitive position to secure permanent academic positions and programme funding.

We are continuing to build on our commitment to provide the supportive, flexible training environment that is essential for developing a successful clinical academic career. We’ve recently worked with funders from across the medical research community to develop principles and obligations setting out what we expect from those responsible for clinical training, trainees and funders across the UK.

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