If I were to say that I had always known that I wanted to study medicine, and in particular haematology, then I would not be telling the truth. I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to study after school and had it not been for a brilliant female biology teacher, I don’t think my career would have gone down the path it has. The school I attended was a state school and I always remember being told to be “realistic” by a careers advisor when I said I wanted to study science at university. I wish he could see me now. Against advice I submitted an application to study Applied Biology at Newcastle University and to my shock I was successful. I received a first class degree with honours in 2008.
During my undergraduate degree I loved the research side of science and once I completed the degree I noticed an advertisement for a PhD studentship in Newcastle University funded by Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research (LLR). One thing I have not mentioned is that growing up I knew a few people who had leukaemia, some of whom did not survive. Leukaemia has therefore always been in my thoughts and I felt an overwhelming need to apply for the position. I am thankful every day that I was successful, and my female supervisor was to become one of the key role models in my future.
I started my 4-year PhD studentship in 2008 and continued to work as a post-doc for the LLR until 2013. My PhD research was concerned with investigating potential mechanisms by which therapy related leukaemia’s arise in order to reduce and/or prevent patients from developing leukaemia as a side effect of treatment for a primary disease. I was often asked what did I do in a ‘typical’ day and I always responded in the same way - “typical days do not exist in research”. Working in research consists of long days but never (in my opinion) tedious as there is always so much to do. Firstly, devising which experiments to do in which order in conjunction with my supervisors and fellow scientists is crucial. The length of time these experiments take can be anywhere between days and months. As well as devising and conducting experiments, the methods and results must be written up in the following formats; lab books so you or anyone can repeat your experiment in the future, PhD thesis so your work can be assessed by experts in the field, manuscripts for publication so the work that you and your fellow scientists have done can be published and shared with experts in the field around the world.
During my time in research I also attended and presented work at conferences, which are a hub of information and are always vital in discussing new and evolving research and treatments in the field of haematology. To date I have published two papers with my research group and we are still working on publishing other data from my PhD thesis. One of these papers was a collaboration with Professor Janet Rowley’s group in Chicago, another amazing role model of mine who sadly passed away in 2013. Although the majority of my time in research was spent in the laboratory conducting experiments, I also spent time on the Haematology wards at the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, Freeman Hospital in Newcastle. The first thing that shocked me was the vast age range of patients on the ward and I was fortunate enough to be asked to follow a patients treatment and progress during my time on the ward and beyond. I was also struck by the necessity of working as a team between the academic and clinical professions of haematology, for example the type of leukaemia a patient has is determined by scientists in the lab and the results are passed to the medical teams to devise treatment protocols for each patient.
Throughout my PhD I was struck by how much I loved conducting research and also communicating with patients. I therefore decided to apply to study medicine with the aim of working as a clinical researcher, hopefully for the LLR! I was accepted to study medicine by the University of Sheffield in 2013. The hardest decision to make when accepting my offer to study medicine was leaving the LLR after 5 years….but hopefully it will be temporary! I am now in my third year of medicine and therefore completed the “academic” phase of the course and I am now moving into the “clinical” phase, which is mainly rotating around departments in different hospitals. I thought that as a mature student I would be the only older student on the course. I think there are roughly 30 mature/post-grad students in my year so that has helped me to not feel so old! Studying medicine is hard work, there is no getting away from that. You definitely have to have an interest in the subject as there is A LOT of reading. If I am honest, by the end of second year I was starting to forget why I was doing medicine as I just felt like I lived in a lecture theatre. But now I am in third year it all makes sense and I am putting into practice everything we have been taught. I love being in the hospitals, learning more about creating differential diagnosis and treatment plans as well as actually getting to know some of the patients. Some days are tough but most days are great and I can’t think of any other career I would rather be doing! However, there is never a greater satisfaction or a more humbling experience than attending and participating in events to raise funds for the LLR and meeting the patients who have been affected or are currently affected by a haematological malignancy. Their strength and determination is infectious and continuously helps me to focus on the reasons I want to do the job that I do!
On a personal level I have also started going to local state schools and talking to young students about my research and studying medicine in order to encourage young people to consider career paths that I certainly did not consider at my school. The most common response is that they had never considered science as a career path until either me or me and a team of fellow scientists had gone in to talk to them about research and medicine. I am also a student mentor for the SOAMS programme at Sheffield which is a great way to answer any concerns that students thinking about studying medicine have prior to applying. In summary, the advice I give to students is don’t panic if you haven’t got your life mapped out after school. Also if there is a career you want to do then don’t give up on it if a few hurdles are put in the way. It will just make it more worth it when you do get there. Having role models is vital and I have been lucky to have the most amazing role model from birth, my mother. Keep in mind why you are doing what you are doing and always have the self-belief that you will succeed, no matter how long it takes!