Inspiring the next generation of cancer researchers

Cancer

Some of the In2science UK mentors and mentees at a placement day.

Advancements in science and medicine – including cancer research – require diversity in thought. This can only come from a community of diverse scientists with the freedom to develop and share ideas that could one day benefit people affected by cancer.

But we know that science isn’t as diverse as it could be. Starting from early on in education, studying subjects like science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM subjects) may not be a viable option for many young people.

At Cancer Research UK, we believe in the importance of working collaboratively to address this issue. We’re committed to equality, diversity and inclusion in cancer research by making it an accessible career for everyone, particularly those from underrepresented and disadvantaged backgrounds.

That’s why we’ve partnered with In2scienceUK, an organisation that promotes social mobility and diversity in STEM. We sponsored 10 young people through a mentoring programme earlier this summer, with several members of our scientific staff taking part as mentors.

In2scienceUK set up their programmes to inspire young people to progress into STEM careers. So, did it work? First, we hear from some of the students about their experience with us and if they were inspired to start the journey into a scientific career…

Mohamed: “I got to meet experts in the subjects I’d like to study”

In2scienceUK student MohamedMy experience in the In2scienceUK programme has been exciting! It involved attending workshops, research courses and mentoring sessions, as well as a placement day with my mentor.

The best part of the whole experience was the placement day I attended at the Francis Crick Institute. I got to meet real scientists and experts in the subjects I’d like to study. I got to take part in lots of hands-on activities with scientists. A highlight for me was getting to use an electron microscope to look at fruit flies. This was incredibly interesting – I didn’t know it could go into that level of detail!

I met with my mentor on the placement day. He was really nice and I’m actually going to keep in touch with him after the programme. Meeting with him was really informal and it has definitely changed my perceptions about scientists.

Overall, taking part in the programme has really solidified my decision of pursuing biomedical science at university.

Rafia: “It’s given me the tools to flourish at university”

The programme has been inspiring, exposing me to a whole host of opportunities. It helped me develop independent learning skills that will help me in my future endeavours. Additionally, the workshops have supported me in my applications for university.

In2scienceUK student RafiaBeing the first person from my family to be attending higher education, the support given to me, especially from my mentor, was invaluable.

My favourite aspect of the programme was the people: the lecturers, presenters, alumni and mentors. They were all really passionate and gave great insights about what they do and how they got there.

The programme has helped me decide between pursuing medicine or research. Although I enjoyed both, I realised that applying knowledge and working closely with people is more rewarding to me. There was a workshop called “Science vs Medicine at University – which one is right for me?” which helped me better understand both roles and their advantages and disadvantages, which was crucial in my final decision to pursue medicine.

As someone who doesn’t have family members that have been to higher education or have jobs in the fields of healthcare, it was hard for me to find relevant work experience and support. This programme helped bridge this gap and has given me opportunities that have improved my application and given me tools to flourish at university.

Halima: “The programme has changed my perceptions”

In2scienceUK student, HalimaThe most enjoyable part for me was the mentoring, since I was able to learn more about the job my mentor does and how her work helps society. I was nervous at first before meeting her, but she made a very comfortable environment and was very understanding. My mentor is a product analyst at Cancer Research UK and I got to find out about her work in clinical trials.

The programme has changed my perceptions of the jobs available to people with STEM degrees. I thought that people who did STEM had specific fields they went into, the programme showed me that, actually, with a STEM degree you can do much more than that. For example, if you have a biomedical degree, you can use that degree and mix it with business management and work on projects like clinical trials. STEM degrees offer more jobs than most people realise.

Meet the mentors

Several members of our scientific staff took part as mentors in the programme. So, with the responsibility of nurturing young minds, how did they fair? We hear from 4 Cancer Research UK mentors who share their experience and tell us what drew them in to get involved…

Nathan Breeds: “I wanted to help make a career in STEM more accessible”

I was part of the first generation of my family to have the opportunity to go to university and found that experience to be truly transformative. Studying a STEM-based subject not only enabled me to embark upon a rewarding career, but it also changed the way that I looked at the world. It enriched my life in many other ways that perhaps would have been inaccessible to me otherwise.

Nathan Breeds

Nathan is a scientist at Cancer Research UKs Therapeutic Discovery Laboratories

Unfortunately, despite the progress with social mobility over the last few decades, there are still many barriers preventing young, underrepresented people from having the opportunity to pursue a career in a STEM. This motivated me to take part in the mentor programme; I wanted to contribute towards the efforts to make a career in STEM more accessible.

As a mentor within the programme, I was assigned 3 students and provided 2 online mentoring sessions. The main purpose of these sessions was to share my journey so far within science and to help them explore and develop their career and educational aspirations.

These sessions were followed by an in-person placement day at my place of work, the Francis Crick Institute, where the education team did a brilliant job of putting together a day of activities, the highlight of which was the students being able to use a benchtop scanning electron microscope. The students were also able to meet other members of staff from the Crick who come from diverse areas of research and backgrounds.

I thoroughly enjoyed being a mentor and found it refreshing to see the passion and interest that the students displayed for science. With this in mind, I’d highly recommend cancer researchers to take part in the programme in future years, in order to share their passion and potentially help cultivate the next generation of cancer researchers.

Deepti Wilks: “Science will always benefit from embracing people from all walks of life”

Deepti Wilks

Deepti is a senior scientific officer at Manchester Cancer Research Centre Biobank

Being an Asian female and growing up in the early 1970s in Birmingham, I felt highly disadvantaged in pursuing a scientific career. My background of being born in Kenya to traditional Indian parents and brought up in a large family of girls with only one wage earner meant money was tight, but we were all encouraged to become independent and do the best we could.

Through hard work and determination in overcoming hurdles such as racism and sexism, I have forged a very successful career in science, with the last 33 years working in cancer research.

Although I am at the end of my science career now, throughout my time I have been struck with the fact that there are very few ethnic minority scientists in top jobs. I have always wondered why this is the case, with an obvious need to address it. This is why I decided to volunteer for the mentorship programme to share my experience and to encourage disadvantaged candidates to consider science as a career path.

In my experience as a mentor in the programme, I was surprised at the level of confidence and awareness the students seemed to have of careers they wanted to follow. I was therefore happy to hear that my students found my sessions useful, especially with providing advice on career pathways such as radiotherapy.

It is important that Cancer Research UK is partnering with organisations such as In2science UK – science will always benefit from embracing people from all walks of life. It is our duty to ensure the path is made clear for future generations to help in the advancement of science without having barriers in front of them.

Steve Nabarro: “I joined the programme with the hope of igniting the students’ love of science”

Steve Nabarro

Steve is head of clinical operations and data management at Cancer Research UK

I work within Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development, which is equivalent to a small pharmaceutical company embedded within the charity. Our mission is to bring our drug development expertise together with innovators in science and medicine to deliver more treatment options to people with cancer.

I joined the In2scienceUK mentoring programme with the hope of igniting the students’ love of science and opening their eyes to ways of channelling it into a career in drug development.

It was amazing to see the students come out of their shells over the course of the mentoring sessions. A big thing was helping to build their confidence to chase their dreams, which included one wanting to become a research nurse and another ambitious student wanting to study medicine and explore the role of medical advisors in pharmaceutical companies.

The highlight was hosting the students on a placement day in our office during October half term. It was great to see the students fire questions at colleagues from across our research and innovation teams who gave up the time to discuss their career histories and what drives them to come into work every day.

I think it was the honest way people spoke about career set backs and learnings from that made the strongest impression on the students.

The students also relished having a go at some of the tasks involved in managing clinical trials, such as drug reconciliation performed by our clinical research associates at pharmacies… but using Tic Tacs instead of real drugs!

Shona Shah: “I wanted to increase their awareness of different opportunities to work in science.”

Shona Shah

Shona is a portfolio analyst in drug development at Cancer Research UK

I would summarise my experience of the In2scienceUK mentoring programme as extremely rewarding. Like Steve, I also work in Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Drug Development. I wanted to share my passion for working in science but in a more business-oriented role, as I had not heard of or considered my role as a career option when I was their age.

My 3 students had very varied backgrounds and interests with their future aspirations including a medical career, working for the United Nations and becoming a pilot (with a side interest in marine biology)! We used fun, interactive activities to learn about their skills and interests, debunk myths about working life and workplace environments alongside exploring other interesting career opportunities.

The biggest challenge was trying to engage with my students via the online learning platform. However, my 2 virtual sessions went extremely well – seeing the students participate in my activities and take a real interest in my experiences has been the most fulfilling aspect for me.

I’d highly recommend mentoring to anyone with an interest in supporting people and inspiring the next generation – I’ve found it extremely rewarding being able to advise them during this exciting stage in life where there is so much for them to explore.

Mae works in the research information and communications team at Cancer Research UK

In2scienceUK have recently launched In2research, a programme funded by Cancer Research UK, DeepMind and Sainsburys Wellcome Centre. It’s designed to provide paid placements in STEM research at top universities for people from disadvantaged backgrounds to gain insight into postgraduate research.

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