Dr Steve Millership, Research Fellow at Imperial College London, is one of our 2020 Early Career Prize Lecture winners. His research focusses on the beta cell epigenome and the impact of diet on beta cells and he will be giving his lecture “Tracking of imprinted gene hypervariability and diet-induced deregulation in pancreatic beta cells” at SfE BES 2020 Online on Tuesday, 17 November. Read this interview to find out more about his talk and get some expert advice on how to become a successful scientist.
Can you tell us a little about your career, research and an achievement you are proud of?
I started my career in metabolic energy homeostasis and cell biology and have always been fascinated with it. I did my PhD in Cardiff University and moved to the London Institute of Medical Sciences to complete a post-doc on imprinted genes and modelling diabetes in mice. In the last year or two I have been writing grants and fellowships, as well as doing a short term fellowship with the Welcome Trust at Imperial College London to continue exploring the modulation of the beta cell epigenome and the effect of diet on beta cells in diabetes. I had been in this position for about 2 months and in the transition phase of getting set up on my own, before the pandemic started.
A proud moment for me was winning the Early Career Prize Lecture – very exciting and unexpected! I would have originally said my proudest moment was when my first paper was accepted, but that has now been overshadowed by winning this award.
Can you tell us a little more about what you will be presenting at SfE BES Online 2020?
There are two main angles to my talk. The first is that beta cells are not all equal and a small percentage are doing different jobs to the rest. This is important to help understand how they secrete insulin as a whole islet. The model I created has the ability to image imprinted gene expression longitudinally and you can look at individual cells and analyse them. The second part to my talk is about how the diet can deregulate and alter expression of beta cell genes, which could explain why diet is so essential to beta cell function.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your research?
I didn’t go in to the lab for six weeks and have mostly been grant and application writing at home, so it has been good to have the opportunity to do that and make lockdown feel more productive. In our lab we have had restricted occupancy so there is only ever 5 people in the lab at a time. This means you don’t get the same lab environment, as everyone just gets on with their own thing and as everyone is so spread out, there is little socialising. However one benefit I have noticed is that my efficiency and organisation levels gone through the roof, as you have to make the most of limited time in the lab. I’m not usually an organised person so that is one thing that has changed for the better!
What do you enjoy most about your work?
I’ve always really enjoyed having hypothesis driven conversations and not knowing what is to come is exciting. I find it really interesting solving mysteries and working on something that has a high impact on human health.
What do you think about the move to virtual conferences?
I went to two conferences in the last month and I found having everything laid out in front of you provides an opportunity to focus on certain bits that are beneficial to you in more detail, and you can go to more talks than in person. Another benefit is having access to conferences you wouldn’t usually go to as there is no need to travel, which can be expensive. However a major drawback of online meetings is not having as much opportunity to network with other attendees. Sometimes talking with other people you can find out valuable bits of information or find better opportunities to collaborate.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in your field?
One of the biggest challenges in beta cell biology is determining what the best method to treat diabetes is – there is always the divide between advancing beta cell function, or reducing insulin resistance. We always had the belief that efficiently functioning pancreatic beta cells is better for diabetic patients and saving beta cell function is a better option, but it is hard to decide which pathway is most effective as there are still things we don’t fully understand.
What advice would you give to aspiring endocrinologists?
One piece of advice I would suggest is, when you are writing grant or fellowship applications, give yourself time and let your ideas develop. You ideally need to give yourself between 6-12 months and write them as you go along, getting feedback from talks and people from the field.
My PhD mentor gave me a couple great pieces of advice which I didn’t expect to be so helpful. She said to make sure you have got at least one main paper coming out of your post-doc which you can call your own, and also to get on with people! It’s difficult to achieve anything if you aren’t collaborative and you don’t get anywhere by keeping your experiments to yourself and not getting help or feedback. You need to be open to ideas and having your work critiqued and then take that feedback on board.
You can hear Dr Steve Millership’s lecture “Tracking of imprinted gene hypervariability and diet-induced deregulation in pancreatic beta cells” on Tuesday, 17 November at 15:55 GMT. If you haven’t already, register for SfE BES Online now!