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Fostering Black leadership in cancer research

by Phil Prime | Interview

20 July 2023

3 comments 3 comments

To help ensure cancer research is an environment where all researchers can thrive, it’s important to establish initiatives to support them throughout their career. Here we catch up with Abena Amponsah, one of the first students enrolled on to our Black Leaders in Cancer PhD Scholarship Programme, to talk about the beginning of her academic journey, what inspires her, and why we need programmes like this…

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the series Diversity in research


Congratulations on being accepted to the Black Leaders in Cancer PhD Scholarship Programme! What motivated you to apply?

Throughout my academic journey, my interest in cancer research has grown significantly and I aspire to make meaningful contributions in this field. Recognising the Black Leaders in Cancer PhD programme as a remarkable opportunity, I was thrilled at the prospect of actively advancing scientific knowledge in a field that I am passionate about.

What particularly attracted me to this programme was the comprehensive training scheme, support systems and networking resources that greatly resonate with my career goals and the professional development I seek. I was also inspired by the prospect of working within the esteemed CRUK City of London centre, renowned for pioneering cutting-edge research in cancer biotherapeutics. I hope being part of this interdisciplinary and collaborative network will provide me with an exceptional environment to further enhance my knowledge and contribute to impactful research endeavours.

Why do we need programmes like this?

It is widely recognised that Black researchers are significantly under-represented in higher education, and this disparity has persisted for many years. However, we must work towards change recognising that it is a gradual process.

Programmes like this are crucial in promoting diversity, and diversity fosters success and is essential for excellence. By creating a more inclusive academic environment, these programmes will help cultivate a sense of belonging, which I believe will empower and inspire more Black students to aim higher and achieve their full potential. Additionally, since cancer affects individuals of all ethnicities, it is imperative to have a diverse workforce to effectively tackle and overcome this disease.

I hope that my journey throughout this PhD will serve as a source of inspiration and motivation for many aspiring black PhD students.

And what about cancer research – why did you choose to pursue a career in this field?

Cancer is a devastating disease that affects millions of people worldwide, impacting not only the individuals themselves but also their families and the society as a whole. Despite recent advancements in cancer research, significant challenges and unmet clinical needs persist.

Pancreatic cancer, for example, has shown no significant improvement in survival rates over the years and has limited treatment options. Additionally, treatment resistance, tumour microenvironment heterogeneity, and disease metastasis pose substantial obstacles to effective management. Addressing these areas is crucial. A comprehensive understanding of the disease is essential for improving patient outcomes, enhancing quality of life and making a positive impact on public health. These pressing issues drive my pursuit of cancer research.

What will your PhD studies focus on?

My PhD project aims to enhance our understanding of how mechanical properties of the extracellular matrix (ECM) – such as viscoelasticity – influence immune cell response and cancer cell invasion. By studying immune cell migration and cancer invasion in response to changes in ECM viscoelasticity using a novel microfluidics device and a viscoelastic hydrogel system, we can identify ECM properties that promote immune infiltration into the tumour microenvironment while preventing tumour invasion.

This research has the potential to identify mechano-transducing molecules and ECM properties that can be targeted for therapeutic interventions, ultimately improving the effectiveness of immunotherapy.

How do you feel about being one of the first people selected for this scholarship?

I am incredibly humbled and honoured to be selected as one of the first recipients of this prestigious PhD studentship. It is a privilege to have been awarded this opportunity to conduct research at a renowned institute and be a part of the CRUK PhD student cohort. I hope that my journey throughout this PhD will serve as a source of inspiration and motivation for many aspiring black PhD students.

What would you say to someone considering applying for this programme?

I would encourage individuals from black heritage backgrounds who have a passion for science, research, and a strong interest in cancer research to apply for this program. Support is available throughout the application process, ensuring that applicants are well-informed about the requirements at each stage. I would also advise the interested applicants to register for the virtual insight sessions and reach out to the project supervisors of interest to discuss the research projects before applying.

Abena will be based in both the Alberto Elosegui Artola lab at the Crick Institute and the Victoria Sanz-Moreno lab at the Barts Cancer Institute. Research in the Elosegui-Artola lab focuses on studying the interactions between cells and the extracellular matrix to understand the mechanisms cells use to respond to physical stimuli and how they can be altered in diseases like Cancer. Research in the Sanz-Moreno lab aims to understand how the cytoskeleton and Rho GTPase signalling promotes tumour growth and dissemination.

Abena is looking forward to starting her PhD in September. We’ll be following her progress, and that of some of the other Black Leaders in Cancer PhD students, over the coming months. Keep your eyes peeled on Cancer News For Researchers to tag along…


 

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    Comments

  • Philip
    15 November 2023

    Congratulations on this important opportunity. Having been working at an Oncology centre for over a decade now, it has always been my prayer for such an opportunity where the underrepresented groups in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and research would one day be supported in the cancer fight. Our lucky young mentor, may God grant you whatever necessary you need to hold black flag high till favour and our efforts find us the same opportunity to join you for the common gaol in the cancer research. Good luck my sister!

  • Naomi Greener
    10 October 2023

    All best wishes for your studies, look forward to hearing of your progress .

  • Emmanuel Ansah
    8 October 2023

    It is a nice opportunity for you to represent Blacks especially Ghanaians on the academic front of cancer research. I wish you the best

    Comments

  • Philip
    15 November 2023

    Congratulations on this important opportunity. Having been working at an Oncology centre for over a decade now, it has always been my prayer for such an opportunity where the underrepresented groups in cancer prevention, diagnosis, treatment and research would one day be supported in the cancer fight. Our lucky young mentor, may God grant you whatever necessary you need to hold black flag high till favour and our efforts find us the same opportunity to join you for the common gaol in the cancer research. Good luck my sister!

  • Naomi Greener
    10 October 2023

    All best wishes for your studies, look forward to hearing of your progress .

  • Emmanuel Ansah
    8 October 2023

    It is a nice opportunity for you to represent Blacks especially Ghanaians on the academic front of cancer research. I wish you the best