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Developing independence as a cancer epidemiologist: Dr Úna McMenamin

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

6 September 2018

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Population Research


Population Research Postdoctoral Fellow Dr Úna McMenamin is a cancer epidemiologist investigating the role of sex hormones in oesophageal and stomach cancer. Úna studied the impact of commonly prescribed medications on breast and colorectal cancer progression during her PhD and has used our fellowship as a springboard to apply her skills in epidemiology to other exposures and cancer sites.

Úna is at the “Developing independence” stage in our fellowships competency framework, and here she explains how she developed the skills and experience that helped her secure a fellowship.

Career Stage: developing independence

“When I applied for the Population Research Postdoctoral Fellowship, I’d been a postdoc for about six months. I saw it as an ideal opportunity to develop my independence as a researcher while still having the safety net of mentors and sponsors supporting me. The fellowship gives you protected research time and the chance to obtain experience in all aspects of the research process – from idea generation right through to dissemination of research findings. Importantly, funding for your training and development can be incorporated into your application, which is something that may not always be feasible working as a postdoc on a supervisor’s grant.

I chose CRUK’s Population Research Postdoctoral Fellowship as it’s a prestigious national award reviewed by experts in the field. The funding is a marker of your emerging leadership in population research and CRUK’s confidence in you as a researcher.

Research experience: building on strong foundations in population research

My master’s degree and PhD gave me a strong grounding in population research methods that I was interested in applying to a different area, incorporating different cancer sites and exposures. I had started to publish my research by being a co-author on various publications, and through a first-author paper based on my PhD work. I had also attended various technical training courses and conferences to learn new skills and extend my research network. I had won some small pots of funding to attend courses and meetings, which I think helped demonstrate I was a fundable candidate. Even if these minor grants seem relatively unimportant compared to large research grants, it shows funders that you can put an application together, follow through on it and report back.

Skills: committees, communication and public engagement

In terms of other experience I had when I applied, I was a representative for the Postdoc Society at the faculty level at Queen’s University. I also joined my research centre’s communications committee to organise and participate in public engagement events, which I found really rewarding. I think involvement in committees shows funders that you are willing to put yourself forward and that you can work well as part of a team. I also volunteered for some teaching, undertaking some tutorials in addition to supervising a Public Health MSc student and informally supervising a PhD student. All these activities help to demonstrate that you can manage your time effectively. This is a valuable skill if you get an academic position, as teaching and managing public outreach are important parts of the job.

Most universities offer a whole host of courses in areas such as leadership, presentation skills and research management that you can take advantage of and I found them really useful. It’s hard to take the time out of your research sometimes, but when it comes to applications, it’s good to have evidence that you’ve made an effort to develop skills you thought you might be lacking.

Future career ambitions: building an academic life and expanding research networks

The fellowship provided me with a framework for managing my own project from the very start – from writing the funding proposal, acquiring datasets and conducting analyses, to publishing and communicating my findings through conferences and public engagement. The fellowship has given me insight into what it means to manage my own research and gain experience in aspects such as budgeting, which I wouldn’t necessarily have had the opportunity to do under someone else’s grant.

Having remained at the same institution for my PhD and fellowship, I also really wanted to extend my research network – the international visits I’ve undertaken during my fellowship so far have allowed me to do that. Last year, I spent three months at the Belgian Cancer Registry in Brussels, and later this year I’m going to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Washington DC to spend three months working with a collaborator. Through my links at the NCI, I’ve already developed another new collaboration working in liver cancer. I think these visits have been important for establishing the collaborations and they increase the potential for developing future joint grant applications.

Looking to the future

Now, over two years into the fellowship, I’m thinking about what I want to do next. I’m primarily looking for a lectureship or senior research fellow position, but I’m also aware CRUK offers funding opportunities for the next stage, such as the Career Development Fellowship and Career Establishment Awards.

The fellowship has given me invaluable experience in research idea development and leading a research project. It definitely gives you lots of examples of skills and experience to use in future interviews! Having the badge of CRUK Fellow brings prestige to everything you’re doing and opens doors when you’re trying to get your research out there.”


Career history

2016 to 2019 – CRUK Population Research Postdoctoral Fellow, Cancer Epidemiology Research Group, Centre for Public Health, Queen’s University Belfast

May 2014 to May 2016 – Research Fellow, Cancer Epidemiology Research Group, Centre for Public Health, Queen’s University Belfast

Nov 2013 to March 2014 – Research Assistant, Northern Ireland Cancer Registry

2010 to 2013 – PhD in Cancer Pharmacoepidemiology, Centre for Public Health/School of Pharmacy, Queen’s University Belfast

2010 – MSc in Public Health, Queen’s University Belfast

2009 – BSc (Hons) in Human Nutrition, Ulster University