How did I get here?

How does someone end up designing cancer drugs for their PhD project? Well…

After deciding not to pursue a music career while at high school, I needed to rethink my options. Chemistry had become more interesting once I started studying it as an individual subject. I found breaking the world down into processes and ingredients at a chemical level fascinating. The careers advisor said a science degree would give me plenty options after university. Deciding not to follow my parent’s footsteps into the land of accountancy, and knowing ┬áI had the grades but not the stomach to study medicine, I started looking at chemistry university courses.

While applying to a few of these courses, a family friend gave birth to a son, Oliver, who was sadly born with a rare and aggressive tumour in his arm. Unfortunately he only survived 5 months but since then his parents have been able to raise huge amounts of money for research into childhood cancer, including funding a PhD studentship. When Oliver stopped responding to his treatment, I started to look into how chemistry is used to design new medicines and found myself attracted to chemistry courses with drug discovery streams.

I spent 5 years at University of Strathclyde where I attained a First Class MChem Chemistry with Drug Discovery. This is an integrated masters degree, a year longer than a conventional chemistry degree and includes a year in industry. These types of degree are becoming increasingly common in science subjects. During my placement year I spent time as an R&D intern at Corden Pharma Switzerland. They are a contract manufacturing pharmaceutical firm who make all sorts of different compounds for different customers and I learned a breadth of different types of chemistry while there.

I was um-ing and ah-ing during this placement year over whether to continue my studies, as a PhD was the usual next step in a chemistry career. In the end I realised a PhD would be challenging but would allow me to develop lots of skills and allow me to progress more quickly in a pharmaceutical career, plus there were still many options open to me afterwards.

I decided against a PhD focussing purely on organic chemistry as I was attracted to the idea of making and testing drug compounds I made myself. While this narrowed my choice in PhD options I ended up being offered a project at Sussex Drug Discovery Centre, an interdisciplinary group seeking to discover novel therapeutics for diseases with high unmet medical need.

The title of my project is currently ‘Enabling Drug Discovery in Genome Stability Targets to Target Cancer’. This involves the design and synthesis of novel small molecules which will perhaps in the future allow the design of cancer drugs that stop cancer cells from repairing their own DNA. I spend a lot of my time in a chemistry lab running different reactions to prepare molecules which are then tested by a biologist – but hopefully by me in the future – to see if they stop this process of DNA repair. I also spend time at my desk analysing data, writing up my lab book and various reports, reading journal articles and regularly presenting my findings to my research group.