As part of our the people behind the science series Rebecca Orha, Scientific Officer at Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research in London share her day.
What has been your career path so far?
I am originally from Romania and after high school I moved to Aberdeen, Scotland. There I started my career as a scientist with a degree in Biochemistry and Immunology. My course was an integrated Masters, which allowed me to spend a year in industry, working for a small biotech in Aberdeen. During my year in industry I was developing tools for detecting bladder cancer. This was a great opportunity which made me realise that I’d like to follow a career in cancer research. Fast-forward two years, I am still pursuing my dream working in one of the most prestigious cancer institutes in Europe.
What is your role?
I joined the Research Centre in April 2017 as a Scientific Officer in the Molecular Cell Biology team, led by Professor Clare Isacke. My role is never boring, as I assist people in our lab with experiments. I am also responsible for a lot of day to day aspects of the lab. For example, I ensure that our tissue culture lab is tidy and stocked up, order laboratory materials and reagents, as well as make sure all our research equipment is working well.
Could you give a brief description of your current project?
Our group focuses on understanding how breast cancer can spread to distant organs. At the moment, I am working with one of the postdocs in our group, Lynda O’Leary, on a project that looks at ‘sleeping’ cancer cells which have spread from the breast to other parts of the body. These cancer cells can suddenly wake up and grow into tumours, resulting in secondary breast cancer, which is sadly incurable. The main aim of the project is to understand what triggers allow these cancer cells to wake up.
Could you give us some insight into the impact of this project?
About 20-30% of breast cancers spread to other parts of the body and become incurable. Therefore, developing ways to prevent ‘sleeping’ cancer cells from awaking could help us prevent secondary breast cancer and save lives.
What does your typical day involve?
I generally wake up at 8 am, shower, grab a quick breakfast, pack my lunch, put my Dr Martens shoes on and jump on a London hire bike to be at the lab for 9.30. When I get to work I first check how cells in the lab are growing, look at my calendar and then plan my day from there. No day is ever the same, so it depends on how the cells I’m growing behave. If they are good, I do my work with them in the morning and leave the afternoon for more complex experiments. We also have an opportunity to attend different talks on cancer research from scientists within the ICR or from researchers around the world. I end the day by updating my calendar with plans for the next day and updating my lab book with the latest experiments. When I get home I usually cook a quick dinner and watch TV series.
What has been your most memorable work moment?
My most memorable work moment was when I found out that I passed my animal licence course. Using animal models in research is necessary to advance our understanding of health and disease and to develop new treatments. But as researchers, we also must ensure that we use them only when there is no alternative available. To be able to carry out this research you need to go through rigorous training and get a licence. The course consists of three days of intensive learning and tests at the end of each day, so it is quite challenging. I’d also never done animal work before so I was very nervous about getting the licence, but it ended up being a success and I am very happy about it.
What’s the worst part of your job?
I would have to say it’s analysing tissue microscopy images. While it is generally an interesting task, as you get to observe cells in healthy tissue and disease, by the 100th image it gets quite repetitive and straining to the eyes. Plus, it keeps me away from other lab work that I love.
What’s the best part?
I think the best part of my job is the fact that I get to do what I am most passionate about and that my work is part of something bigger that will ultimately change people’s lives for the better.
If you weren’t a researcher what would your dream job be?
I have a big passion for photography, which I pursue in my spare time. So if I weren’t a researcher I would love a career as a photographer for an interior design or a travel magazine. I am also a cinephile, I enjoy independent cinematography, so another possible career choice would be a film critic.