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

What does it take to pursue a career in brain tumour research?

by Nicola Gale

During British Science Week (10th – 19th March 2023), we caught up with Alexandra Hadaway, a PhD researcher at the Brain Tumour Research Centre of Excellence at Queen Mary University of London. She told us more about her research into childhood brain tumours, as well as the motivations and challenges of a talented young researcher starting out in a career in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).  

Alexandra joined Professor Silvia Marino’s lab in November 2021 thanks to a generous donation from our Member Charity, The Children’s Brain Tumour Foundation, set up by Cheryl and Paul David following their son Miles’ diagnosis with an ependymoma, aged five.  In winding down their charity, they transferred their remaining funds of £114,000 to Brain Tumour Research to fund Alexandra’s four-year PhD studentship. 

Dr Karen Noble, our Director of Research, Policy and Innovation, said: “Our mission is to provide sustainable, long-term funding to Brain Tumour Research Centres of Excellence which will enable them to recruit and train promising researchers to pursue a lifelong career in research. By providing the environment to allow Alexandra to grow and develop her research skills we are futureproofing, supporting the brightest and best to carve out a career in brain tumour research which is needed if we are to achieve our vision of finding a cure for all types of brain tumours.”

How did your career in science start?

At sixth form, I took biology, chemistry and maths A-levels, and physics AS-level. I wanted to study biochemistry at university and this combination of subjects worked out great for me. I needed biology and chemistry to get onto my course and even though physics and maths weren’t a requirement, I found them helpful for my studies. They gave me a strong grounding for the equations and concepts I would encounter at undergraduate level, and beyond. The knowledge I gained from studying these subjects helped me do well in my degree, enabling me to go on to get a Masters in Cancer Cell Biology, and now pursue a PhD. 

What projects are you working on?

Currently I am working on understanding epigenetic dysregulation in paediatric brain tumours. This involves looking at changes to DNA modifications in paediatric brain tumour cells compared to healthy brain cells, and what overall effect these changes have on the tumour cell. 

How could your research benefit patients?

Understanding more about tumours at the cellular and molecular level could enable more targeted patient therapies. Understanding the differences between different paediatric brain tumours and what is driving them can allow more specific targeting of future therapies to specific patient subgroups. 

Alexandra explains more about her research and how it will benefit patients in the video below. 

What do you find most rewarding about your job?

The most rewarding part of my job is achieving an aim that has been difficult to deliver. Often experiments that I carry out need optimisation (lots of tweaking) to work well, and finally getting an experiment to run after multiple stages of optimisation is extremely rewarding. 

What is the hardest part of your job?

To get results requires a lot of work and time, often accompanied by many setbacks. It is challenging to keep working at experiments when sometimes the end result feels far away.

Who motivates you in difficult times?

A lot of different people have motivated me during my PhD. My family and friends are incredibly supportive, and it always helps to talk to them about how I feel. As well as this my lab is incredibly supportive – whether they are helping to troubleshoot an experiment, teaching me a new skill that I need to progress or talking through something I'm working on.

What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of pursuing a career as a brain tumour researcher?

I was unsure when I started my A-levels exactly which field I wanted to go into, but I knew I wanted my research to help people. I enjoyed certain aspects of biology and so I decided to do a BSc in Biochemistry. I made sure to pick a university that also allowed me to take neuroscience modules as I knew this was something I was interested in too. Whenever possible in my undergraduate studies, I would pick essay topics or modules that allowed me to expand my knowledge of the brain. So, my advice would be to learn about the topic whenever possible and go to universities which place importance on neuroscience and have active research there. 

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