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Brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer

Two Minutes With... James Innes – PhD Student, UCL Institute of Neurology

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What does your job involve on a daily basis?

What a PhD throws at you day-to-day can be highly variable. Generally speaking, we are carrying out experiments, recording/analysing results and planning future experiments, all in parallel. I might also be emailing people to arrange for the use of an in-demand piece of equipment or painstakingly going through results of an experiment to observe success and failures and work out next steps.

What’s the most interesting / enjoyable thing about your work?

I particularly enjoy the novelty of what I’m doing. I get the opportunity to be creative in a highly specialised area. The chances of someone else in London having a similar day to me is very unlikely. However, the thing I enjoy most is watching experiments going from idea to reality. 

For example, recently we have adopted a new approach for labelling tumour cells. I devised a theoretically sound experimental regime but couldn’t be sure that its application would be successful. After carrying out some pilot experiments it was clear my plan had worked out as intended, this was incredibly satisfying! 

What’s your main highlight of the last year?

As a newcomer to the field, one of the highlights was travelling to research conferences and learning more about the latest approaches for treating brain tumours. Medicine is erring into the realm of science fiction nowadays. 

When I was younger almost all drugs were poorly specific small molecules. Now we are firing proton beams, re-engineering our immune systems and modifying virus particles to specifically tackle different cancer entities. 


What’s been the biggest surprise to you as a result of your research?



The biggest surprise to me was the complexity and severely limited understanding in the field of brain tumours. Historically, neuro-oncology has not been funded on the same level as other cancers and this is reflected in poorer patient outcomes and limited therapies.  

cells dividing

Picture credit: James Innes PhD, Prof Sebastian Brandner (University College London) and Prof Silvia Marino (Queen Mary University of London)

Who or what inspired you to work in this field?

Luckily for me, I had two exceptional Biology teachers in school. They both succeeded in imparting their passion for the subject and its power in medicine. Particularly, molecular function in cells is a topic with such depth it sometimes seems like a separate world. The opportunity to advance medicine while being creative is both fascinating and inspirational.   

What do you hope to achieve with your current/future research?

A dawning realisation for new researchers is the sheer scale of worldwide scientific research. Trying to figure out where my work fits into this global machine is a daunting thought. I would love to complete my PhD with a publication. But also seeing people building upon the work I have done will be really gratifying. This will validate to me that my work fits into this global machine. I don’t like to think too far into the future, but I am determined to continue working in brain tumour research. 


How did you get such a job - what route did you take to get here? Were there any challenges on the way, and if so, what were they and how did you overcome them?

Applying for a PhD role is a highly competitive endeavour. The biggest challenge to overcome is failure. Upon completing my BSc, I had worked in labs every summer and had also published papers – crucial for any academic career. I applied to a number of post graduate programmes and was rejected outright from them all, which was big blow to my confidence. But I did not give up and continued my development by enrolling in an MSc and afterwards, I had much greater luck with PhD applications!


Do you have any inspiring quotes that you have stuck on your fridge or above your desk, and if so, what are they?

90% of my experiments don’t work – Frederick Sanger (Nobel Prize winner)

What difference has Brain Tumour Research funding made to you and your career?

Brain Tumour Research has extended me an incredible opportunity for developing practical skills and experience. Being part of the extensive and coordinated programme funded by the charity has been an invaluable opportunity for understanding the workings of scientific funding. Furthermore, working with Brain Tumour Research at fundraising events and meeting the patients we are working for is incredibly motivating.

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