We speak to Dr Lynda O’ Leary, Postdoctoral Training Fellow at he Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research in London.

What has been your career path so far?    
I studied Biotechnology at the National University of Ireland in Galway. It was there that I became interested in cancer and decided to go on to do a PhD. I took on an interesting PhD project which involved manipulating a certain protein in the body to use it to kill cancer cells. This was a European project which also gave me a chance to spend half of my time in the Netherlands, which I loved. After my PhD I came to work at the Breast Cancer Now Research Centre.

What is your role? 
As a postdoc in the Molecular cell biology team led by Professor Clare Isacke, my main responsibility is to develop and lead my own project within the lab. It includes planning experiments, carrying them out and analysing and interpreting the results. Within the team we all play an active role in training others and discussing each other’s projects. I also supervise a student and am often involved in helping with the recruitment of new lab members. 

Could you give us a brief description of your current project?
In some types of breast cancer, some patients may unfortunately relapse quite late, with the disease spreading and a secondary tumour appearing in another organ. This delay is thought to be caused by ‘sleeping’ cancer cells waking up and starting to grow after a prolonged period. My project is focused on finding out what causes these cancer cells to wake up and understand what changes happen in the cancer cells themselves or the surrounding tissue to allow it to happen. 

Could you give us some insight into the impact of this project?
If breast cancer spreads to other organs and women develop secondary breast cancer, for half of them it will happen after 5 or more years since their initial cancer diagnosis. If we are able to understand how these sleeping cells can wake up, we can try to interfere with this process to protect these women from developing secondary breast cancer.

What does your typical day involve?
One of the things that I love about being a research scientist is that our work is so varied there is rarely a typical day. I usually start at 9.30 am and begin first with checking my emails. I usually plan my experiments a week or more in advance as some of them can last several days or even weeks. Depending on what I have planned, I may spend time working with the different cancer cells I use in my project, setting up experiments, using one of our fancy microscopes to look at cells, or analysing and interpreting data at the computer. Some days, I may spend time reading research publications to stay on top of all the new discoveries in my research field. We also have a lot of great talks from brilliant scientists who come to share their results and we have meetings within our team to discuss the individual projects happening in our lab.

What has been your most memorable work moment?
My most memorable moment so far was seeing my name printed on my first published research paper.  

What’s the worst part of your job?
Research can be quite frustrating sometimes when things don’t work, but you get really good at problem solving and also learn to be resilient and keep going. You definitely couldn’t be a scientist if you couldn’t handle things not always going your way. 

What’s the best part?
The best part of being a scientist is being able to ask questions for which there are no answers yet. And if you’re lucky, be the one to answer them.  

If you weren’t a researcher what would your dream job be?
I’d like to be the female version of Sir David Attenborough.