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Researcher voices: Early-career researchers in the time of COVID-19

by Joana Osório | Research Feature

7 May 2020

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The 6 researchers featured in this article

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has dramatically changed how we live and work. Here, 6 early-career researchers supported by us or working at one of our institutes share their experiences. 

Anna Wilkins, balancing clinical and research work 

I started my first post as a consultant a couple of weeks before the explosion in COVID-19 cases in the UK. I’m an academic clinician; my area of clinical care and research is radiotherapy for lung cancer. One of my colleagues has had to self-isolate, and I’m covering one of her clinics. This is challenging, but fortunately my working environment is very supportive. 

We need to think carefully about who needs to come into the hospital, so we can limit the risk of COVID-19 for patients with cancer. But we can’t slow down radiotherapy for lung cancer, as these tumours are so aggressive. 

The way we interact with patients has changed. Body language and facial expressions are very important in establishing rapport, especially as many patients with cancer are scared. But social distancing and the need to wear personal protective equipment create communication barriers. I don’t feel very comfortable with this, as I try to create a warm environment for my patients, but the most important thing is of course to protect their health. 

My research is about understanding why radiotherapy doesn’t always succeed in curing patients, focusing on the non-cancerous cells that might help tumours survive. I look at what happens in patients before, during and after radiotherapy, and I was also about to start some preclinical work with mouse models to complement the human studies. All of this work has now stopped. 

It’s frustrating not to be able to go to the lab, but this has given me more time to focus on analysing imaging data and planning future clinical studies, and that’s very exciting. There’s a huge amount of effort that goes into the planning phase of these studies – almost more than in the execution phase – and I hope we will be able to carry on after the COVID-19 peak has passed. 

Anna is a postdoctoral clinical fellow part-funded by Cancer Research UK (CRUK) RadNet and works at the Francis Crick Institute, which receives core funding from CRUK, the UK Medical Research Council and the Wellcome Trust. Anna is also funded by the NIHR Biomedical Research Council at the Institute of Cancer Research and The Royal Marsden NHS Trust. 


Alison Berner, at the COVID-19 frontline 

As soon as I heard about COVID-19, I immediately wanted to help patients. I’m doing a PhD but I’m also an oncologist; I was writing the 18-month report for my PhD when the opportunity for redeployment came up. A week later, I started work at the COVID-19 ward in Milton Keynes University Hospital, close to where I live. 

The morale at the hospital is high. We have a really good environment among the staff. We’re working longer hours than usual, but the COVID-19 ward is not at full capacity, so we get to know patients well. I am glad that I can be useful at this difficult time. I also think that refreshing my knowledge of general medical care will be helpful when I go back to my research project and to my usual job as a registrar at a gender identity clinic.  

I take one day a week off from the hospital to work on my PhD. I’m studying the molecular correlates of survival in colorectal cancer and my project involves lab work and bioinformatics. I can’t go to the lab anymore, but I do coding at home. I’m still writing my 18-month report and I’m also working on some papers and contacting potential new collaborators. I feel very connected with my lab colleagues – on Thursdays, we have a Zoom lab meeting in the morning and drinks in the evening. 

My PhD supervisor was very supportive and said he understood that sometimes we may not feel like working or have changes in our mental state. I think you should make time to disconnect from work, even if you’re not doing anything. I like to dance and do yoga from home. And I accept it’s fine if one day I don’t work – that’s not a problem in the long run. 

Alison is a CRUK-funded PhD student at the Barts Cancer Institute in London. 


Isabel Romero-Camarero, tackling the challenges of working from home 

The current focus of my research is a transcription factor that is frequently misexpressed in acute myeloid leukaemia (AML). I’m interested in uncovering the genes and cellular pathways responsible for this misexpression, as they represent candidate therapeutic targets for AML. We work with clinicians at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust who provide us with biological samples from patients. I mainly do lab-based work, but also some computational analysis of the data that come from our high-throughput sequencing experiments. 

Our lab had to close down at short notice, so we didn’t have much time to prepare. I got a special extension to finish one experiment in human samples, and I was lucky that I didn’t have much lab work left to do and was already moving into data analysis. I am now doing that from home, as well as writing a paper and working on a review.  

I have many meetings with my colleagues, and I take part in some online training courses that my institute is running. These things make me feel connected – even more so than before the lockdown. However, an important conference I wanted to go to was cancelled, and that was very disappointing. 

My husband is a key worker, so I am also spending more time with our small son. I enjoy doing this, but I do sometimes feel guilty that I am not focusing on work when I’m with him – and guilty when I’m working and not focusing on him. I would like to volunteer to help with COVID-19 testing, but I can’t because of my caring responsibilities. 

At the beginning of lockdown I worried that I wouldn’t be able to be productive. But I then realised that I have more time for analysis, reading and looking for new research ideas. It’s not the same for everybody, and many of us worry about the future, but I’m trying to focus on the good things. 

Isabel is a postdoctoral fellow at the CRUK Manchester Institute and is funded by the Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund and CRUK. 


Sean Richards, working in the lab through a new normal 

I finished my first postdoc and started working at the CRUK Therapeutic Discovery Laboratory (TDL) in Cambridge two months ago. At TDL we work with academic and industry partners to identify new drug targets and develop new therapeutic compounds. I spent my first month getting to grips with my project and getting to know new people, but then the lockdown started, and a different world began. 

Our TDL hasn’t closed, but we’ve implemented social distancing. In the chemistry labs, where I work, there are only two people per lab at any one time, and we have a meeting every day to plan who’s coming the next day. I am now working on a range of priority projects, instead of a single project, as we have fewer people in the labs. My level of responsibility has probably increased as a result of the COVID-19 situation, but, on the downside, I have less interaction with my colleagues. 

Just before the lockdown, shops all over the UK ran out of hand sanitiser. To be able to continue working, we decided to go down the supply chain and make our own sanitiser. We followed a recipe provided by the World Health Organisation. Ordering the chemicals wasn’t much of a problem, but the bottles were more difficult to find, as China had stopped exporting them. Eventually, we had everything we needed. The University of Cambridge is in touch with us and other labs who can produce sanitiser, and they give our contact details to GPs and other people should anyone need it. It’s a nice way to help the community. 

Sean is a scientist at the CRUK TDL in Cambridge. 


Zaineb Sheikh, collecting data in a different way 

I moved from Pakistan to the University of Bath in January to start a PhD on how the tobacco industry interferes with taxation in low- and middle-income countries. Just 6 weeks after I started, everything changed. I had some conferences lined up and they got cancelled. I was expecting a lot from these events, hoping to make contact with people from around the world and get data from them. 

I feared I would be losing a year of my PhD. However, my supervisors were very kind and supportive at this difficult time. They and CRUK helped me find ways to collect data without travelling. CRUK put me in touch with people from different countries who have promised to help me. Time differences are an issue, and it’s early days, but this approach might turn out to be more productive than what I initially planned. 

Working from home is not easy. When you go to the office you’re there for a defined amount of time and you can plan your day effectively. You also have the right equipment. At home, it’s hard for me to separate work and family life, and I only have a laptop and often bad internet access. 

Despite these challenges, I feel connected and well supported. My team has coffee breaks every day, and we have fortnightly meetings between PhD students. I’m also taking a couple of courses on economics and programming at the university, to complement my clinical background.  

This is a situation we cannot control, and we have to find new ways to be productive. Talking to people is helpful to get new ideas, but also to support each other when things get difficult. Taking a break is also important. Apart from that, we just have to take things one step at a time. 

Zaineb is a CRUK-funded PhD student at the University of Bath. 


James Dickie, in the throes of thesis writing 

I’m in the final year of my PhD and due to finish soon. My research is focused on finding proteins in the mouth that could be targeted with a vaccine to treat or prevent oral cancer. If I wasn’t in lockdown, I would be finishing my experiments in the lab. I can’t do that now, but I can still write my thesis – just a few months earlier than planned. 

Working from home brings some real challenges. My lab books and certain other resources had to stay in the lab, which makes writing difficult. The lockdown also makes the whole process more mentally draining. A PhD thesis is already a very daunting document to write, and the process is not made any easier when you’re stuck indoors with it. 

Fortunately, communication between researchers hasn’t really suffered from the lockdown, we’ve just adapted. I regularly have meetings with my colleagues and supervisors over Microsoft Teams, and we email frequently as well. I’m blessed to be locked in with my partner and pet rats for company. Also being the huge nerd that I am, I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons online with my friends in the evenings, as well as playing other games with my family every week. Honestly, I’m keeping contact with people more now than I did before lockdown. I also do a lot of gardening. 

The coronavirus pandemic will come to an end at some point in the coming years. The threat of cancer however will remain indefinitely unless we do something, and not even a global crisis will stop us making progress; we have too much momentum. 

James is a CRUK-funded PhD student at the CRUK Southampton Centre. 


How is COVID-19 affecting you as a researcher? If you’re a CRUK-funded researcher complete our survey or tweet us @CRUKResearch and use #ResearchRightNow to share your experiences.