I wanted to work in a laboratory as a researcher and make discoveries that could improve how we diagnose and treat different diseases
My journey to becoming a researcher really began when I did work experience in a medical research lab that were investigating how DNA mutations cause different diseases in children. Like many of my colleagues I had been fascinated by science and specifically biology as a kid, but this was the moment that led me to know that I wanted to work in a laboratory as a researcher and make discoveries that could improve how we diagnose and treat different diseases. My mum’s cancer diagnosis later that year drove home that I wanted to work specifically in cancer research.
During my undergraduate studies I majored in genetics and loved every minute of it, and I was incredibly fortunate to be able to participate in the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP) where I worked in a lab part time. I met some inspiring researchers, I learnt many different techniques in the lab, and most importantly it cemented in my mind how much I enjoyed the process of research – finding a gap in our understanding of how or why something happens, designing a set of well controlled experiments that will answer the question and if/when the results from those experiments aren’t as clear cut as expected going back and repeating the process until the results are meaningful.
For my PhD I studied the processes involved in the development of the intestine as they can be recapitulated in the development of colorectal cancer, using the zebrafish as a model system. And while my PhD was a long, and sometimes painful, journey (as most PhDs are), it was also an incredible experience. I worked with an amazing group of researchers, and my supervisors let me explore the biology and drive my project in the directions I was most interested in. Although I loved the research that I was doing in my PhD and basic research is incredibly important, I decided that for my post-doc I wanted to move into translational research that was closer to helping cancer patients.
My current research seeks to understand why ovarian cancers become resistant to treatment over time, with a particular focus on understanding the DNA mutations that develop and cause resistance. Unfortunately, outcomes for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer are not great: it is the 6th most common cancer death in women, and it is a relatively rare cancer that doesn’t get much attention, but I hope that my research can lead to improved outcomes for women with this disease. Using DNA sequencing and bioinformatics approaches (which is the use of computational methods to analyse large biological datasets), I have identified several different resistance mechanisms in ovarian cancer. Learning how to code and perform bioinformatics has been a fun challenge, and I was lucky enough to attend a two-week bioinformatics training course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) which is just outside of New York. While there are days when I miss putting on my lab coat and gloves and running an experiment, I find working at the computer with large sets of sequencing data to find new mutations or other changes that might contribute to treatment resistance incredibly rewarding. Genomics is such a fast-moving field, with new technologies and methods to analyse existing data constantly being developed, that there is always something new to find.
One of the areas of medical research I am keen to see improve is research into health and disease in women. After reading an enlightening (and also at times enraging) book called Invisible Women (by Caroline Criado Perez) I realised how often research focuses on men. Did you know that “only one-third of people participating in clinical trials relating to cardiovascular disease are women” (1)? And many diseases, including Alzheimer’s and heart disease, affect men and women differently, even the symptoms of heart attacks differ between the genders and that contributes to women being “50% more likely than men to receive an initial misdiagnosis after a heart attack” (1). And while substantial progress has been made, for example some funding agencies require scientists to account for the role of gender in their results, there is still some way to go. An analysis earlier this year of studies into COVID19 found that only 8 of 45 articles describing clinical trials that were published up to December 2020 reported sex-disaggregated results (2). While my own research seeks to understand more about diseases that solely affect women, I hope that other researchers will start to take note of this gender disparity as it can have significant consequences and “including both sexes in research is too important to ignore” (3).
- It’s time to expand the definition of ‘women’s health (2021) Nature
- Brady et al., (2021) Lack of consideration of sex and gender in COVID-19 clinical studies. Nature Communications
- Anna Nowogrodzki., (2017) Inequality in medicine. Nature
Figure legend: Visualization of the changes that occur in the DNA of ovarian cancer cells.
Liz is a Senior Research Officer under Professor David Bowtell in the Cancer Genetics and Genomics Lab. Her research interests include understanding drug resistance in ovarian and endometrial cancer using genomics and bioinformatics. Liz has published papers in high-impact journals including Nature and Journal of Clinical Oncology.
Dr Liz Christie can be contacted by:
Email: [email protected]
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