Meet the Endocrinologist: Dr Scott MacKenzie, expert in adrenocortical biology

Scott MacKenzie is a lecturer at the Institute of Cardiovascular and Medical Sciences at the University of Glasgow. Dr MacKenzie’s research focuses on adrenocortical production of the steroid hormones, aldosterone and cortisol, and investigates how genetic variability can affects their involvement in causing high blood pressure. In this interview, he tells us more about his research, career path and his role as an Adrenal and Cardiovascular Network convenor.

What inspired you into endocrinology, and why adrenocortical research in particular?

I got into endocrine research by chance. I was studying for an undergraduate degree in genetics at the University of Glasgow in the mid-90s and a lecturer happened to mention that any students interested in a summer research project should go and see John Connell. Everything came from that. Professor Connell, alongside Robert Fraser and Eleanor Davies, was particularly interested in aldosterone secretion by the adrenal gland and the genes that regulated it. At that time, there was also emerging evidence that other tissues including the brain were making aldosterone, so I was set to work on that through a Society for Endocrinology Summer Studentship. Unfortunately, the 8-week project went extremely smoothly, generating some nice data and giving me completely unrealistic expectations of scientific research! On the basis of this, I was then offered a PhD project in the same lab devoted to investigating extra-adrenal production of aldosterone in the rodent brain. I continued researching in this area, but over the years, I came to the conclusion that extra-adrenal production of aldosterone is unlikely to be of any physiological importance in humans. Fortunately, new questions were starting to be asked around adrenal secretion of aldosterone and I was able to apply the methods I had developed to that area. Now I am involved in projects that cover several aspects of this, with particular interest in how secretion can become dysregulated or excessive, as in primary aldosteronism (PA).

Tell us a little more about your current research?

I’m currently involved in various projects examining aspects of aldosterone secretion, which I think is an interesting and important field of endocrinology that has an impact on the cardiovascular health of large sections of the population. My current work includes aldosterone regulation by microRNA, analysis of common genetic polymorphisms that might predispose large sections of the population to PA (and therefore hypertension), and the identification of circulating biomarkers that might aid in the earlier and more accurate diagnosis of different forms of endocrine hypertension. The things I tend to be most proud of are the little bits of problem solving that arise in the course of lab work. I was quite pleased with a slightly obscure method I developed to confirm the unequal expression of two different forms of the highly similar CYP11B1 and CYP11B2 genes.

What do you think will be the next big or important breakthrough in adrenocortical research?

The discovery that the majority of aldosterone-producing adenomas contain mutations at one of just a few key genes encoding ion channels was really a big breakthrough that advanced our understanding of the pathophysiology underlying the majority of PA cases. At the same time, improvements in diagnostic testing for PA are revealing it to be far more common than we had previously thought. I think this will lead to a redefinition of PA to some extent, as we identify mechanisms that result in aldosterone hypersecretion under certain environmental circumstances or in certain sections of the population who are genetically predisposed to respond in this manner. Ultimately, this could result in better diagnosis and more targeted treatment for endocrine-related hypertension.

I’m currently very interested in the impact of environmental and physical stress on aldosterone secretion. The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis has long been thought to regulate aldosterone secretion in a very limited manner, but recent clinical studies suggest a sizeable minority of hypertensive individuals react to stress by producing high levels of aldosterone. Understanding what predisposes these people to respond in this manner is, I believe, of great importance and could have major implications for how we react to stressful situations in everyday life and its impact on our cardiovascular health.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by academic research?

I think the greatest challenge in current scientific research doesn’t apply to any one field but to us all. That is how we ensure that young researchers­­ coming through – particularly basic scientists – have a viable and stable career structure that enables them to progress and thrive in an academic environment. A lot of time, money and training is being invested in these people, but too many are being lost to science as they become disenchanted by successive short-term contracts and the uncertainty surrounding a career in scientific research. I think it is incumbent on older scientists to recognise just how much the career prospects and funding structures have altered in recent years, and to use whatever influence we have to push for greater early career support at institutional and national levels.

Are there any controversies in your research area? How do you think they will be resolved?

There are certainly controversial areas in my field; some may argue with my opinion that extra-adrenal aldosterone production in humans is of no importance. Others (if the comments on my recent grant proposal are anything to go by) will disagree with my assertion that stress is an important factor in aldosterone secretion. But, ultimately, any scientific disputes will be resolved as they have always been: by well-designed and well-executed experimental study.

What do you enjoy about being an Endocrine Network convenor, and how do you think it may benefit others?

I think that Endocrine Networks have tremendous potential to provide opportunities for researchers, particularly those in their early careers, by enabling them to gain supportive and informed advice from more senior members. I hope we are able to build a vibrant online community that is complemented by ‘real-life’ meetings, such as the Research Incubators at the SfE BES 2017 conference, which proved an excellent forum for researchers to get feedback on projects under development. Ultimately, the success of these initiatives depends on its participants, so I would urge all members in relevant areas of research to sign up to a network and get involved.

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinology researchers?

Although I think opportunities are harder to come by now than they were in ‘my day’, young researchers can still distinguish themselves from their peers in the same ways. That means taking every opportunity to make themselves known to prospective employers and supervisors (the dreaded ‘networking’) while at the same time not being too discouraged by the high number of rejections that almost inevitably follow. It also means exploiting opportunities that organisations like the Society for Endocrinology make available to them, such as Travel Grants, Early Career Grants and Career Development Workshops. Applying for these or getting involved with the Networks or the Early Career Steering Group can be an excellent way to develop your research and get your name known in endocrine circles.

The Endocrine Networks are platforms for knowledge exchange and collaboration amongst basic and clinical researchers, clinical endocrinologists and endocrine nurses. The Networks enable members to discuss and find solutions to challenges within their specialist field.

To join an Endocrine Network login to the ‘My profile’ section of the Members’ Area and select ’Endocrine Networks’.

The conference that stirred my scientific passions (and got me a cool mug!)

What to expect from SfE BES as an Early Career researcher / medical trainee

Scientific conferences are not just an unparalleled opportunity to dive deeper into what’s going on in your specialty. Much more importantly, they are where the little things – the random encounters, the unexpected conversations that can lead to career turning points happen. Do you remember, or can you imagine, the nervous expectation, the excitement -perhaps a tinge of bewilderment- of being there for the first time?

Matthew Sinton, PhD student in Cardiovascular Science at the University of Edinburgh attended his first ever scientific conference, SfE BES, in November 2017. Read how the experience saw him equipped with a sense of purpose, and a taster of what the endocrinology community can do for his career (and could do for yours too, if you’re an SfE BES newbie!).

Amongst the multitude of questions whirling around in my head when I started my PhD, there was one I never realised would be so important: which societies should I join? The first one recommended by my supervisor was the Society for Endocrinology, so I did my due diligence – I found out what the role of the Society was, and how it could support me throughout my PhD and my career beyond.

One of the first opportunities that I came across was the Society for Endocrinology BES Registration Grant, which is available to trainee scientists, as well as others trainees and students, and covers the cost of conference registration. The aim of the grant is to enable those who are still choosing their career paths, or are new to the field of endocrinology, to attend and hear the latest basic and clinical research in the field, and to network with both peers and experts. A few weeks after a straightforward, painless application process, I received an email confirming my award of the grant. While I was delighted about it, I also felt a little nervous – this was my first ever conference but I wasn’t presenting anything, and although I knew a few people who were also attending, they would be busy with poster presentations and meetings. How could I make use of all that spare time to wander around by myself?

As I made my way, on the train from Edinburgh to Harrogate (where the conference was being held), still feeling somewhat apprehensive, I read the conference programme again, and got my notebook out so that I could make a list of things that I would like to see. As I put this list together, a feeling of excitement overtook my nerves – there were such a range of different topics, including engaging with the media, cancer metabolism, food taxation, and alternative career paths. Thinking about opportunities for people at my same career stage, I also made a note to check out the Early Career Lounge.

Once in Harrogate, and too early to check into my hotel, I headed straight to the convention centre. I quickly registered and made my way to the main exhibition hall to see all the posters and exhibition stands. It was still very quiet, so I joined the coffee queue, with the intention of enjoying my caffeine kick whilst looking at the posters in more detail. To my surprise, however, a collaborator who I had not yet had the opportunity to meet in person, joined the queue behind me, and we got chatting. This chance encounter made me feel far more at ease, and afterwards I took the time to wander around. I stopped to check the posters I thought I would be most interested in, then headed to my first talk of choice, on engaging with the media, by Giles Yeo. Like most of the talks that I attended during the conference, it was insightful and engaging, and I really enjoyed being able to listen to experts in their respective fields discussing science and endocrinology from so many different perspectives.

The first evening of the conference I went to the Early Career Quiz, where I had been assigned a seat with people from my home institute, including other postgraduates and PIs. Although I’d seen the other postgraduates around the university, I’d never had the chance to talk to them, so this was a brilliant opportunity to get to know each other better and find out about the projects that everyone was working on. To our (brief) dismay, we didn’t do that well in the quiz, finishing slap-bang in the middle, but it didn’t matter – the evening was so much fun! That night I went back to my hotel feeling exhausted, but still managed to spare some energy to plan my next day.

The following morning, after a quick breakfast and a coffee, I walked back to the convention centre and went straight to the Early Career Lounge, to find out more about the Society and what was on offer in terms of career development. Whilst I want to stay in academia after I finish my PhD, I’m realistic enough to know how competitive it is, and that I need to develop additional skills away from the bench. At the Lounge I spoke with Matt Grant, the Society Careers and Engagement Officer. We chatted for quite a while, about opportunities within the Society, and about what I thought the Society could do to further support people at my career stage. At the end of our chat, I was feeling excited about the various events that I could attend, and Matt promised to email me with any opportunities that arose (which he did). The icing on the cake was, of course, the free Society for Endocrinology mug that I got after our chat…!

I would encourage anyone to apply for the Society for Endocrinology BES Registration Grant and attend this conference, as it really is a fantastic experience. I learned about areas of science that I would otherwise have missed, and met people that I would not normally have the opportunity to meet, including those from the institute that I’m based at! I’m really looking forward to staying involved with the Society, throughout my PhD and beyond!

 

Do you want to know more about Matthew’s unusual career path? Read how quitting his first PhD led him to refocus his career on endocrinology here.

Conference delegate SOS – help get our research proposals off the ground!

SfE BES is all about bringing endocrine professionals together to share knowledge and spark future collaborations. This year, for the first time, delegates are invited to hear specific research proposals and contribute their insights, data or resources to really help get these fledgling projects off the ground.

Here, Dr Kate Lines, from the Oxford Centre for Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism (OCDEM), University of Oxford, talks about her proposal to be presented at an Endocrine Network Research Incubator Meeting to further understanding of pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours. To complete her project, she needs SfE BES 2017 delegates to provide more patient samples!

My research mainly focuses on learning more about how pancreatic islet cell tumours (pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours) grow, and using this information to develop new therapies. One specific area that has begun to interest me recently is inflammation. Inflammation is a process in which the body sends cells of the immune system (or white blood cells) to specific areas to defend against foreign substances. It has now been shown that many tumours can hijack this system by releasing chemicals to lure in white blood cells. Once the white blood cells reach the tumour they are encouraged to secrete small proteins (cytokines), which help make the perfect environment for the tumour to grow. The perfect growth environment is different for different tumours, therefore the specific white blood cells and cytokines needed by each tumour is also different. Currently, not much is known about which white blood cells and cytokines are most important for supporting pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours.

I submitted a proposal for the Endocrine Neoplasia Syndromes Network Research Incubator Meeting at SfE BES 2017 that suggests examining the area around dissected tissue from pancreatic neuroendocrine tumours for these specific cells and cytokines. Once we have this information we can use it to either help diagnose the tumours (as the cytokines can be detected in the blood), or target them with specific drugs to try to make the environment less ideal for the tumour to grow. However, the trouble with pancreatic endocrine tumours is that although they can be deadly, they are also rare. This is the main stumbling block for the proposed study, as our hospital alone doesn’t have enough samples for us to be confident that the specific cells and cytokines we see are representative of those occurring in all patients.

The Endocrine Neoplasia Syndromes Network Research Incubator Meeting provides a rare opportunity for us to try to access these samples from different hospitals in different locations, which ultimately could provide a set of samples that is truly representative of all the pancreatic neuroendocrine patients in the UK. Not only could the members help by providing samples for this study, but as our work continues they could also provide further samples, such as blood, for future work stemming from this proposal. I therefore hope that the other members of the network will be as interested in this area as I am and would like to provide us with lots of patient samples to investigate. In addition, as an early career researcher it is rare to get the chance to present new ideas to my peers. I am therefore looking forward to what I hope will be an exciting and stimulating discussion on a new area of research for me.

The Endocrine Network Research Incubator Meetings will take place on Tuesday 7 and Wednesday 8 November, 07:45–08:30, come along to the Endocrine Network Meeting most relevant to your research interests and read the full scientific programme for SfE BES 2017 for more details.

To join an Endocrine Network login to the ‘My profile’ section of the ‘Members’ Area and select Endocrine Networks.

Meet the Endocrinologist: Interview with Prof David Hodson

Meet Professor David Hodson, Society for Endocrinology Starling Medal winner for 2017. Prof Hodson is based at the University of Birmingham, where his work investigates how failure of pancreatic beta cell function contributes to type-2 diabetes. He is particularly interested in using multidisciplinary and innovative approaches to answer these research questions, which has earned him this award, to be presented the annual conference, SfE BES 2017, in Harrogate, 6-8 November 2017. Learn more about his endocrine journey in this exclusive interview.

Q:  Tell us a little about your career so far and how you ended up in Birmingham

I originally trained as a Veterinary Surgeon at the University of Bristol, where I studied for a PhD in reproductive neuroendocrinology. Tempted by warmer climes, I then migrated to the South of France to join Patrice Mollard’s lab at the CNRS Montpellier, France. This was an exciting time when Patrice had just discovered pituitary networks, and I was lucky enough to be involved in some of the seminal work that followed. This period cemented my passion for microscopy and method development. I then took up a post as a Non-Clinical Lecturer at Imperial College London in Guy Rutter’s Section, applying optical approaches to the study of islet biology and generally learning how to survive in academia. I moved to the University of Birmingham 18 months ago through their Birmingham Fellows Scheme, convinced that the availability of world-class imaging/metabolomics and abundance of young talent would help me to push my research to the next level. Now a Professorial Research Fellow, I am tasked with the exciting role of expanding diabetes research, as well as further developing our imaging capability. This despite my initial reservations about the city following the BAFTA award-winning “Peaky Blinders”!

 Q: What more specifically are you presenting at your Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2017?

It is becoming increasingly clear that, rather like society, beta cells are not equal. In fact, a small number of beta cells may be responsible for driving insulin release, as well as proliferation/renewal, similar to how just a few individuals own most of the world’s wealth. Or alternatively, how you are only ever six people away from knowing Kevin Bacon (of “Tremors” or “Footloose” fame). This is a really hot topic that challenges our understanding of how beta cells may fail (or respond to treatment) during type 2 diabetes. Therefore, I’ll talk about the recent questions that have arisen in terms of beta cell diversity, the tools we have developed to try and understand this and how this has changed our viewpoint of beta cell function under normal and diabetic conditions. There will be lots of colour, movies and practically no text.

Q: What are you particularly looking forward to at SfE BES 2017?

 My first SfE BES conference was last year and I’m a convert! It will be great to see how endocrinology is progressing in the UK and to catch up with colleagues whilst discussing research in a friendly, informal and supportive environment. In particular, I am looking forward to the “Tissue Engineering for Regenerative Medicine in Endocrinology” symposium. This holds promise not only for diabetes treatment, but also for many endocrine disorders. I’m also looking forward to the social programme. I’d be lying if I said that food and alcohol didn’t play an important role in any conference attendance!

Q: What has been your career highlight so far?

To be honest, I’m relatively new to this and the lab has been working across so many disciplines/topics that it’s difficult to pinpoint a particular highlight. I’m very appreciative that I’ve got excellent collaborators and we are just pleased to be involved in any output that falls under the ‘team science’ banner. Having said that, getting to see Wrestlemania 33 at the same time as ENDO 2017 this year in Florida has to be pretty good, right? Does this count as a career highlight?

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in your particular research area right now?

Our biggest challenge remains how to translate our basic findings on beta cell function from the bench to the bedside. We are amassing detailed knowledge regarding the mechanisms underlying insulin secretion, especially in the ‘omics era, but need to strive to harness this for therapeutic potential. On the flip side, lack of understanding about basic mechanisms will hold back progress on all fronts, so we should not make this the only criteria for our research.

Q: What are your future plans for your work & career?

Honestly, I haven’t really thought that far ahead. I’m content following up the avenues created by current research and just having fun doing what we’re doing. Maybe become a Vice-Chancellor? The pension seems decent.

Q: Who do you most admire professionally?

I have to admit that I most admire my postdocs, students and technicians. The fact that they have chosen to research diabetes with relatively little reward and in tough academic times really speaks volumes about their motivation and personalities. They do it because they love to do it. I am lucky to have such good people.

Q: Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists out there?

Endocrinology is bound by shared mechanisms and concepts. Therefore, as a basic or clinical researcher, don’t be afraid to apply thinking from one field to another field, as well as take risks with the research. The outcome and impact can be quite dramatic compared to the high-throughput, predictable science that the funding climate seems to encourage. If someone asks you what is the point of doing this, then it’s generally a positive thing!

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

There is a realisation that current drugs are difficult to improve upon. Certainly, pharma pipelines, profits and innovation are all shrinking as the list of FDA requirements rightly grows (e.g. concerning cardiovascular safety margins). Therefore, directed or personalised treatment may represent the next breakthrough in the field, for example through production of unimolecular agonists where a few licensed drugs are ‘bolted’ together or matching patient genotype to drug efficacy.

You can hear Prof Hodson’s Society for Endocrinology Starling Medal lecture, “Next generation tools to understand endocrine function in health and disease” on Monday 6 November, 18:00-18:30, and see the full scientific programme for SfE BES 2017.

 

Meet the Endocrinologist: Interview with Prof Antonio Vidal-Puig

Group Photo - June 2017

Meet Professor Antonio Vidal-Puig, endocrinologist and Society for Endocrinology Medal winner for 2017. Prof Vidal-Puig is based at the Institute of Metabolic Sciences, Cambridge University and at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where his outstanding research, focusing on the link between obesity and associated metabolic complications, has earned him this award, to be presented the annual conference, SfE BES 2017, in Harrogate, 6-8 November 2017. Learn more about his endocrine journey in this exclusive interview.

Q: Tell us a little about your career so far and how you ended up in Cambridge.

Originally from Spain, I studied medicine and trained in endocrinology at Valencia Medical School and Granada Medical School. I held post-doctoral positions in Boston at the Massachussetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Hospital/Harvard Medical School from 1992-1999. There I had excellent mentors including Jeff Flier, Brad Lowell, David Moller and Leo Krall. This was a very intense, exciting and uncertain period, at the epicentre of major discoveries in the field of obesity. This was a period that defined my career, scientific focus, approach to science and reinforced my values. I have been developing my career in the UK, since arriving at Cambridge University in 2000, and now have an established laboratory and have become a Professor of Molecular Nutrition and Metabolism.

Q: Tell us more about your research that led to you being awarded the Society Medal

The lab is interested in why obesity results in diabetes, insulin resistance, fatty liver and ischaemic heart disease, in order to find ways of preventing these complications.

The key concept of our programme is lipotoxicity, which links obesity-related metabolic complications with the excessive accumulation of lipids outside adipose tissue, in organs including muscle, liver and heart. From the concept of lipotoxicity we have developed three main research directions:

  • understanding how the adipose tissue works, with the aim of improving its function and ensuring that lipids remain in adipose. This led to the development of our “adipose tissue expandability hypothesis”, which is now widely accepted by the scientific community
  • developing strategies to burn the excess lipids and prevent lipotoxicity through activation of brown fat
  • promoting that the quality of dietary lipids should be as healthy as possible, to prevent toxic effects.

My Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2017 will summarise our contribution to these three directions.

Q: What are you particularly looking forward to at SfE BES 2017?

I will use this conference for updating clinical aspects of my work. The presentation quality is always good and helpful. One session I am really curious about is Workshop 1: Tissue Engineering for Regenerative Medicine in Endocrinology. I think technology is essential to retain a competitive position in research and the topics presented are highly transferable and of interest. I think tissue engineering approaches to increase brown fat mass could be really helpful in preventing obesity and diabetes, I am curious about the concept and possibilities of using 3D bioprinting.

Q: What have been your career highlights so far?

I feel content about my career progression. I consider highlights to be our best pieces of research; our papers tend to be quite comprehensive and we believe they make important contributions. I think for this reason these contributions are well respected by our colleagues. Our reputation as a lab is important for us. Also as a proud introvert, I have not touted our highlights and have not needed to for our professional highlights to be widely acclaimed, however I do understand that it is important to make the public aware of their implications. Also, as a laboratory leader I know that to disseminate these highlights is important for the careers my lab members. In this respect, winning the Society for Endocrinology Medal is a highlight that reflects the quality and commitment of the present and past members of the laboratory.

At a more personal level, I admit I have an aesthetic approach to science. I enjoy understanding and identifying sophisticated mechanisms, developing models that explain reality and learning how biological systems self-regulate. I don’t think this is unusual amongst endocrinologists. Also, becoming a Professor at Cambridge University was a moment of satisfaction I shared with my colleagues and family. In some ways my career has provided me with professional freedom, which is a key value for me, beyond other motivations, such as power or fame, that I have always found energy draining and restrictive of my autonomy.

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges in your research area right now?

I think a big challenge in my research area, and others, is how to extract value from the excessive information generated by recent technological advances. Our challenge is how to analyse this information to prioritise the types of mechanistic validation that are necessary for estimating its relevance. Also, it is not only the amount of data, but the amount of unnecessary noise coming from poor quality research that makes this task more difficult.

Q: What are your future plans for your work & career?

As you become more senior in science, you often suffer the disadvantage that your professional horizon is shorter. However, this position also has the advantage that you can be more selective in your choice of projects, with more freedom to take risks. I think my laboratory in this respect is quite entrepreneurial, we are innovating by entering new fields/technologies, which I think is important for remaining competitive.  For example, we have opened a new lab at Sanger, funded by the European Research Council to work on stem cells and adipose tissue. We are also developing two new programmes of research; one in Nanjing focused on murine models of fatty liver, and another in Bangalore focused on adipose tissue stem cell biology to model obesity and diabetes in India. These are exciting challenges that will provide opportunities for my younger associates in their future careers.

Q: Who do you most admire professionally?

I have learned a lot from many of my mentors, colleagues and trainees. In some way these experiences have shaped my values and my strong views about science and leadership. For example, I have always admired the intellectual rigour and scientific honesty of Brad Lowell. I admired the consistency and confident leadership of Jeff Flier and the legacy of Daniel Lane, who developed many academic scientists in his lab to share his cultural values and collegiality, which they now disseminate to the next generations. I find this very impressive.

Q: Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists out there?

Endocrinology is not a specialty that will make you rich, but it is a specialty where you can fulfill your intellectual scientific needs and enjoy the human aspect of practicing medicine. It is very satisfying because your patients get better and, given that treatments are required long term, an important factor in the success depends on establishing an empathetic relationship with them. You will get to know many of your patients well, from whom you will receive gratitude and a sense of meaning and fulfillment. In this respect it is a very rewarding profession.

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

I think real breakthrough with long term impact requires deep knowledge and new technologies, I have become quite sceptical about quick or easy breakthroughs that address complex problems. It is important to understand how regulatory systems operate, to learn what the adaptive changes of the organism or cell to maintain normality are, and to determine the intrinsic capacity of these systems to recover normality if the early factors of the disease are removed. For this reason, we focus on early disease events, aiming to prevent or reverse excessive damage to the homeostatic system and regain metabolic control. In this sense, we think it is as important to learn how the problem occurs as it is to learn the trigger and why it occurs. In our field I think understanding how lipids mediate disease could be used for prevention, early diagnostic and therapeutic purposes.

You can hear Prof Vidal-Puig’s Society for Endocrinology lecture on Wednesday 8 November, 15:45-16:45, and see the full scientific programme for SfE BES 2017.

Boost your confidence, collaborate and travel

The Society understands that opportunities to present your work, hear from and network with leaders in your field are invaluable for career development. But how do you find the means to attend those extremely-relevant-to-your-career conferences?

Society Travel Grants are available to fund worldwide conference travel, to help you get your work recognised on the world stage. Two previous awardees, Emma Batchen and Julie McNairn, tell us where these grants took them and how they could improve your career prospects.

  1. What do you do, and what are your areas of interest in endocrinology?
    • Emma Batchen: I’m a final year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and my research focuses on understanding the effect of antenatal glucocorticoid treatment in the maturation of the foetal heart. I want to find out the benefits of this treatment in mothers at risk of pre-term birth.
    • Julie McNairn: I am also a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh, and about to submit my thesis! My work – a combination of disciplines from my previous MSc, neuroscience and cardiovascular biology – investigated neuroendocrine control of salt appetite and blood pressure.
  1. How many Society Travel Grants have you received and where did they take you?
    • Emma: I have received three travel grants – two to attend SfE BES conferences in Edinburgh and Brighton, and one to go to the Frontiers in CardioVascular Biology 2016 meeting in Florence. The SfE BES conferences were ideal to get exposure to the many aspects of endocrinology, whereas the event in Florence allowed me to concentrate on the centre of my research, the heart.
    • Julie: I have received one travel grant, which I used to attend the Federation of European Neuroscience conference, FENS 2016, in Copenhagen. My work spans multiple disciplines and major conference, such as this one, allow me to present all aspects of my work and to receive input from many different angles.
  1. What did you get out the experience?
    • Emma: Presenting my work at large events has made me a more confident person. I met potential employers and collaborators in my research field, made new friends and visited places of the world I had never been to before.
    • Julie: The grant enabled me to gauge the interest of the scientific community and exchange ideas and concepts of how my work may benefit from different research directions. It also helped me build on my public speaking and public engagement skills – I spoke to a large number of European scientists about my findings and pitfalls, which helped me to see what the most engaging aspects of my work were. FENS offered amazing talks, the highlights of which were the superb presidential lectures, led by speakers with an unrivalled passion for their research.
  1. Would you apply again? If so, where are you planning to go?
    • Emma: Absolutely! I am applying to attend the next SfE BES in Harrogate.
    • Julie: I will definitely apply for another grant as soon as my thesis write-up is finished. All future plans are on hold until then!
  1. Would you recommend the grant to others?
    • Emma: Yes, because it’s a fantastic experience both personally and professionally, and you get to visit different places around the world. It’s a win-win situation!
    • Julie: Yes, it was easy to apply and I was awarded £600 to attend FENS, I would not have been able to afford the conference otherwise. Thanks to the grant, I got to talk to many other scientists about their work, which helped me appreciate the plethora of amazing research that I otherwise would have never known about.
  1. Is there anything else you would like to add?
    • Emma: These grants have definitely allowed me to grow as a PhD student and set me up for a career in research, for which I am extremely grateful to the Society.
    • Julie: The grants also give you the chance to explore new destinations. Copenhagen is a stunning city and I was fortunate enough to be able to extend my trip for a couple of days after the conference to experience some of the sights.

If your abstract has been accepted for SfE BES 2017, apply for a Travel Grant before 15 August 2017 to help cover your registration, travel and accommodation costs for the upcoming annual meeting of your Society!

Want to travel somewhere else too? Don’t fret – there are two more deadlines in December 2017 and March 2018 to attend other conferences. Members are entitled to two travel grants per year, subject to eligibility criteria.

Learning new techniques and expanding horizons in South Africa

The Society of Endocrinology is eager to help you drive your career forward and, in line with this, the Practical Skills Grant is an opportunity not to be missed. This grant enables scientists in training to visit other labs to learn new techniques, so that they can return home with an improved skill-set and plenty of research collaboration potential!

Here is the story of Dr Naomi Brooks, Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling, who is interested in exercise physiology, muscle biology and nutrition. In 2015, she was one of the Practical Skills Awardees and travelled to South Africa to learn a challenging lab technique from world-leading experts…

Naomi Brooks blog
Dr Naomi Brooks, Senior Lecturer at Stirling University

“My application to the Society for Endocrinology Practical Skills grant was inspired by my previous success in winning a Society Early Career Grant. I chose Prof Kathy Myburgh’s lab, in the Physiological Sciences Muscle Group in Stellenbosch University, South Africa. I was aware that the particular technique I wished to learn was difficult and that the Myburgh Laboratory had detailed knowledge and success with it. I had previously worked with the Myburgh group as a post-doctoral fellow. Since I knew the group and identified the potential for collaboration, the choice to return to Stellenbosch was key for my career at that stage.

Stellenbosch is a beautiful town surrounded by mountains and vineyards. I was there during the spring and the weather was kind, not too hot, which allowed me to walk to work every day from my local accommodation. During my work week I would spend time in the lab, either with colleagues or writing and reflecting by myself. When away from the busyness of academia, I visited local areas and enjoyed the beautiful African outdoors and hospitality, and I still had time to write papers and put ideas together for grant applications!

The Practical Skills Grant enabled me to investigate a number of different methods for stem cell isolation and primary cell growth. I was able to see the technique demonstrated, trouble-shoot and have discussions about the procedure and its applications. As a result of this, the cell culture laboratory at my home institution is currently considering building collaborations with molecular investigators to apply the technique in our labs. I continue to build my personal and laboratory group skill-set to enhance our work, and thanks to this grant I was able to improve my academic opportunities as a researcher able to integrate both applied and basic research. The experience provided me with an integrated understanding of the technique, which will hopefully translate into more research opportunities and encourage my transition into an established researcher in the field.

When I lived in Stellenbosch as a post-doctoral fellow, I volunteered at an orphanage in Kayamandi, the local township.  I also started a community exercise programme, which was both a research and a community engagement and development programme. Returning to these places was very special. The exercise programme was still running 5 years later, and was coordinated by those working in the community garden project.

Creating and fostering networks and collaborations, both within the UK and overseas, is very important in the world of academia.  I would encourage those wishing to expand their horizons and learn new techniques to apply for the Practical Skills grant; especially amongst those early career researchers, as having “many strings to one’s bow” is important to establish a career.”  Naomi Brooks, Senior Lecturer at the University of Stirling.

What would you do with a Practical Skills Grant? Applications close on 31 October 2017, so better start thinking about it!

Embracing excellence in endocrinology

How can you encourage undergraduate students to specialise and continue in endocrinology? The Society’s Undergraduate Achievement Award enables departments to reward and recognise the outstanding, endocrine-related work of undergraduate students. Successful departments receive £300 per year for three years, to award to students in any way they decide is most effective.

Director of Learning and Teaching at Kingston University Nigel Page tells us about the value of the award to his department, and his former student Nirun Hewawasam talks about how the experience set her off on a career in endocrinology.

“Recognising the talents of our students is vital, and the Society for Endocrinology Undergraduate Achievement Award gives us the perfect opportunity to do just that! This prestigious award has been a great way of encouraging academic excellence and bringing the field of endocrinology to the forefront of our students’ study. We have been able to offer the award to outstanding performances in our final year projects that have a specific endocrine theme. All of our winners from the last three years have felt the award has impacted on their decisions and confidence in being able to go on and successfully develop their careers in endocrinology, and have decided to undertake endocrinology related postgraduate research studies.

At Kingston University, this award has allowed us to recognise our most talented students and has helped in getting them to where they are today. In addition, it has been a fantastic way to advertise the work of the Society to our students and many of our undergraduates have taken the initiative to become members.

Each year we have been able to announce the award at our graduation ceremony to parents and guests, which is a real honour! The impact of receiving the award has been very positive to all parties, and is certainly something our students will always take away with them.”  Dr Nigel Page, Kingston University.

Nirun Hewawasam joined Kingston University as an undergraduate pharmacology student. As she had a particular interest in type 2 diabetes, her final year project focused on investigating the role of the novel protein SMOC-2 in beta cell growth factor signalling. She received her Undergraduate Achievement Award in July 2014.

Endocrinology Prize
Nirun, receiving her award with Drs Nigel Page and Natasha Hill

“I have always been interested in the field of diabetes, and although my project required a lot of effort and commitment, winning a Society for Endocrinology Undergraduate Achievement Award was highly rewarding and encouraged me to continue in the field of endocrinology. Currently, I am doing a PhD entitled “Intercellular communication and pancreatic islet function in type 2 diabetes” at the University of Roehampton, where I am investigating how two pancreatic islet hormones can modulate islet function and survival in type 2 diabetes. Being a research student has given me a lot of confidence, and being part of life changing research is exciting and fulfilling. So far it has been a great journey full of exciting experiences, including successful moments and hardships, but with rewarding outcomes.

I believe that the Undergraduate Achievement Award contributed to my being awarded my PhD studentship, thereby increasing my career prospects. The award constitutes a great opportunity to encourage any student to undertake a career in the field of endocrinology.” Nirun Hewawasam, Kingston University 2014 Awardee.

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Nirun, working in the lab at the University of Roehampton

Applications for the Undergraduate Achievement Award are open from 14 June 2017 until 15 September 2017. Find out more about how to encourage excellence in your students!

Early-career grants: funding to get the all-important first proof of concept

The Society for Endocrinology provides early-career grants to support its members in a number of ways. In this article, Kerry McLaughlin explains how the grant helped her search for an elusive autoantigen, which made a splash on the BBC news page earlier this year.

Dr Kerry McLaughlin PhD JDRF Research Fellow
Dr Kerry McLaughlin, JDRF Research Fellow

 People who have type-1 diabetes lose the ability to control blood sugar levels because of the destruction of insulin-producing cells in their Islets of Langerhans. We know this is because the immune response targets four specific proteins (known as autoantigens), and while the fifth major autoantigen has been known to exist for over 20 years its identity was unknown.

Technical limitations at the time made it impossible to identify the fifth autoantigen, but we used a combination of biochemical techniques alongside high-tech mass spectrometry to discover that this fifth major autoantigen was tetraspanin-7, at last providing a complete picture of the immune targets in type-1 diabetes.

This discovery can now be used to help identify those at risk of future disease development through the detection of antibodies to tetraspanin-7, and to further research into strategies aimed at blocking the immune response to the major autoantigens in order to prevent the disease altogether.

This research came about as a result of work we were doing with a separate autoantigen (IA-2). My postdoctoral supervisor, Dr Michael Christie, was involved in earlier efforts to identify the fifth major autoantigen, and we realised that we could apply the technology developed for IA-2 for this purpose.

This was where the Early Career Grant from the Society for Endocrinology came in and provided some much needed resource to kick-start the project. While it took a little bit more time and effort to finally identify tetraspanin-7 as our elusive fifth autoantigen, this early funding was instrumental to the project’s successful completion.

I have since been awarded a 3-year fellowship by JDRF to continue my research into tetraspanin-7 in the laboratory of Professor Patrik Rorsman FRS, FMedSci at the University of Oxford. We published our study in Diabetes, and it was covered in the mainstream media by the BBC, at one point trending in the top 10 news articles, as well as by the Huffington Post. It was great to have the opportunity to share our research with the wider public, and I was very motivated to see how interested people were in hearing about scientific advances.

For young researchers, getting enough preliminary data to put together a competitive grant application for a major funding body can be tricky. The Early Career Grant from the Society for Endocrinology provides postdocs with the opportunity to explore a new avenue of research and can be used to provide that all-important first proof-of-concept.

The second advantage to this scheme is that it gives early-stage researchers a chance to go through the process of preparing an application for funding as well as managing an award,  but on a much smaller scale and without the heavy administrative burden of larger grants. I would certainly recommend the scheme to those keen to take the first step towards an independent career in research.

Kerry McLaughlin, originally from Cape Town, South Africa, was awarded her PhD in Immunology from King’s College London in collaboration with The Pirbright Institute. She then spent six years as a postdoc in the laboratory of Dr Michael Christie at King’s College London before taking up a JDRF fellowship at the University of Oxford in 2016.

For details on how to apply for our Early Career Grant, visit our website. The next deadline for applications is 27 November 2016.