A Day in the Life: PhD to PI – 6 researchers at 6 career levels

World Cancer Research Day24 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. Noa Feás-Rodríguez, PhD Student, Spain

Noa Feás-Rodríguez

As she enters the 5th year of her PhD, Noa Feás-Rodríguez talks about how she keeps motivated and that there is no such thing as a ‘typical day’ in cancer research.

Name: Noa Feás-Rodríguez
Nationality: Spanish
Place of work: Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetics (IBGM), University of Valladolid-CSIC, Spain
Job title: PhD candidate
How long have you worked there: 5 years

Noa Feás-Rodríguez
Noa in the lab in the first few days of her PhD

A typical day for me would be: organizing the experiments that consist of really small areas of paraffin embedded samples of thyroid cancer biopsies; extracting DNA, performing PCRs, purifying the PCR products and running SSCP gels and then obtaining the DNA sequences. This methodology helps us in our aim: looking for mutations in aggressive thyroid cancer. Finding these mutations and their heterogeneous distribution within tumours is one of the main goals of my thesis project. However, the truth is that in cancer research there is no such thing as a ‘typical day’. Every day is a new challenge, a new opportunity to innovate. This is what I enjoy the most about my work. It is always exciting and rewarding!

I am currently in my 5th year of my PhD. Although, there are harder challenges we have to face: the stress of deadlines, the lack of funding, the late hours in the lab. Sometimes it seems difficult to keep motivated.

When I started my journey, my thesis supervisor, Dr. García-Rostán, encouraged me to attend national and international conferences and to join research communities like the EACR. This is one of the things that keep my spirit up. Sharing findings and setbacks, exchanging opinions and disappointment with colleagues and mentors have helped me enormously in my career. As Professor Uri Alon highlighted in his opening lecture at the EACR 25th Biennial Congress: “research is not a solitary road”. We cannot eliminate the human factor and emotional part from research.

Noa Feás-Rodríguez
Noa and her partner, Juan, at EACR25 in Amsterdam

My supervisor also suggested I send postcards to the lab from the different places visited such as congresses and internships. That way, once I finish my PhD, I can look back at the pictures and good memories that have kept me going.

Outside the lab, my family and friends provide me with a lot of support. My boyfriend – also pursuing a PhD in cancer research – and I usually joke “a relationship that survives a PhD survives everything”. This relationship is close to surviving two PhDs! In addition, thanks to the Spanish Association Against Cancer (AECC), I have had the chance to spend some time with cancer patients. It is interactions like this that reminds me why I chose this field in the first place.

About Noa’s research:

My research topic is focused on thyroid carcinomas and intratumour heterogeneity. We study the differences between the cell populations that inhabit the tumour. This is in order to be able to target every molecular alteration/mutation and to be able to treat aggressive thyroid cancer with a “multitarget-multidrug” approach. This will hopefully reduce side effects and improve patients’ quality of life.

2. Amir Shamshirian, Research Assistant, Iran

Amir Shamshirian

Amir Shamshirian discusses his beliefs, inspirations and long-term goals in cancer research as he combines experiments with mentoring and manuscript writing.

Name: Amir Shamshirian
Nationality: Iranian
Place of work: Gastrointestinal Cancer Research Center, Mazandaran University of Medical Sciences, Sari, Iran
Job title: Research assistant
How long have you worked there: 4 years

Amir Shamshirian
Amir with his supervisors, Dr. Reza Alizadeh-Navaei & Dr. Hossein Asgarian-Omran

It is 5:00 A.M. Following some exercise and 15 minutes of meditation, I read some pages of a motivational book. The time is now 6:00 A.M and my dark coffee is on the table with a piece of cake. My flat is close to the cancer research center, and after 10 minutes of walking down the street and breathing fresh air I get into the office and say hello to my colleagues. My white lab coat is waiting to accompany me as I consider cell lines and overnight experiments. I update my lab notebook with numerous questions that come to my mind to discuss with my supervisor Dr. Reza Alizadeh-Navaei.

I usually check my emails and social media profiles during the coffee break. After refueling with caffeine and thinking about the discussions, I return to the lab. I apply the results of our discussion to the experiments and also write down the details in my lab notebook.

Amir Shamshirian
Amir losing himself in sampling

I hold a key belief: “The last step in learning is teaching and we have no meaning without sharing our knowledge”. As a result, I sometimes serve as a mentor in research workshops in both my research center and university. I think serving others, especially those who are very enthusiastic to learn is our responsibility. In fact, being inspired is great, but inspiring others is incredibly rewarding.


It is now 14:00. After lunch, I return to the lab in order to document all the details and important issues have happened today. Then, I start to write the manuscript of my current paper. It is one of the most interesting parts of the day for me when I am able to write what I have concluded after months of efforts. Especially when the results are exactly what I have expected towards the development of medical procedures. Once I am overwhelmed with writing, it is often late and most colleagues have already left the office. It is time to hang up my lab coat and leave. However, sometimes I continue working overnight according to my to-do list and priorities.

Amir Shamshirian
Amir and his supervisors and colleagues

Regardless of other activities during the evening, after some planning and reading pages of a novel, I go to bed with the hope to find better results for tomorrow. Visualizing my long-term goals is the last mental activity before deep sleep. The time is 00:00.

Long term, I want to work as a faculty member or as a scientist in a Comprehensive Cancer Center. After interacting with children suffering from cancer, I have another long-term goal. I want to be involved in establishing a free comprehensive cancer center, working with global cancer experts on this long journey toward saving more lives together.

About the author:

I am a Bachelor of Medical Laboratory Sciences, who enthusiastically works on the areas related to laboratory medicine, especially cancer research. We try to find novel approaches for diagnostic and treatment of different types of cancer, especially breast cancer, which is more prevalent in our area. We also consider cancer related factors epidemiologically. Altogether, our research intends to take a step in development of novel approaches regarding diagnostic and therapeutic challenges of malignancies.

3. Samuel Ribeiro, Postdoctoral Researcher, Spain

Samuel Ribeiro

Brazilian researcher Samuel Ribeiro highlights the importance of togetherness and unity in the fight against cancer, and that everybody is connected and can learn from each other.

Name: Samuel Ribeiro
Nationality: Brazilian
Place of work: Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute, IDIBELL, Spain
Job title: Postdoctoral researcher
How long have you worked there: 10 months

Samuel Ribeiro
Samuel in his labwear

Our group uses mice as a preclinical model to understand the mechanisms of tumour resistance to conventional treatments. Also, we are looking for new alternative therapies to treat resistant tumours to improve patient’s outcome in bladder cancer.

I decided to boost my scientific career in this field because of its potential short-term applicability and because it is an orthogonal field. It is possible to establish a multidisciplinary task force between basic, translational and clinical scientists to improve the quality of oncology research.

My lab routine consists in receiving patient’s biopsies from the Anatomic Pathology Department and immediately implant them in mice to expand them for further assays. Afterwards, we perform histopathological evaluation, functional experiments and we create a biobank. The main purpose of our work is to use these samples, which presented resistance after treatment, to test different drugs and/or to test several combinations of them in order to circumvent such resistance or improve treatment outcomes.

Samuel Ribeiro
Samuel with his colleagues at PhD Day at IBIDELL

The major challenge I encountered throughout the research is to be able to respond positively to oncologists and their patients by offering them alternative therapies capable to improve patient’s care and quality of life.

My main source of inspiration over the years has been relatives and friends who have had cancer, who have fought worthily against the disease, but in the end could not manage it. They still undoubtedly contribute to my continuation in the oncology research field.

I hope to be able to contribute, albeit through small advances, to improve bladder cancer treatments. Fundamentally I hope to help to improve the quality of life of patients and their families.

During my professional career, I learned that all of us together are essential in the fight against cancer. This ranges from patients and families to doctors, psychologists and researchers. This is either by our scientific knowledge, or by their professional or personal experience. Researchers can learn from clinicians, and clinicians can learn from patients and their families. We are all connected! Everyone can help, everyone can save lives.

About Samuel:

My name is Samuel, I’m a postdoctoral researcher at the Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute in Barcelona, Spain. Currently, I’m working with personalized medicine using preclinical mice models to study the mechanisms of resistance to conventional and immunotherapy treatments in bladder cancer.

4. Katharina Leonards, Scientific Project Manager, Switzerland

Katharina Leonards

Katharina Leonards talks about being involved in medical-decision making and Next-Generation-Sequencing (NGS), whilst also spending time training staff members to perform their own analyses.

Name: Katharina Leonards
Nationality: German
Place of work: Contract Research & Development Unit, Molecular Pathology, Institute of Pathology, University Hospital Basel
Job title: Scientific Project Manager
How long have you worked there: Under a year

Katharina Leonards
Katharina and student Laura Leuenberger involved in sequencing and lab organisation

As I am working in the field of assay development, I have an overview about several of the processes involved in producing diagnosis and therapy selection. This starts from the embedded biopsy until the final genetic analysis reporting clinically relevant mutations. Hereby our unit takes advantage of having access to high-throughput genetic analysis, instruments and the newest assays available on the market. Practically speaking, that means that I perform experiments at the bench, analyse the data and put this into context with currently used standard methods. We also have access to clinical study material as well as diagnostic samples in order to setup new protocols in routine diagnostics. Because of this, we can use follow-up data to understand if the treatment chosen based on genetic biomarkers finally led to clinical benefit for the patient.

Katharina Leonards
“The Chef” – a machine working overnight to allow rapid turnaround time

Ultimately, the goal of all people involved is to allow allocation of the right treatment for each patient. This is a process called personalized medicine. So far we have been investigating mostly the tumour itself. However, as the immune system is greatly involved in attacking the cancer, we want to also focus on the tumour microenviroment in the next year.

As I do not meet patients directly, It is highly likely a lot of patients will not know that we are involved in this huge process. However, we only analyze samples with given consent. Also, I personally see the bigger picture of helping other people and supporting the process of delivering high quality diagnostic standards. This is very rewarding.

One of our tasks is also to train internal and external staff to enable them to perform genetic analyses independently in their own diagnostic laboratory. Starting a completely new assay can be challenging, especially when different regulations and cost control is an issue. However, we believe that NGS is a powerful tool and that enabling in-house molecular analysis of clinical samples brings additional value and knowledge to clinicians and patients, whilst also reducing costs. We have therefore setup tailored workshops to not only allow technical training, but also to share insights into data analysis and facilitate cross-validation studies. What I enjoy most about my work is that we are at the interphase between research and diagnostics. This allows me to meet a diverse range of people in my everyday life from clinicians to bioinformaticians.

Katharina Leonards
The chips used to sequence patient samples – it takes 2.5 hours to read one full chip on the instrument

From a personal point of view, I benefit from a flexible schedule allowing me to allocate my personal development and family needs into periods of bench work, data analysis and travelling. For example, to attend EACR conferences. I find my daily inspiration in my direct environment. I am part of a great team where everyone has important values to share. As we have many different projects ongoing, I have learnt to allocate my time wisely in order to allow every task to run most efficiently. Also, sequencing can be a quite complex process, therefore I prefer to break down complex problems to simple solutions. Handling patient material involves a great responsibility.

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About Katharina’s research:

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, the oncologist needs to make a decision on which medical treatment suits the best. A biopsy of the cancer is taken and sent to our institute where a pathologist advises on treatment selection based on several analyses of patient samples. These include amongst which high-throughput measurements of the human DNA, a method called next-generation-sequencing (NGS). There are many new tests introduced that could potentially help medical decision-making. The aim of our unit is to implement and validate them and to help understanding the clinical utility of novel biomarkers in the field.

5. Arthur Dyer, Laboratory Manager, UK

Arthur Dyer

Arthur Dyer manages a lab at the University of Oxford, whilst also carrying out his own research. He discusses how he found his way to his lab after graduating as a veterinary scientist.

Name: Arthur Dyer
Nationality: British
Place of work: Department of Oncology, University of Oxford
Job title: Laboratory Manager
How long have you worked there: 5 years

The research performed in our laboratory focusses on gene therapy and a type of treatment referred to as oncolytic virotherapy. Oncolytic virotherapy is a method of cancer treatment where we infect cancer patients with viruses that can only replicate in cancer cells. The idea behind oncolytic virotherapy is that the virus will spread in cancer cells and kill these cells. Because the virus can only replicate within cancer cells this means that once the cancer is eradicated, the virus will be eliminated from the body and also means that people without cancer can’t get infected with the virus.

Arthur Dyer
The research building Arthur works in

As a laboratory manager, my days are split between researching and running the lab. I come in in the morning and start by brewing a pot of coffee for the rest of the researchers in the lab and catching up on emails from the previous day. Most people don’t realise scientists predominantly run on carbohydrates and caffeine! I will then check on my cells that we keep growing in our lab. Viruses can only replicate inside cells and so we need a constant supply of cells with which to experiment on and grow our virus.

Following on from my morning checks I start my research. Typical, no two days of research are the same in our lab. Usually, we will be doing several things. Either cloning new genes of interest into our viruses to be expressed in high quantities within the tumour microenvironment. Or we will be infecting cells under various conditions to see how the viral lifecycle is affected or immune-based assays to see how our virus turns immunologically cold tumours into immunologically hot tumours.

We are incredibly lucky to be based next door to the Churchill Hospital, an NHS teaching hospital with brilliant cancer wards. Once a day, one of our lab’s researchers will go to see if any patients have been kind enough to donate any samples for us to test on. We are incredibly grateful to the patients who donate samples allowing us to conduct our research. This is along with the healthcare professionals who help us obtain these samples. Working with fresh tumour samples is more challenging than working with immortal cells in a dish but can help us bridge the gap between the lab and getting our treatments into patients.

Arthur Dyer
Arthur and his lab on a recent excursion to Scotland

Because our lab focuses on cancer treatments, virology and kick-starting the immune system to attacking cancers, our lab tends to be quite a mixing pot of researchers with different backgrounds. We are lucky enough to have a variety of researchers and post-doctoral researchers. All of whohave varied backgrounds from virologists, microbiologists, biomedical engineers, immunologists, oncologists and even medical doctors.

We are all supported and guided by Professor Len Seymour. He is a great mentor and provides a high level of support to all the researchers in our laboratory. My background is that I graduated as a veterinary scientist. I then became interested in viruses that spread from animals to humans and then found my way to this laboratory. Because of the mix of backgrounds and expertise within our laboratory we have a highly dynamic and interactive bunch of researchers, all of whom are at various points in their careers. If someone in the lab doesn’t have knowledge of a certain protocol or area of science there is someone in the lab who will be able to help out. It makes our laboratory a truly fantastic place to work and grow as a scientist.

About Arthur’s work:

I work as a laboratory manager in the University of Oxford’s department of oncology. I ensure that all the researchers in our laboratory have everything they need to do their researc. This includes scientific equipment, health and safety, specialist machines, training, support and collaborations. As well as managing the lab, I carry out my own research into cancer killing viruses with the help, guidance and support of Professor Len Seymour.

6. Mieke Van Hemelrijck, Principal Investigator, UK

Mieke Van Hemelrijck

Mieke Van Hemelrijck discusses her love working for the TOUR team, despite the stresses that comes with it, whilst also balancing her parental responsibilities.

Name: Mieke Van Hemelrijck
Nationality: Belgian/British
Place of work: King’s College London
Job title: Reader in Cancer Epidemiology
How long have you worked there: 11 years

Mieke Van Hemelrijck
Mieke catching up with a clinician (right) who is collaborating on a research project

On a typical day, my alarm goes off at 5am. I then go for an 8km run with one of my friends who also has a four-year old. We chat about life and when I get back home, we all get ready for work or school. I cycle to work so that I am in the office by 7am. I start working early most days because that then gives me flexibility to leave work twice a week around 2:40pm. This is so I can pick up our son from school at 3:20pm. On the other days, I often work until after 6pm because our team works closely with various clinicians who are busy in clinic most days until 5pm.

TOUR stands for Translational Oncology & Urology Research and involves a team of 20+ members – all with their heart in the job. When people ask me why I love my job, the fantastic team is definitely the main reason. There are 9 PhD students in the team, clinical trial coordinators, database managers, research nurses, post-doctoral scientists, and a patient and public involvement (PPI) coordinator.

Mieke Van Hemelricjk
Mieke catching up with the TOUR team

I find it very important that everybody in my team understands why they are engaged in cancer research. Therefore our team is heavily involved in a variety of PPI activities throughout the year. We engage in fundraising activities, but also work with patient advocates. The “T” in TOUR provides us with the challenge of working with a wide variety of disciplines. This means not only the patients and the public, but also colleagues in many different fields whether it is oncology, urology, bioinformatics, immunology, cell biology, social sciences, or mathematics.

TOUR is engaged in many exciting translational research projects in the area of mainly prostate and bladder cancer. However, there are also stressful times in the life of this PI. All students and staff are employed on fixed-term contracts. Hence they are reliant on grants income or donations for their future employment. I always do whatever I can to bring in funding. However, the stress of having to keep so many people employed never goes away. I therefore enjoy my morning runs and cycling commute. It gives me a chance to clear my head and often I get some new research ideas.

Mieke Van Hemelrijck
Mieke conducting a focus group with cancer patients

Nevertheless, there are many other beautiful aspects of my job. Apart from the team and PPI activities, I also enjoy teaching future researchers about epidemiology and travelling around the world to learn about new research opportunities and meet new potential collaborators at various conferences. Before Christmas, I will have been to meetings in Naples, Barcelona, Milan, Glasgow, Vienna, and Stockholm. A wide variety of my previous meetings have led to new research ideas, collaborations, and successful grants.

Finally, I also love the flexibility of my job – I definitely work more than the required amount of hours but I get to choose my working hours so that I can combine it fairly easily with family life, even when I have to travel. However, I have to thank my husband and the flexibility of his job for that as well!

About Mieke’s job:

I lead the Translational Oncology and Urology Research (TOUR) team. The TOUR team aims to turn science into better healthcare by translating uro-oncology research into medical practice. TOUR brings together a team of researchers, clinicians, students, research nurses, trial coordinators, and database managers who are active across the field of translational research.

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.