60 seconds with Val Macaulay
Val is a Clinical Group Leader, Associate Professor and Honorary Consultant in Medical Oncology.
In this interview, Val tells us about her research and why it matters, provides an insight into why resilience is important in her career, and discusses her role as a Department Harassment Advisor.
Tell us a little about your research.
My group studies insulin-like growth factors (IGFs), which are made by normal tissues, cancers and stromal (non-malignant) cells in tumours, and they help cancers to grow, spread and be resistant to anti-cancer treatment. IGF blocking drugs should therefore be effective in cancer therapy. As a Medical Oncologist I appreciate the opportunity to contribute to trials of novel IGF-blocking drugs, but this has been frustrating because some patients get a lot of benefit but many do not. At present we don’t know how to identify patients who are likely to respond to these new drugs. This suggests that we need to understand more about how IGFs work, so we are investigating their actions at the molecular level, focusing on three recently-identified properties. Firstly, we found that the IGF receptor can move into the nucleus of cancer cells, to switch on genes that help cancers grow and spread. It is possible that nuclear IGF receptor could be an indicator of IGF dependence. Secondly, IGFs affect the response to DNA damage, and may contribute to resistance to radiotherapy. Thirdly, we recently found that IGFs regulate the supply of dNTPs, the building blocks of DNA, and we are exploring ways to exploit this effect in therapy.
Why does your research matter?
If we can identify cancers whose growth is dependent on IGFs, these may be the cancers that are likely to respond to IGF inhibitory drugs. We are also trying to make IGF inhibitors more effective, by using our knowledge of IGF functions to select drugs suitable to test in combination. We hope by this research to improve treatment for patients with advanced cancer. We also collaborate with others to investigate the association between high serum levels of IGF-1 and risk of developing cancer. The long-term aim here is to develop new ways of suppressing the increased cancer risk associated with high serum IGF-1.
How many people are there in your lab?
My group currently includes 2 post-docs and 5 graduate students, and we are about to recruit a Bioinformatician and a Research Assistant. I haven’t got a clinical research fellow at present but hope to recruit one in the near future. One of the aspects of research that I really appreciate is the opportunity to work with people from different international backgrounds.
What’s a typical day like?
Most days are a mixture of lab and clinical activity. Until 2014 my lab was in the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine –an excellent place to work, but inconvenient for clinics at the Churchill Hospital. I was really pleased to be offered lab space in the Green building - it is a great research environment and easier here to combine lab and clinical work. In the lab I enjoy talking to my group about their work, meeting collaborators, occasionally doing some practical work myself. I go to the Hospital most days to see trial patients, do clinics for prostate cancer patients and work through clinical admin. In the evenings I usually tackle writing tasks, reviewing, catching up with emails etc. If I have a big writing task such as a new grant application I occasionally work at home, which saves me ~ 3 hours in the car.
How did you get to where you are today?
I am fortunate to be able to pursue my own research interests and link my research with my clinical role. I have never really had a formal appointment – I cobbled my career together from a series of fellowships and grants. This has given me a lot of autonomy, which I appreciate very much, but zero security. For years I felt the prospect of imminent unemployment looming over me. I am extremely grateful for the support I receive now, and to the organisations that fund my research – obviously without this support I would not be here. I am acutely aware of the pressure to generate publications and write grant applications. This role would not be sustainable without the ability to tolerate repeated kicks in the teeth from rejected submissions and grant applications.
As well as being a Clinical Group Leader, you are one of the Department’s Harassment Advisors. What does holding this role mean for you?
Academic research is very competitive, and we are under constant pressure to be productive. As a Group Leader I understand and share the temptation to transmit this pressure to my lab members. It’s a challenge to balance this tendency with the recognition that we must treat our colleagues as we want to be treated ourselves. In the past I’ve experienced from both sides the conflict that arises from not managing this tension, and I know how disorientating it feels. This type of situation is the commonest reason for people to ask to talk to me. The function of a harassment advisor (should be anti-harassment advisor surely?) is to listen, be sympathetic and signpost the formal complaints procedure. In my experience people rarely go down the formal route - it’s often helpful just to be able to vent. My two top tips for people who feel harassed are firstly to keep a written record of conversations/events that could constitute harassment, and secondly to have an assertive reply ready, to produce even when your brain is spinning, in the face of unacceptable behaviour. I know that seemingly intolerable situations can be resolved by support, encouragement and practical advice.
What do you do outside of work to relax?
I enjoy singing in a choir, fitness/boxing class and skiing (not all at the same time).