Donagh Egan is a PhD student at Systems Biology Ireland who received an EACR Travel Fellowship to visit and work at the Francis Crick Institute in the UK between August and November 2023.
The EACR is supported by Worldwide Cancer Research to provide Travel Fellowships of up to €3,000 to enable early-career cancer researchers to gain new skills through a short-term visit to a lab or research group in another country.
You can read about other Travel Fellows and their experiences here.
Name: Donagh Egan
Job title: PhD student
Home institute: Systems Biology Ireland
Host institute: Francis Crick Institute in the UK
Dates of visit: 01 August – 04 November 2023
Research: Tumours thrive by evading our immune system, employing mechanisms such as the production of molecules that suppress immune responses. Recently developed drugs counteract these suppressive molecules, reinvigorating the immune system to fight off cancer. While these drugs clear cancer for patients, response outcomes are variable. My research delves into molecular data from patient tumours to untangle the precise mechanisms tied to positive responses to these immune-related drugs. By understanding response, we aim to refine treatment strategies and improve patient outcomes.
Why did you decide to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship?
I applied for an EACR Travel Fellowship driven by the prospect of working with individuals from different research areas. Interacting with researchers from varied fields offers fresh perspectives, which would help me adopt new methods to my own research questions. Samra Turajlic’s lab at the Francis Crick Institute was the perfect environment to achieve this. However, the opportunities provided by London are paired with high costs, especially for early-stage researchers. The fellowship removed this barrier, allowing me to foster scientific collaborations and develop networks with great scientists.
Was there anything your particularly liked about the host institution?
I found particular enjoyment working within the energetic city of London, a sentiment that was equally resonant at the Crick. As one of the preeminent biomedical laboratories in Europe, there is a palpable commitment to advancing research in the area of oncology. This environment has a motivating influence, inspiring vigour in my own research pursuits. The wealth of diverse research at the institute provided great opportunities for engaging scientific discussions with scientists from different areas, and expanded my scientific interests beyond my own area of research.
Did you have a personal mentor or anyone that particularly helped you?
During my stay I worked closely with Dr Irene Lobon, a postdoctoral fellow in Samra Turjalic’s group. Irene comes from a different research background to myself, focusing primarily on how cancer evolves under the selective pressure of the immune system. Irene provided guidance and expert knowledge that allowed me to answer research questions with analyses that would have otherwise been inaccessible. I also worked closely with a medical oncologist, Ben Shum. A key aspect of my analyses was understanding the clinical characteristics of patient data. Ben ensured that the data was correctly interpreted, which provided confidence that my own findings were grounded in correct assumptions.
What was a personal highlight of your trip?
A standout moment from the trip was taking part in a Cancer Research UK fundraiser, which had me abseiling down the side of the Francis Crick Institute. On my first day, I was struck by the sheer size of the institute, so getting the chance to abseil down it was both scary and unforgettable. It was also my first time directly participating in a cancer fundraising event during my PhD, and seeing the effort put into organising it gave me a new appreciation for the funding that supports our research.
How has this visit been beneficial to your research and career?
The visit granted me access to novel data and the expertise to navigate it using innovative bioinformatic approaches. This experience significantly enhanced my computational skills, enabling me to uncover novel insights that will benefit my PhD thesis. Joining a new laboratory required learning and adapting to new processes and methods of communicating. As a result, my communication skills have seen notable improvement. I now feel more at ease expressing my ideas and incorporating feedback into my research. As a PhD student, I hold these skills in high regard, and recognise their applicability to my future professional endeavours.
If you are interested in applying for the Travel Fellowship scheme, please click here for more information: EACR Travel Fellowships.