Population Research

Our Population Research Postdoctoral Fellowships fund outstanding early-career postdocs to develop independent research in epidemiology, cancer prevention and early diagnosis research. Catherine Cowell, CRUK Research Funding Manager, met with Dr Sammy Quaife, one of our newest CRUK Population Research Postdoctoral Fellows, to discuss the exciting plans for her fellowship.

Can you give me a brief overview of your fellowship plans?

My fellowship will be looking at factors that affect the likelihood of someone taking part in lung cancer screening. Groups who are at higher risk of lung cancer are less likely to take part in screening, so the aim of the research is to collect evidence I can use to design effective screening communication tools to increase informed screening participation and reduce inequalities. At the end of the fellowship I’ll test different communication methods to see how they affect the intentions of high-risk individuals to take part in lung cancer screening. Hopefully, this work will contribute to the way lung cancer screening is delivered in the future.

What interests you particularly about this research area?

I’ve always been interested in ways to reduce inequalities in cancer mortality. Lung cancer incidence is by far the highest in more socioeconomically deprived communities and smoking tobacco is a major contributor to inequalities in life expectancy between more and less affluent people. People in deprived communities are also less likely to engage with screening and prevention, although they are more likely to benefit. To me, using behavioural science to engage these high-risk communities with screening is the way to have the most impact in this area.

Why did you apply for a CRUK fellowship?

I know that CRUK recognises the value of behavioural science. Sometimes, as behavioural scientists, we have to try harder to make our case in funding applications, so it was important that behavioural science, in the context of cancer prevention, was explicitly within the remit of the scheme. Having protected time for training and development really attracted me to the fellowship too. It meant I could build in time for a research visit to the National Cancer Institute and apply for research courses in useful research methodologies. You can only develop so far if you don’t have access to good training and the time to do it.

Additionally, CRUK obviously has a very good reputation and there is a certain prestige attached to CRUK fellowships. The CRUK fellowship community attracted me as well, as it is nice to have a network of people at the same level you can relate to and communicate with.

What research experience and impact were you able to demonstrate when applying?

I’d just finished my PhD and co-led a pilot trial of lung cancer screening funded by CRUK and led by Prof Sam Janes, the Lung Screen Uptake Trial (LSUT). My clinical colleague, Mamta Ruparel, and I co-led the set up and running of the LSUT, so that gave me a multitude of examples of things I had been able to lead on. I made sure I was involved in the training of research nurses and learnt on the ground all the things that were involved in setting up and running the trial from the start.

As part of the LSUT, I had also been involved with the Accelerate, Coordinate, Evaluate (ACE) Programme, within the proactive lung cluster, where we helped pull together information from pilot studies and research services delivering lung screening to learn from each other in terms of our methodology and data. So I guess I’d been making sure my work had impact in practice via those groups.

In terms of building networks, I’d begun to network with people at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). I collaborated with the NCI to bring together data collected as part of the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (ICBP) project module 2, which looked at population beliefs about cancer. They had collected some similar data in the US, so I brought together a new collaboration looking at and comparing beliefs between the UK and US populations which should be published shortly.

Building networks with clinical academics who champion Behavioural Science was important for me. Also, as the work that I do requires me to interact with individual participants who are engaged in lung screening programmes delivered by clinical academics. Collaboration has really helped me to access participants and ensure my work is relevant and valued.

I had also presented work at conferences and published a few first author papers, so overall, I’d begun to develop the skills you need for a research career – building networks, disseminating work, designing and carrying out research studies – but I hadn’t progressed majorly with them.

What personal development or specific research skills had you developed by the start of your fellowship?

I attended a course at UCL on leadership for early career researchers which was great, as it wasn’t about leadership from the perspective of a dominating loud leader, but rather about developing your own leadership style. I was also a personal tutor (mentor for MSc students) for 6 years, which was helpful for learning to support and effectively manage others.

Regarding communication skills, I did quite a bit of public engagement work as part of my PhD, so I was able to demonstrate I could communicate with non-academic as well as academic audiences. In my application I showed that patient and public engagement was important to me and already on my agenda, rather than just tagged on as it can sometimes feel.

What are your future ambitions following the fellowship?

My ambition would be to get a CRUK Career Development Fellowship or similar, or a project grant to allow me to further my objectives in this research area. I’ve got plans and ideas which the fellowship is helping me develop, but ultimately I will need to increase research capacity. My next steps would be to seek funding to continue to develop in the area, establish independence and eventually to have my own research group, but that is probably a long way off!

What advice would you give to anyone applying for a Population Research Postdoctoral Fellowship?

I would say to reach out to collaborators early. My collaborators were fundamentally important in helping me to make my plans feasible and gave me brilliant feedback on perspectives of my proposal from different disciplines. I think that whatever your discipline, it is important to ensure you are writing an application that appeals to a multidisciplinary panel.

Having a tough mock interview before the fellowship interview was also really helpful. The interview itself was daunting but fair. I think leaving enough time to prepare responses to reviewer comments for the interview and preparing adequately is really important.

Career profile

2019– Senior Research Fellow, Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health, University College London

2018– CRUK Population Research Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Research Department of Behavioural Science and Health, University College London

2016–2018 Research Associate, Health Behaviour Research Centre, University College London

2013–2016 PhD in Health Psychology, Health Behaviour Research Centre, University College London

2012–2013 Research Assistant in Cancer Screening, Health Behaviour Research Centre, University College London

2011 MSc in Health Psychology, University College London/King’s College London

2008 BSc (Hons) in Psychology, University of Leeds


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