A Day in the Life: 6 Cancer Researchers in 6 Different Countries

World Cancer Research Day
24 September is World Cancer Research Day, which raises awareness of the important and lifesaving work done by researchers. As part of this the EACR asked a variety of members to share a day in their life as a cancer researcher.

1. Lauren Cutmore, United Kingdom

Lauren Cutmore

Lauren Cutmore discusses how lucky she feels to be surrounded by people who share a common goal, and impresses the importance of of asking for help and support from others.

Name: Lauren Cutmore
Nationality: British
Place of work: Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London
Job title: PhD student
How long have you worked there: Three years

Working in the lab is exciting and disappointing in equal measure. A typical day in the lab for me involves running around doing lots of techniques and moving between different areas of the lab.  My day usually begins by checking my cells in the tissue culture room. I grow a variety of cells that all require different care. The fussiest cells that I culture are human T cells that I obtain from healthy donor blood. These cells are the foundation of my project as I require healthy immune cells in order to produce CAR T cells.

I also grow a range of pancreatic cancer cell lines that I use as a model to test the CAR T cells ability to kill tumour cells. To get the T cells to express the CAR they have to be infected with a virus to introduce the CAR coding DNA into the cells. This means I spend a lot of my time producing viruses in our category 2 biohazard laboratory. However, before I can even begin this stage, I must design and produce the DNA I need. This can be a very long process using molecular biology to build the DNA constructs.

Lauren Cutmore
Lina Boughetane, Eman Ahmed, Shreya Sharma, Lauren Cutmore, Litsa Protopapa and Lucia Fernandez in the Tumour Biology laboratory.

My life in the lab would be very boring without other researchers to chat with, complain with and to be an external pair of eyes to help troubleshoot when experiments don’t go as planned. You cannot do science alone. You constantly need the help and support of others to teach you new techniques and to give you scientific ideas about what to do next with a project. I am really lucky to be surrounded by people from all over the world who work share a common goal.

It is sometimes hard to fit life around the lab. For example, experiments often run over the weekend and can run late into the night. Despite this, it often doesn’t feel like such a chore. They are my experiments and I really care about the results. I really enjoy the freedom of research; I can choose when I work, and I decide the direction that the project takes. The best part of my job is discovering new things every day. There are never two days that are the same. In the upcoming year I hope to finish my PhD and move onto a post-doctoral research position. I’m excited to see what the future holds.

About the author

I work on CAR T cell therapy for the treatment of pancreatic cancer. This involves genetically modifying patients own immune cells so that they can find and destroy cancer cells. My project looks at finding new targets present on the cancer cells and developing CAR T cells against them.

Photos in this post were taken by Reza Roozitalab, PhD student and photographer 

2. Elizabeth Pavez Loriè, Germany

Elizabeth Pavez Loriè

Elizabeth Pavez Loriè answers a question from her 10 year old daughter during their return trip to Germany from their summer holiday in Sweden.

Name: Elizabeth Pavez Loriè
Nationality: Swedish
Place of work: Leibniz Institute of Environmental Medicine, Germany
Job title: Researcher
How long have you worked there: 5 years

Why did we have to leave, Mom?

Elizabeth Pavez Loriè
To my students and skin biology friends, I refer to this as “The Bible”

Yes, my curious 10 year old daughter asked me this while we where driving back to Germany from our summer holiday “back home” in Sweden.  This question has of course been asked before, but this time it was different. She truly wanted to know what she called “the true reason” why we left. Left what she recalls as a perfectly normal life with access to grand parents, uncles, cousins, friends, lakes, rivers, long summer days (she apparently doesn’t remember the short winter days), cinnamon rolls, her favourite ice cream. Why we left for a place where even with IKEA providing some of the goodies, doesn’t provide the whole package.

More or less trapped in the car, I decided to do what my son calls, “momsplaining”. This term invented by my son describes when his mother, that would be me, doesn’t really explain things in a straightforward manner. However, she guides the audience through an active explanation, where they actually don’t really know the end point, and to my children’s “dismay”, usually leads to a prolonged discussion.

Elizabeth Pavez Loriè
My personal “Space dog” given to me by my son. It keeps me company in the office and holds piles of articles in place.

Expecting me to do some serious “momsplaining”, I simply stated “passion, future and family”. Stunned to hear that I had just presented them with a 5 second answer, they instantly exhaled and focused their ears as I started to present the reasons why I’ve chosen those words as my answer.

Passion. “What makes this healthy individual have a healthy skin?” is one of the driving research questions I’ve had for a long time. Being able to model this organ to answer questions like that; about tissue balance, invasion and organ regeneration is still a dream come true that could only be possible by moving. Combine that with the privilege of being part of helping students and work side by side with great minds makes me endure days when finding an “easier” occupation sounds pretty tempting. Those days happen not only due to “failed” experiments, but also by what the future might hold.

Elizabeth Pavez Loriè
This photo represents the balance between humans and nature, being able to focus on parts of the picture and seeing the landscape’s beauty. It is what I find fascinating about my research.

Future. Not only thinking of my career and family, but the questions “What if I’m or we’re missing something?” “What if the answers don’t lye in the increase or decrease of gene or protein expression, but in those that don’t act on a specific signal?” “Would a more sophisticated human skin equivalent be needed for the questions that lie ahead?” “How could we achieve that?” Sometimes all of these questions are overwhelming. However, in a way they are also part of my drive. Concerning my career, I’ve always seen it as something that evolves with time. The dream is to be able to teach and have my own little research group with people that share my interest in skin biology and of course find the funding to do so.

Family. This dream might not seem as much to a person that wants to have fame and fortune, but that’s not my goal. I asked my audience to tell me how they would feel if they couldn’t do what they most like. They connected this question directly to my career, although I was also referring to becoming a parent and understanding who you are. The essence is that without pursuing my research and having a family, I would have lost myself. The choice should never be one or the other. Fortunately, in my case they come together.

After a long pause, the 10 year old in the car said; “Well, that means we are staying in Germany for now, because answering all those questions and taking care of us will take a while!”

About Elizabeth’s work

The Sun reaches us all and impacts our skin more or less daily. At the moment my work is to understand how this exposure impacts the skin. It is also about how it can develop into malignancy. For that we use a lamp that provides a combination of ultra violet-l, visual -and infrared light, mimicking the real exposure. As samples we use human skin equivalents that we produce in our laboratory that can be kept in culture for a long time. This allows us to not only focus on questions related to singular exposure. It allows us to explore the effects of frequent sun exposure.

3. Ezgi Yagmur Kala, Turkey

Yagmur Kala

Pursuing her passion for science and biology, Yagmur Kala writes about what she loves to do, and how it doesn’t feel like a job but the key to a happy life.

Name: Ezgi Yagmur Kala
Nationality: Turkish
Place of work: Koç University Research Center for Translational Medicine (KUTTAM), Turkey
Job title: PhD student/Teaching Assistant
How long have you worked there: 1 year

Yagmur Kala
Yagmur and her lab group on the opening day of their lab

Ever since I was in primary school, I knew that I wanted to pursue my passion of science and biology. I used to tell my friends that one day I would be a professor. That was my dream. Currently I am doing my PhD, working on cancer biology and epigenetics. I can say that I am on the right path to fulfilling my dream. However, I can see that this is going to be challenging. Even though it’s only been a year, I see and deal with these challenges every day. Building projects, making deadlines, teaching, etc., are keeping me busy alongside the experiments. Getting support from friends, family and colleagues makes all of this easier.

My typical day at work starts with a morning coffee with my colleagues in the office or on the balcony, overlooking to the Black Sea. It is quite an inspiring view. We talk about many things such as pets, family, movies and so on. Oh, and of course, work.  Later, everyone works on their projects. Most of my time passes in the cell culture room, sometimes for 6-7 hours a day. However I am not alone in the cell culture room. There are a few of my lab mates also working long hours, so we keep each other company.

If I am not in the cell culture room, then I perform wet lab experiments or analyze the data I have collected. My lab group has 2-3 meetings per week, and on other days I try to attend talks about science that are happening around campus. Usually, there is a scientific meeting every day.

Yagmur Kala
Yagmur and her group after a PhD defence

The work also continues at home. I read articles about recent studies, make presentations for the meetings, and study for my TA responsibilities. However going to the lab every day, and most weekends, doesn’t feel like a job. I feel good and proud about what I do, that it will help people in the long run which makes me want to work harder and harder. Is it difficult to balance work and life? Yes. A lot of people around me still don’t understand what I do, it is difficult to find time to see my friends and family. Is it worth it? DEFINITELY. Would I study the same subject if I was given a second chance? YES.

I believe the most important thing about the job is to love what you do. I see it as a key to a happy life. Because this way, it doesn’t matter how difficult the work is, you get through it. Just believe in yourself, work hard and push forward.

About Yagmur’s research

My aim is to understand the epigenetic mechanisms. These are the alterations on the DNA and histones without changing the DNA sequence, that underline the drug resistance in the most aggressive type of brain cancers, called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). To achieve this aim, I apply a library that contains epigenetic modifiers to GBM cells. I examine the genes that are responsible for the drug resistance in GBM. We are hoping to find new therapeutic approaches for GBM therapy.

4. Andrés Lanzós, Switzerland

Andrés Lanzós

Bioinformatician Andrés Lanzós explains the preconceptions he used to hold about scientists and how his views have changed. Even though they have changed, he loves science and the work he does.

Name: Andrés Lanzós
Nationality: Spanish, Italian, Venezuelan
Place of work: Department for BioMedical Research, University of Bern, Switzerland
Job title: Bioinformatics PhD Student
How long have you worked there: Since January 2018

I used to think that scientists spend most of their time catching wild animals or doing crazy experiments at the lab, resulting in many and exciting discoveries. However, that view has dramatically changed after several years doing research.

My first preconception to fall apart was the type of work many scientists do. As a bioinformatician, I use computational algorithms to face biological problems. So I never go to the laboratory to experiment with cells, nor I go to the forest to collect organisms. Cancer genomics is my field of research, which can be summarised as the analysis of thousands of patients’ DNA to determine the genetic mechanisms leading to cancer. Therefore, I create software to handle vast amounts of data and find which mutations may have driven the onset of tumours.

The second shock I had early on my PhD was the irregularity at work. My day starts by checking what’s trending on Twitter. Since my network is restricted to scientific content, I stay updated in recent publications, conferences and hot topics among the research community. After checking my emails and meetings for the day, I’m ready to bike to the office. The magic happens once I arrive at work since the day rarely goes as I intended. Some days I help my colleagues with biological or informatic problems they are facing. Others, I move from meeting to meeting. And some days, I can fully dive into my algorithms and simulations. Scientists must adapt to this kind of work, by being always ready to stop research and to resume it as soon as possible not to reduce productivity.

Andrés Lanzós
Pizza lunch with everyone from the GOLD lab

The final revelation I had was probably the hardest one to face: 99% of the time nothing works. Although it sounds crazy, it actually makes sense. While many distrust the massive funding dedicated to science, researchers work at the boundaries of humanity’s knowledge. Which often results in failed experiments and long after-work sessions trying to figure out the problem. Sometimes, it may even derive into burnouts where students and scientists feel hopeless. In this sense, approximately 40% of PhD students fail before completion.

Cancer research is no different from this panorama, since the clinical variability between patients is very high, and findings in a particular tumour type are rarely applicable to others. The famous quote from Edison states that he found thousands of ways to not create the lightbulb before its final invention. I believe this is the only way to “survive” in science. Usually, my analyses do not work, and I don’t see any biological insight. But I accept that these are just steps that will lead me to an eventual discovery.

Andrés Lanzós
“Special lab meeting” at the GOLD lab

My dramatic view is probably influenced by the fact that I just submitted my PhD thesis, which summarises my last four years of work. But do not misinterpret my words, I love science precisely because of the uncertainty after every experiment. Despite being incredibly challenging, working in a real problem affecting millions of lives is extremely rewarding for me. Additionally, I love working with my lab-mates as one to address these challenges. The possibility to discover a new therapeutic target against cancer motivates me to levels that I could not reach with other professional activities.

Given that humanity has accumulated more knowledge about cancer during this century than in all our previous history, I think that the future of this disease doesn’t look so bright. Thanks to the combined effort from researchers, politicians, clinicians and society, one day cancer will hopefully join smallpox and rinderpest in the list of eradicated diseases.

About Andrés’ research:

Tumours arise when a particular set of genes, known as cancer drivers, accumulate mutations. The research community has identified hundreds of cancer driver genes, resulting in many biomarkers and therapies. However, these efforts have focused on the tiny 2% of the genome that produces proteins, defined as protein-coding genes. Instead, I study a large group of non-coding genes that could also act as drivers of cancer, called long non-coding RNAs. Although it’s challenging due to the limited knowledge in non-coding genes, I find my work rewarding since it explores new paths in the fight against this terrible disease.

5. Esther Campos Fernández, Brazil

Esther working in the cell culture room overlooking the lush vegetation of the Uberlândia campus

Brazilian-based Spanish PhD student Esther Campos Fernández takes us through a busy but rewarding day in her life, and how she never gives up in the face of failure.

Name: Esther Campos Fernández
Nationality: Spanish
Place of work: Laboratory of Nanobiotechnology, Institute of Biotechnology, Federal University of Uberlândia, Umuarama Campus, Uberlândia, Minas Gerais, Brazil
Job title: PhD student
How long have you worked there: Over 3 years

As a PhD student, I usually perform research with the help of other members of our Prostate Cancer Markers Team. Most of my colleagues are great women. Tireless hard-working professors, research assistants, postdocs, PhD, MSc and BSc students devoted to science. In our multi-user lab, I have the chance to share my experiences, fears, doubts, challenges and achievements with them. I am a foreigner in my lab, so I can tell people here are welcoming, warm and friendly.

Esther Campos Fernández
GIF of Esther at her desk looking at Prostate tumour cells (PC-3) incubated with her aptamer fluorescing in green

An intense day in our lab starts early in the morning with the evaluation of the behaviour of prostate cell lines challenged to different aptamers isolated by our group. In the afternoon, we use flow cytometry to evaluate the binding of these aptamers to the circulating tumour cells of blood samples from patients with prostate cancer.

It is eight in the morning. Presenting my access card, I get into the lab. I take out my lab notebook and my agenda. I check out what I had planned to do and I head into the cell culture room to perform the experiments. We spend long hours growing prostate cells in 3D cultures in the presence of our aptamers. When we finish, we keep track of all the ongoing experiments on my lab notebook.

Then, I take some time to catch up with my supervisor, Prof. Vivian Alonso Goulart, and talk about the progress of our project. Once a week we have a Journal Club with all team members, but I had to talk before. We are waiting some imported materials to start an experiment. Sometimes it takes so much time! We are starting to get a bit impatient.

Forty minutes to have lunch! The patient samples are about to arrive. We get everything ready to run the samples through the flow cytometer. We cannot waste time. The samples need processing quickly. We are very grateful for the numerous patients who volunteer to give a precious blood sample to our research project. The collaboration of the group of urologists who participate in our project is greatly appreciated. We hope to get some interesting results soon.

I leave the lab. Such a great sunset! I go back home on foot. Fortunately, there is enough time to enjoy the last bird songs of the day and think about the day. I feel tired and enthusiastic about the results at the same time. We are getting some progress. I believe we are in the right way.

From left to right: Tábatha, Esther, Sara, Ludmilla and Lorrayne working on a bench in the Nanobiotechnology Lab

There is nothing more rewarding than doing something for the benefits of others! Wow! We are working hard. I can say that we are persevering when pursing our goals. I am convinced that our efforts will get us a little bit closer to beat cancer. This positive thinking keeps me full of energy to go on the next day. The long hours were exhausting but our enthusiasm is greater. Even if the experiments fail, we do not give up. We start thinking of solutions. I feel happy, simply complete.

When I arrive home, I usually have a snack and hit the gym. Just to be in a good shape for another long day at lab. Tomorrow we will need to do some literature research before continuing the next experiments. So, I will go to bed early to have a nice rest.

About Esther’s project:

Our research project involves the characterization of aptamers, tiny probes made of genetic material, which bind to prostate tumour cells. This characterization will allow us to determine whether these aptamers recognize specifically prostate tumour cells and are suitable for diagnosis and treatment of prostate cancer patients.

6. Wietske Pieters, The Netherlands

Wietske Pieters

Wietske Pieters explains how the work she has done with mice over the 4 years of her PhD has helped her to become persistent and creative in an area which is still vastly undiscovered.

Name: Wietske Pieters
Nationality: Dutch
Place of work: The Netherlands Cancer Institute
Job title: PhD student
How long have you worked there: 4 years

I usually start the day with answering some emails while drinking a cup of coffee. The exact planning of a day mostly depends on the question: what needs to be done with the mice? I am working with a mouse model that is predisposed to develop intestinal cancer in order to study factors that influence tumor onset and growth. When starting this project four years ago, I had no idea that it would turn out the way it did. We accidentally discovered that mice are no longer developing tumors when they are housed in a very clean animal facility.

Wietske Pieters
Wietske checking sections of mouse intestines

This observation interfered heavily with the initial scope of the project, since the presence of tumors was a requirement in order to perform most of the planned experiments. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by the possibility that microorganisms that reside in the gastrointestinal tract such as bacteria, viruses and fungi (also known as the microbiota), may potentially have such a strong effect on the development of tumors. In the years that followed, I performed numerous experiments in order to find out which factor was promoting tumor development in our mouse model. In practice, this often involves transplanting the feces from one mouse into the other and studying the responses of the intestine. Obviously, this ‘poo study’ can lead to a lot of laughter among my colleagues from time to time.

Wietske Pieters
Wietske and her colleagues in the office

It is intriguing to get a grip on how physiological and cellular processes have changed now that the mice are housed in a clean environment. The complexity of the project also led me to the greatest challenges in my work: dealing with failures. Naturally, experiments that demonstrate that certain factors are not the cause of the tumor development, contribute as much to advancement of the project as experiments that show positive results. However, now and then, negative results can be the source of insecurities and frustrations. On the positive site, this work has taught me to be persistent and creative, and it has led me into a whole new area of research in which so much is still to be discovered.

What inspires me, is the continuous stream of publications that demonstrate the involvement of the microbiota in a wide range of physiological and pathological processes. I am convinced that once we learn and understand more of host-microbiome interactions, this knowledge will contribute to both the prevention and treatment of cancer in the future.

About Wietske’s research:

My research focusses on investigating the effect of external factors such as the microbiota on intestinal tumor development in Lynch syndrome (LS). LS patients are genetically predisposed for colorectal cancer development (among other cancer types). We have developed a mouse model that mimics the situation in the intestine of LS patients. Using this model, we expose the mice to different modulators of tumor development.

How can you get involved with World Cancer Research Day?

1. Sign the World Declaration for Cancer Research

2. On 24 September share a snapshot on social media from a day in your life as a cancer researcher: use #WorldCancerResearchDay

Click here to see more posts about a ‘Day in the Life’ of other cancer researchers.