There are many inspirational female scientists out there doing the most amazing and interesting research. Here at Beauty by the Geeks we want to promote some of the fantastic work they’re doing!

For this reason we’ve created a new feature for our Women in Science section – Interviews with women from across the board, explaining to you in their own words the pioneering research they are doing, where they’re at in their careers and how they got there. We’re hoping this will not only highlight the great work they are doing but will give anyone considering a career in science an idea of the vast opportunities available.

We wanted to kick things off with a bang, so we are starting with the amazing Prof. Christine Harrison. Prof Harrison is Professor of Childhood Cancer Cytogenetics and Director of a research group in the Northern Institute for Cancer Research and a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Lost at the word cytogenetics?!

Don’t worry, Prof. Harrison reveals all!

BBTG: – So what exactly is childhood cancer cytogenetics?

Prof Harrison : Cytogenetics is the study of chromosomes. Within cancer, chromosomes can become rearranged either as the cause or as a result of the disease – so rearrangements occur between and within chromosomes. The different rearrangements, in for example leukaemia, indicate the type of leukaemia someone has, and how the patient will respond to treatment. For example, certain cytogenetic changes will indicate good or poor outcomes, depending on the risk associated with the change. Importantly, if we find a poor risk indicator, the treatment can be changed accordingly to ensure the patient has the best chance of an improved outcome.

BBTG : So what made you choose science? What made you think research was for you and how did you get to where you are today?

Prof Harrison: I really enjoyed science at school – I always chose the science options, including cookery. I went to an all-girls school, and at that time they thought that around the top 1% would go to university and that the remainder should become nurses or teachers. I didn’t want to become either of those so I went to work in a laboratory because I’d always enjoyed the laboratory side.

I started as a junior research assistant/technician at Glaxo, and they gave me the opportunity to undertake further qualifications including additional A levels. I then became a research technician at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research, University of Manchester. They encouraged me to embark on a degree, so after working for a couple of years I became an undergraduate. I chose Zoology, because I was interested in animals, then in my third year I specialised in Genetics and Cell Biology as I found the genetic aspects most interesting.

After my degree I achieved a PhD in cell biology in Faculty of Medicine, Manchester University, where I developed my keen interest in cytogenetics. I then became a cytogeneticist within a routine diagnostic lab diagnosing congenital chromosomal disorders and cancers. The cancer arm really interested me: that type of work was very new at the time, so we were able to take a very research-based approach. I developed a new laboratory and became director, whilst establishing small research projects on the side, for which I received small amounts of funding. An opportunity arose for me to pursue my research interests into translation research. This type of research is not usually carrying out basic experiments, but involves, for example, developing state of the art techniques or finding new areas and integrating them into clinical practice. We found new abnormalities and indicators, which is in fact very much what I am currently doing.

I moved from Manchester to Royal Free Hospital, London, then from London to University of Southampton. Now I have been in the Northern Institute of Cancer Research, Newcastle University for 5 years. Here in Newcastle my research has really taken off. We are fortunate to be working with many like-minded people here. We work nationally and internationally – most young patients who develop leukaemia are involved in clinical trials –allowing us to track improved outcomes over many years and correlate them with treatments and abnormalities. The most exciting area of our research at the moment is that some of the new genetic changes that we find might be a target for particular drugs – for example, if these genes code for proteins then those proteins might be potential new drug targets. There is a famous drug discovery unit in the Institute, where they examine molecules with the potential to kill cancer cells. We are on the discovery end of this exciting process. We are developing next generation sequencing technology to look for novel genetic abnormalities. These findings add a further dimension towards improving diagnosis and outcome of patients. I work with a goup of scientists and data analysts; together we form a very good team.

BBTG: So what is your group’s biggest achievement?

Prof.Harrison: We have improved the survival for a certain group of children with a particular chromosomal abnormality which was discovered by us. Prior to our discovery, children with this abnormality had about 90% chance of disease recurrence. These children are now identified at the time of diagnosis and treated on a more intensive therapy, which has decreased their risk of disease recurrence to almost 10%. These findings have now been published. We had to follow the patients for a few years to be confident of this success. This approach has now been adopted worldwide. It has been a very rewarding achievement.

BBTG: So what do you feel is the next step for you personally?

Prof. Harrison: I’ve reached a high point in my career with which I am very content. I work with wonderful people and I can make the decisions on the kind of research we should be doing. The next stage for me would be to become head of an institute or have an administrative role –I don’t want to do that. I think everyone finds a level where they’re happy.

It is interesting looking at women in science – in some cases there is a lack of women at the top, but that may well be because women may be more likely to choose a their particular level– equally this applies to men.

BBTG: – What’s the next step as a group?

Prof. Harrison: The research described above is like our bread and butter – finding new abnormalities and passing the information on to the next person to develop the drugs. I think the next step for us is to become more involved in what we call the functional side – which is to understand how these genes operate and find out what happens if change their mode of operation. I don’t believe that any gene operates in isolation, so we will look at a range of factors. Genetics is very complicated, but it’s a very exciting time with all the new generation sequencing technology that’s becoming available.

The government is funding a new project to sequence 100,000 genomes – we’re in the process of deciding what diseases should be studied, and we’re hoping that childhood cancer very much will be.

BBTG: Do you think that it’s difficult for girls to enter into scientific careers?

Prof. Harrison: Probably not for them to enter into it. Many people assume that there isn’t equality, but I think that there is, especially at the lower levels. In the areas of research I’ve been involved in females actually predominate. For example, in cytogenetics laboratories there may be up to 90% women. In research I think women have more of a tough time. They are usually fine throughout their PhD and first post-doctoral positions, then I think it can become more difficult because they’re probably at the age where they’re having families. In the majority of cases I is the woman who chooses to stay home and take care of the child. It’s just human nature!

Universities are beginning to address this problem. They are encouraging women to have careers in science. There is focus on equality and diversity in science – including women – and making it fair for all members of staff. It doesn’t have to be mum who picks up the kids – it equally well could be dad. Meetings and seminars are becoming restricted to the normal working day. Here we are not just talking about child care, but also caring for relatives and other situations.

In order to be at the level I am, I have a very supportive husband. I wouldn’t have been able to make it as a single mother bringing up my family alone and having a full time job – it’s much easier in a sharing partnership. Indeed if you are wealthy you can buy help, but not many people are in that position. It becomes difficult if you are a post-doc and you need to go pick up a child – say your experiment runs over and you just need another half an hour to finish it or you waste the whole experiment. Universities need to become flexible over childcare in these situations.

If you look at statistics you’ll probably see that there are more males in higher positions than females – I think partly through choice and partly through males having more confidence in going into these positions, but I think it’s changing.

BBTG: Do you think there is a lot of encouragement for young people to get into science?

Prof. Harrison: Again, I think it’s changing. I think your impression of science starts at school – if you’ve had poor teaching you’re not going to enjoy science. I think having teachers that motivate you is important. Some of the post-docs here go on STEM activities in school – not only do the pupils learn from it, but I think the postdocs do too. It requires thinking about what you can do – simple things like the knitted chromosomes that I have here in my office. You can go in with simple ideas for the young – knitted chromosomes are a structure made of threads of wool that represent the DNA that are coiled up to make larger structures, as in real chromosomes.

Of course there are restrictions in schools with health and safety, which is obviously very important. We used to have solutions bubbling away in jars, things which wouldn’t be allowed today. Placing students and post-docs into schools is a very good idea – we have open days at the university. A group of school girls came to see me because one of their sisters had leukaemia. They wanted to look around the children’s hospital and research laboratories. We had a really active discussion; the experience was very stimulating.

BBTG: What would be your message to young people wanting to go into science?

Prof. Harrison: I’d encourage them, I really would. I think the School of Biomedical Sciences and the courses they offer are very stimulating – they are incredibly diverse, and there are good job prospects. Job prospects are an important consideration when choosing a degree – although you could take a degree course just for the hell of it; as long as you enjoy it. There is such scope in science. Even if you don’t enjoy laboratory work, there are options in statistics and bioinformatics, and many other areas. I would always encourage young people, if they have an interest to give it a shot.

Thank you very much for that Professor! We enjoyed meeting you immensely, and will be keeping an eye on your research at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research in Newcastle!


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