Meet the winner of the 2019 Society for Endocrinology Medal

Prof Philippa Saunders is Chair of Reproductive Steroids at the University of Edinburgh and proud winner of the Society for Endocrinology Medal. Prof Saunders speaks to us about her research and career, ahead of her Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2019.

Can you tell us about your current position and research?

I lead a research team based in the Centre for Inflammation Research at the University of Edinburgh. Our work is focussed on exploring the role(s) of steroids and their receptors in the endometrium, so that we can develop better medical therapies to treat endometrial disorders including endometriosis, infertility and heavy periods, which affect millions of women in the UK and world-wide.

Please tell us a little about your career path so far, and what you are most proud of?

My first degree was in microbiology – the recent explosion of interest in the microbiome has made this more useful than previously. After graduation I was unsure what to do and took a job in Cambridge examining the role of uterine factors in supporting development of the pig blastocyst – this turned out to be an absolutely fasinating topic and I made it the basis of my PhD project. I spent 3 years as a postdoc in the USA, which was pivotal in convincing me that I wanted to become a successful principal investigator (PI), leading my own team. After a brief period working in London, I moved to Edinburgh where I was fortunate to have the chance to start my own lab within the MRC Human Reproductive Biology Unit. I was made a Professor in 2005 and have taken on a number of leadership roles including Head of Centre and Director of Postgraduate Research. I am proud of my successful application for the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health and the work my team have done to advance our understanding of the impact of oestrogens and androgens on endometrial health and disease.

What more specifically are you presenting at your Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2019?

I am going to be talking about our most recent work exploring the impact of steroids on endometrial function – this has a strong translational focus and benefits from access to human samples, as well as bespoke mouse models.

Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to at this year’s conference and you would recommend to others?

I am really looking forward to the Basic Physiology Workshop: Modelling endocrinology in vitro, in vivo & in silico and hearing about the exciting work done by the early career researchers.

What are the biggest challenges in your research area right now?

Funding! We are trying to better understand the mechanisms that predispose some, but not all, women to develop endometriosis, a chronic condition that can cause severe pain as well as subfertility. Even though up to 10% of women are affected during their reproductive years, it is incredibly challenging to get money to fund basic research into the aetiology of this condidition. Endometriosis and women’s health charities have little money and funders with deeper pockets have many equally important claims on their funds. We are looking at alternative sources of funding and have been happy to receive several small donations and philanthropic funding.  

What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?

I am excited about the use of new technologies such as single cell sequencing and advanced in situ image analysis, as I believe these will give us the tools to study spatial and temporal changes in cell function within complex tissues, such as the endometrium.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

I enjoy working with my team and clinical collaborators, all of whom are focused on doing their best to improve the lives of women. One of the best aspects of the job is helping junior colleagues advance their careers by encouraging them to be ambitious and open to new ideas. I have also been fortunate to use my position as a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences to support a number of initiatives that are supporting junior PIs to achieve their full potential – these include chairing the Springboard grants panel, acting as a mentor and as co-chair of the Team Science project.

Who do you most admire professionally, or otherwise, and why?

I have huge admiration for my clinical academic colleagues (Andrew Horne, Hilary Critchley) who are dealing with the challenges of running multicentre clinical trials. These trials are vital if we are to improve the lives of women who are at risk of hormone-dependent disorders but involve many hours of work, both to obtain funding and also to manage a diverse team based in multiple locations.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists out there?

Endocrinology is a really important topic so please continue to work in the field and promote it to others. In your own work please consider the impact of hormones on health and disease, across the life course and in different genders, so that your results will be relevant to as many people as possible.

You can hear Prof Saunders’ Society for Endocrinology Medal Lecture, Sex steroids and the endometrium: dynamics and disorders” on Wednesday 13 November at 16:50. Find out more about the scientific programme for SfE BES 2019.

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