Training of the next generation of convergence scientists to become world leaders in cancer research

 

The Centre offers PhD training for clinical and non-clinical students and a unique PhD programme in convergence science for medical undergraduates. 

 

Convergence Science PhD Training Programme

The Convergence Science PhD pathway is for graduates from diverse scientific backgrounds including biology, data sciences, engineering and physical sciences. Trainees are exposed to cutting-edge research across both institutions through joint supervision from cancer research experts at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and engineering and physical sciences experts at Imperial College London. This unique integration of distinct knowledge and skills enables the removal of disciplinary boundaries and equips trainees to address the big problems in cancer through convergence research.

 

CRUK Clinical Academic Training (CAT) Programme

The CAT Programme supports training for the next generation of clinical academics who will drive the discovery and delivery of novel treatments, methodologies and technologies that will benefit cancer patients. This programme consists of a unique intercalated PhD in convergence science for exceptional medical undergraduates who wish to include a PhD as part of their degree course and the Clinical Research Training Fellowship pathway for early career clinician scientists. This programme is underpinned by a structured mentoring plan to navigate trainees throughout the PhD years and beyond. 

 

Considering a PhD in convergence science? Perspectives from our current students and supervisors

 

We asked a selection of our supervisors their thoughts on convergence science, their philosophy to mentoring, what attributes they are looking for in a convergence science student, and what key factors prospective students should consider when choosing a PhD. We also asked a selection of our current students what attracted them to this field, their experience of the programme so far, and what their aspirations are for the future. 

 

Supervisors

What inspired you to start working in cancer research and convergence science?

We have solved a huge range of problems with ultrasonics in the engineering area, finding defects in components such as oil pipes, turbine blades and welds, and much of this can be translated to other areas, including cancer detection. It seemed like a really exciting opportunity to use what we do to benefit society in a completely different way.

 

Please can you describe how multidisciplinary team working is currently benefiting your labs work?

Creativity thrives on diversity across all forms, and through the multidisciplinary nature of this work we can help to cross-pollinate ideas from a variety of areas. This ultimately improves both the quality and quantity of our research output.

 

What attribute are you looking for in a student joining your team?

Flexibility is key in work like this; a PhD involves focusing very closely on one particular subject, and in convergence science this area will involve elements from multiple disciplines. It is critical that the student has the flexibility to understand the processes from both disciplines and be able to incorporate these.

 

How has your experience been managing students working across two sites?

Inevitably you rely on trust and communication from both sides. You must trust the student to be motivated and push on with their work, and you must have active communication with the supervision team from the other organisation, so that both sides knows what is going on.

 

What main piece of advice would you give students who want to work in convergence science?

It is a great opportunity to have big impact – try to stay on top of things and don’t get behind (although that’s important on any project!). Make sure that you keep both sides in the loop to get maximum benefit.

 

What is your philosophy and approach for supervising trainees?

I try not to dictate exactly what the students should do – students are there to learn and part of that is learning to research. If a student just does what I tell them each week then they won’t learn. In the USA they refer to supervisors as ‘advisors’ and I actually quite like this term – we should be there to guide and provide advice.

Clearly there are some times when a student may need some more direct guidance and it is important to recognise this too!

    What are some important factors that trainees should consider when searching for a PhD and a supervisor?

    Find something you find interesting! You will spend all your time for the next few years working on this. You need to be engaged with it!

     

    Who are (or were) some of your most memorable mentors, and how has their impact on your life and career influenced your own supervisor style?

    I am fortunate to have two senior colleagues who have provided me invaluable advice – Professors Peter Cawley and Mike Lowe, both of whom have been very successful within non-destructive testing. Peter is very decisive and driven, with a great vision, particularly when it comes to commercialisation. Mike is extremely strong technically and has a very calm approach to problems, and they complement each other very well. In a reflection of the success of their styles, Mike is currently the head-of-department for Mechanical Engineering and Peter was the previous one! I try to take parts from both of these approaches.

     

    What do you think are senior faculty members’ responsibilities toward younger faculty in their department?

    As I came through I was amazed at the support from more senior academics – committing time to reading my funding proposals etc. and really helping me get my foot on the ladder. This is part of the cycle – they were helped when they came through. Now I try to do the same for more junior people.

     

    What advice do you have for trainees in terms of networking, and what role do you think supervisors should play?

    I think networking is best led by the students – having supervisors force this never works. However, supervisors should work to provide a range of different opportunities, respecting students have different ways they like to network. It could be as simple as going to the pub! And students should try to recognise these opportunities and take them.

    What inspired you to start working in cancer research and convergence science?

    After my PhD in radiation physics it was important for me to find an application for my expertise that made a real-world difference. I worked for the Ministry of Defence for a couple of years in the detection space, but it did not quite satisfy me at same level as working in medicine even though it was using the same science. Working in cancer gave me the opportunity to use my love of radiation physics in an environment that was stimulating and innovative. My early career focused on the early detection of breast cancer which felt like a very worthy everyday challenge where I could make a real difference as opposed to less tangible challenges like searching for black holes. Currently I am a physicist based at the Institute of Cancer Research. Convergence Science is essentially what I have always done.

     

    Please can you describe how multidisciplinary team working is currently benefiting your labs work?

    Working with my colleagues at Imperial, I came to the realisation that we shared a lot of commonalities in the problems we each face every day in our research, and that there are technologies and techniques already being used in other fields that could be useful to solve these problems. I also work closely with an extended network of radiographers and radiation oncologists that help me to understand the clinical challenges and offer guidance on what is useful and realistic. Overall working in a multidisciplinary team keeps our work focused and allows us to do cancer research that will better benefit patients.  

     

    What attribute are you looking for in a student joining your team?

    I am looking for students with strong scientific curiosity – whose second nature if to consider what is going on and why. Personal and academic integrity is also essential.

     

    How has your experience been managing students working across two sites?

    The student that I work with spends half his time with me at the ICR and half his time at Imperial. Good communication and a routine between the supervisors and the student are essential so we know where each other is going to be and when. As supervisors we need to be mindful of the different pulls on the student’s time to manage their workload, and the student also needs to manage their own time well and be flexible. My experience has been very good. We have monthly meetings all together at alternating sites and try to make a date of it by going for a drink after the meeting.

     

    What main piece of advice would you give students who want to work in convergence science?

    My key piece if advice would be to make sure students stay focused on their project and ensure they are continually accessing the tools needed to get the piece of work done. There is a mass of general reading, especially with two disciplines, and students need to stay focused on the key components they need to take from each area. They need to continually communicate their progress with the supervisor and wider team to help steer them away from going too far down the wrong rabbit holes and to keep them on track. Students need to be prepared to manage up to ensure that they are getting the support they need.

     

    What is your philosophy and approach for supervising trainees? 

    I very much encourage my students to innovate and to have their own ideas. I am not rigid and am open to new ideas as long as they work towards the outcome we want – to detect or help therapy.  I am not a micromanager – it is the students project and I expect them to be getting on with it within a year. My key role is supporting them to develop the scientific skill to be able to do the research, and importantly to develop the soft skills like writing and presentation to be able to best communicate their work.

     

    What are some important factors that trainees should consider when searching for a PhD and a supervisor?

    When looking for a supervisor it is important students find someone who they will have a good working relationship with. Try to understand the supervisors and labs working practice to help evaluate compatibility – for example it is important for them to consider how much time they will get with the supervisor and what they can expect in terms of support. It is also critical to understand what resources they need, and to ensure they have access to all the equipment required for the project. I would also recommend scoping the supervisors future publication plans to explore routes to publication for their PhD.

     

    Who are (or were) some of your most memorable mentors, and how has their impact on your life and career influenced your own supervisor style?

    My post-doctoral supervisor was meticulous in always asking me ‘what is the scientific question, what are you trying to answer, what is your hypothesis?’. Every time you go into a meeting or every time you think about your work you need to ask yourself these questions to be able to frame your work in a way that brings it back to the question at hand. I would hope that I can teach my students to similarly think and communicate their science in a rigorous way and with integrity.

     

    What do you think are senior faculty members’ responsibilities toward younger faculty in their department?

    My responsibility is to facilitate their research and education totally and utterly. It is my purpose for being to ensure they have the resource, equipment, and ability to do the research, and the guidance and encouragement they need to flourish, to write papers and present their work at conferences.  

     

     


    What inspired you to start working in cancer research and convergence science?

    I am medically trained and decided to go into cancer whilst working as a respiratory junior doctor managing lung cancer patients. I always thought I wanted a career combining research and medical practice and I found cancer endlessly fascinating. I also realised that the way we managed cancer in 1993 was poor and the only way we were going to improve cancer outcomes was through research. I did a PhD very early on before I had done much clinical oncology in the hospital as I knew I wanted to become a translational researcher. 

    Convergence science was new to me when I joined Imperial. I moved from the Beatson Institute in Glasgow which focuses intensely on cancer biology, and when I came to Imperial my eyes were opened to the skills that engineers and physical scientists bring to helping us improve cancer. For example, most of the advances in next generation sequencing are engineering, and that technology has dramatically increased our understanding of cancer! Being at Imperial has made me realise the massive benefit working with our engineering and physical science colleagues can bring.

     

    Please can you describe how multidisciplinary team working is currently benefiting your labs work?

    There are three key ways in which multidisciplinary working is benefiting my lab – advances in technology, improved cancer modelling, and skill mix. Firstly, I used a lot of technology that has harnessed the technology of biological engineers, physical engineers and data analysts. For example, my lab does a lot of immunology using multi-spectral flow cytometry which is an engineering advance enabling us to do better biology. Secondly, I am for example collaborating with bioengineers who have fantastic prefusion devices that allows us to keep real tumour alive to do ex vivo experiments that I would not be able to do alone. Lastly, I currently have a post-doctoral researcher on an EPSRC fellowship in my lab who did a PhD in chemistry and bring a whole new skill set to the team – she suggests things at our lab meetings that we would never have considered and in that way is opening up new ways of working which is very exciting.

     

    What attribute are you looking for in a student joining your teams

    The main things for me are enthusiasm and having a desire to learn. I am looking for students to be inquisitive and willingness to thing much broader than the traditional training – to be willing to immerse themselves into an area they don’t know much about because they can see the possibilities of working across departments. I would expect students to be slightly nervous about this but also excited about the possibilities of learning something new and applying it to an area they feel more comfortable in. I am looking for people with a desire to work hard, both in their project but also in the wider working of my group, the Division of Surgery and Cancer, and the CRUK Centres.

     

    How has your experience been managing students working across two labs?

    When working with students I can’t see on an everyday basis, good communication between the student and both supervisors/labs is essential. My mantra is about ensuring the students feel at home wherever they go, and the supervisor teams need to make special efforts to make them feel at home in both labs.

     

    What main piece of advice would you give students who want to work in convergence science?

    Be broad minded and willing to learn, acknowledge what you do and don’t know, be prepared to feel uncomfortable working in an unfamiliar area and embrace this as an opportunity to be uniquely trained in these areas.

     

    What is your philosophy and approach for supervising trainees? 

    My approach to supervising students is to provide ‘controlled freedom’. At the beginning of the PhD I tend to be relatively prescription and then I tailor the freedom as best required for each student to allow them to flourish. For some it is about focusing their energy whereas for others its about supporting them to give them confidence. It is incredibly important to ensure they feel supported and embedded as part of a team. I try to provide reassurance that whilst they may not cure cancer, they will get their PhD, learn how to think like a scientist, and set up the fundamental building blocks for their research career.

     

    What are some important factors that trainees should consider when searching for a PhD and a supervisor?

    When I talk to students, I show them a map of the world that’s hung above my desk and say ‘this is your PhD’. The world is your campus – do not accept the first PhD you are offered. When you meet a Supervisor you want to consider with them the following:

    -          What is your specific project (whilst understanding that your project will no doubt evolve over time), is it a three or four year course, who is funding you, does funding cover all the consumables and will you be able to do all the experiments you need to do?

    -          Who is going to supervise you on a day to day basis, where are your two labs and how do you get between the two, how many PhD students do your Supervisors have in their lab and how many PhD students have they supervised previously?

    -          How many PhD students are there in the Department/Institute/Division and is there a formal cohort structure, what training will there be beyond the immediate ones in the lab (e.g. is there seminar programmes, is there opportunity for conferences and international travel)?

    Your PhD will likely dictate a surprisingly large amount of what you move forward to do. My PhD led directly to me being an ovarian oncologist. Invest the time to ensure it is the right project and right supportive environment for you.

     

    Who are (or were) some of your most memorable mentors, and how has their impact on your life and career influenced your own supervisor style?

    I have three main people who helped inspire me. My PhD supervisor, Peter Searle had a big influence on me as he was the person who got me into ovarian cancer. He also taught me about first principles as we had to make all our own gels back then and the importance of attention to detail. The Director of the institute where I did my PhD was Alan Rickenson who spent his whole career working on the Epstein Barr Virus and had relentless focus and I was inspired by his dedicated focus. Nick Lemoine taught me about translational oncology and got me into being a translational scientist. Nick was into gene expression way before it was mainstream and he inspired me with his vision and forward thinking. I am so fortunate for these great influences as I can honestly say I thoroughly enjoy my job being a treating clinician and a lab scientist - I wouldn’t do anything else.

     

    What do you think are senior faculty members’ responsibilities toward younger faculty in their department?

    The job of senior faculty is to create the right environment where students can thrive – to set them up with the required funding, resource and equipment, and also a sense of team,  community and support. It is our role to give them everything they needs so that the only thing that restricts them is their own imagination and time. 

    Students

    What attracted you to the CRUK Convergence Science Centre training scheme?

    I knew I wanted to continue in science after my undergraduate degree, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do ‘pure’ physics research that wouldn’t have a direct impact or benefit. Using my physics background in cancer research seemed like an interesting change of pace to me. The Convergent Science Centre training scheme was offering the project I was most interested in, which was why I chose it, but the opportunity to work across different fields and with people from a wide range of scientific backgrounds was also very appealing to me.

     

    What disciplines is your project converging and how do they complement each other?

    My project is concerned with employing numerical tools to simulate the interaction of ultrasound with human tissue, so there are combinations of acoustics, biomechanics and programming. The acoustic side of things sits quite harmoniously with the programming, which is the areas I was more informed about to begin with. I’m less au fait with the biology, so I’ve had to do a bit more reading in in that area. The convergence starts to come in when you use the numerical tools to model soft tissue. Now you’re trying to model the interaction of ultrasound with biological features using a piece of software that’s more typically used to assess metal joints or pipes.

     

    What have you enjoyed most about your PhD so far?

    I really enjoy the opportunity to work alongside people doing science that they’re passionate about. Everyone has their own area that they’ve focused on, so it’s exciting hearing about where everyone is and what they’re pushing towards. Part of the reason for doing a PhD was that I wanted to be doing something fascinating, but it’s an added bonus that the person on the desk next to you is also doing something really interesting to you.

      What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?
      As I get deeper into my PhD I’m starting to move toward less certain waters, I’m hoping that in the next year I’ll start to produce work with impact and originality. I’m looking forward to – hopefully – getting published and being able to communicate my work to other people in my field.

       

      Which campuses are you based at and how is the culture?
      I split my time between the South Kensington Campus of Imperial and the Sutton site of the ICR. The culture at both sites has been great in my experience, I know wherever I am there are plenty of people around who would be happy to lend a hand or explain something to me, and both the teams I work in are supportive and sociable.

       

      Do you face any challenges working across two sites?
      Not particularly, I really enjoy my week being broken up into two different locations. Partitioning the work I do at each site helps me to work on more varied tasks instead of getting blinkered on one thing, and also keeps things fresh with a change of scenery.

       

      What are you hoping this PhD will lead to next?

      I’m not yet certain on whether I want to move into academia or industry, I can see benefits to both but I’ll have to get back to you on that! If I could take some of the acoustics and programming skills that I’ve developed and work in music that could be really interesting, but I also really like the idea of working in research.

      What are your long terms career aspiration?

      I hope to be able to have a career where I’m being challenged intellectually all the time, where I’m excited to solve the problems I’m facing, and hopefully making a positive impact in the world. If those conditions are met then I’ll be content!

      How do you find living in London?

      It’s been great so far. I’ve found myself uncharacteristically busy all the time (in a good way), and have got to experience a load of things that I didn’t expect. The abundance of gigs and pubs is a big tick for me.

      What do you enjoy doing outside work?

      My main passion is music, I play a few instruments and write and record music with friends. I’ve always got music on, and it’s a great release from whatever else is happening around me. I’m also a homebrewer, recently I’ve been finishing up a Tripel that I brewed at the start of lockdown, which came out really well, and I’m now looking at recipes for my next batch.


      What attracted you to the CRUK Convergence Science Centre training scheme?

      My studies have had an interdisciplinary focus since the beginning. First my bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Engineering combined both engineering sciences with biology/medicine and later on my master’s in Bionanotechnology & Advanced Biomanufacturing required understanding the principles of biology to be able to biofabricate artificial tissues through engineering techniques. Thus, for my PhD programme I was looking for a project that could apply engineering techniques towards solving a real clinical challenge that could eventually benefit patients . This program was the perfect fit for me since is focused on addressing cancer challenges following a multidisciplinary approach.

       

      What disciplines is your project converging and how do they complement each other?

      My project tries to unravel the role that capillary constriction forces play on the metastatic progression by engineering capillary networks using microfluidic platforms. Thus, it is a combination of cancer cell biology and the design and fabrication of microfluidic platforms that resemble the complex capillary microenvironment. Applying engineering techniques as a tool to understand cancer biology may help to understand how circulating cancer cells develop adaptations that enhance metastasis during their capillary transit, a complex process difficult to study in animal models.

       

      What have you enjoyed most about your PhD so far?

      Learning to engineer microfluidic chips comprising 5um-microchannels that resemble human capillaries and observing how cancer cells behave when they squeeze through them under physiological pressures.

       

      What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?

      Obtaining the first experimental data about how cancer cells behave transiting capillary-like microchannels, what will help in the future to design targeted therapeutics that may block early metastatic dissemination. Additionally, I am looking forward to learning new techniques such as CRISPR-Cas9, cell sequencing or new biofabrication approaches and also to establish new collaborations. 

       

      Which campuses are you based at and how is the culture?

      I am performing the engineering part at the South Kensington campus of Imperial College London and the cell biology part at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in Chelsea. These two institutions are very different. Imperial College London is a large campus with a great international environment. Within my department there are many interesting interdisciplinary talks focused on different aspects of bioengineering, so opportunities to collaborate are countless. On the other side, ICR is a smaller institution but with a great expertise and experience on cancer research. It is truly rewarding to see the direct clinical application of the research that is carried out there, since they perform multiple clinical trials in close collaboration with hospitals. 

       

      Do you face any challenges working across two sites?

      It requires some additional planning in order to be able to attend the lab meetings and  meet my two supervisors at Imperial and ICR, as well as the seminars taking place in both institutions. On the other side, the close location between both institutions (10 minute walking distance) makes it very easy to commute between them.

       

      What are you hoping this PhD will lead to next?

      A therapeutic treatment that can target circulating tumour cells in their transit through the microvasculature, reducing the possibilities of metastasis, which is responsible of 90%-cancer associated deaths.

       

      What are your long terms career aspiration?

      I do not know yet if I want to pursue a postdoc or maybe switch to industry, but in any case, I would love to keep being closely involved with research applied to benefit patients lives.

       

      How do you find living in London?

      London is an amazing city with a huge cultural offer that makes impossible to get you bored: museums, art galleries, all types of music, multicultural markets etc. There are also so many parks and different neighbourhoods that you can keep on discovering new spots every weekend. It is also the most international place I have ever been, meaning that you have the chance to meet people all over the world and learn about new cultures.

       

      What do you enjoy doing outside work?

      I enjoy discovering new corners of London, as well as cycling through its beautiful streets or exploring its countless markets. I also enjoy travelling, going climbing, reading and meeting up with friends.

       

      What attracted you to the CRUK Convergence Science Centre training scheme?

      I think the idea that I could be a part of two top UK institutions definitely attracted me to the scheme to begin with. In particular, being spread across two different teams and learning two different disciplines is a brilliant way to be educated and will stand you in good stead for future careers. 

       

      What disciplines is your project converging and how do they complement each other?

      My project converges biosciences; bioengineering and chemistry in the form of proteomics. My project also involves moving work from plants to mammals so converges working with two different kingdoms. They complement each other because the cell lines engineered using bioengineering and assessed using bioscience techniques can be further analysed using proteomics to give a deeper level of understanding and analyses. 

       

      What have you enjoyed most about your PhD so far?

      So far, I have most enjoyed being able to focus on one particular topic that I are really interested in. I have also loved getting involved with the student life at the institutions and joining the student committee at the ICR as well as getting to know and work with the teams across the sites. 

       

      What are you most looking forward to in the year ahead?

      I am most looking forward to getting to re-start lab work after COVID-19 and really getting stuck into my project, with all of the knowledge and ideas I have gained during lockdown.

       

      Which campuses are you based at and how is the culture?

      I am actually spread across three different campuses: ICR, Sutton; ICR, Chelsea and Imperial College at South Kensington. The culture at the ICR is very different to that of imperial and I like the mix of the small family like atmosphere at the ICR and the huge PhD student cohorts at Imperial and the many societies etc. you can get involved with. 

       

      Do you face any challenges working across two sites?

      I would say the only challenge in working across two sites is the large amount of travel it involves. However, knowing this in advance, and positioning yourself well in London can minimise this. I also find now travelling can be a great time to get on with some reading whether it be a scientific paper or a good thriller novel.

       

      What are you hoping this PhD will lead to next?

      I am hoping to continue a career in academia. The best part about doing a PhD using convergence science is that I will hopefully have knowledge in multiple disciplines, which means I have a wide variety of research settings and fields I could progress into.

       

      What are your long term career aspirations?

      My ultimate goal is to progress in academia. I would particularly love to work in an educational setting, where I can have my own research team and alongside educate the next generation of scientists on my research and the topics I am passionate about. 

       

      How do you find living in London?

      I absolutely love living in London. I am from Newcastle and so I am quite far from home, but there is always so much to do and people to meet in the Capital. Also, because you’re in London, everyone always wants to visit you and so my weekends are always full with friends visiting!

       

      What do you enjoy doing outside work?

      Outside of work I love to travel and I am always planning the next trip. When I am not visiting friends, I am also an avid reader and love a Netflix docu-series.

       

       

       


      Metastatic mouse
      melanoma cells
      spreading on a
      collagen matrix

      Metastatic mouse
      melanoma cells
      spreading on a
      collagen matrix