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 Endocrinologists: Miriam Asia & Andrea Mason

Miriam Asia (right) and Andrea Mason (left), Clinical Nurse Specialists (CNS) in endocrinology at Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham (QEHB) tell us about their work in endocrine nursing and what they are looking forward to at SfE BES 2017, 6-8 November in Harrogate.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself and where you work

Miriam: As an endocrine specialist nurse, I run the adrenal nurse-led clinic, post-traumatic brain injury endocrine screening clinic and support the young adult clinic. I have also completed the Non-Medical Prescribing course at Masters Level and I am planning to start a masters in endocrinology.

Andrea: I currently look after three nurse-led clinics; late effects of cancer treatment (transition clinic from children’s to adult services), pituitary and a new clinic that monitors patients who have developed immune-related adverse events in response to immune check-point inhibitor treatment. I have a particular interest in the quality of life issues surrounding endocrine conditions.

 Q: What inspired you to work in endocrinology?

Miriam: I only knew about endocrinology through nursing textbooks but now, being able to see endocrine patients, reviewing them in clinic and working with them through their endocrine journey makes me realise even more how fascinating and exciting endocrinology is. Especially when I see the difference it makes to our patients during and following treatment.

Andrea: During my nurse training I developed a keen interest in cancer nursing and worked in oncology for many years until an opportunity for me to branch out into endocrinology as a Clinical Nurse Specialist arose. This position was to cover maternity leave and I knew little about endocrinology, so I had to learn on the job quickly! During my first week, I attended the Society’s Endocrine Nurse Update and was totally blown away by the specialty. The journey had started; I spent evenings studying after work trying to get to grips with the basics.

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

Miriam: As well as the plenaries and nurses’ sessions, I am also looking forward to the ‘Meet the Expert’ and ‘How Do I…’ sessions, especially those relevant to my clinical practice.

Andrea: This is my second SfE BES and I am looking forward to the nurses’ sessions, particularly those on opiate-induced endocrinopathy, and development of endocrinopathy following metastatic melanoma treatment. I also enjoy meeting and networking with other endocrine nurses.

Q: What are your career highlights so far?

Miriam: I recently completed a sky dive (see photo right), with some of my CNS colleagues, in support of our QEHB charity for the Young Adult Clinic!

Andrea: Highlights in my nursing career, include working as an Endocrine Nurse Specialist and successfully completing the Non-Medical Prescribing course at Masters Level.

Q: Who do you most admire professionally and why?

Miriam: My endocrine colleagues – nurses and doctors – at QEHB who work with such competence and dedication to look after our endocrine patients

Andrea: I have had an inspiring and passionate Endocrine Lead Nurse to guide me throughout the last five years and support my development. I have also had the support and patience from a caring team of endocrinologists.

Q: What advice would you give to someone starting out in endocrine nursing?

Miriam: Although endocrine nursing is a challenging specialist role that requires a lot of reading and studying, it is rewarding in the end.

Andrea: It does take time to understand the speciality and additional studying is required but when you understand the basics of the endocrine system, it is all very logical. I would say to any nurse…. go for it!

Q: What are your future career aspirations?

Miriam: To complete my masters in endocrinology and become more confident and competent in dealing with complex endocrine cases as a result. I also hope to see more nurse consultants and nurse led clinics being set up.

Andrea: My future plans are to remain in my current position and I am looking to complete a master’s degree in endocrinology.

Don’t miss the dedicated Nurses’ Lounge at SfE BES 2017, giving nurses the opportunity to meet and network in their own space. This is especially beneficial when you are travelling on your own, or if you are a first-time attendee, as there is nearly always somebody there to chat to. At designated break times there is at least one member of the Nurse Committee on hand for you to get to know.

Follow the links to find out more about SfE BES 2017, view the scientific program and register online.

Life as a young lab head

Earlier this year, the Endocrine Society and the Endocrine Society of Australia published a paper titled ‘Career advancement: Meeting the challenges confronting the next generation of endocrinologists and endocrine scientists‘. Endocrinologists are facing challenges in reduced funding, competing responsibilities and gender issues. Giving us the personal side of the story, Australian prostate cancer researcher Luke Selth tells us about the ups and downs of life as a young lab head…


“As I sit down to write this, there is a foul odour permeating my cancer research lab. I know what you’re thinking: one of the PhD students has left a Bunsen burner on and I’m on butane high. I wish it was so simple.

No, the stench is a heady mixture of stress and worry. I am expecting the outcomes of two National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) Project Grant applications this week. We also have two research papers currently under review at a prominent journal in the field of cancer biology (seriously, how can it take 62 days to review a paper?).

It feels as though the next week could literally make or break my career. Is this an exaggeration? Well, no, actually. Let me break it down for you…

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The grant applications

My lab’s research is focused on identifying the molecular mechanisms underlying prostate cancer progression, and developing new therapeutic strategies for this important disease. Both of my Project Grant applications are in this field and, realistically, there’s every chance neither will be funded.

I’d like to stress that this isn’t because they are bad applications. ‘You’re biased’, I hear you muttering, and I can’t argue with that – of course everyone thinks their own research is the most novel and exciting. However, I have evidence to back this notion up: both have made it through the dreaded ‘Not for further consideration’ cut, which means they were ranked in the top 50% of applications.

So we are through the first hurdle. However, given that last year’s success rate was 13.7%, this means that both grants still only have around a 1 in 4 chance of being funded. Of course, that’s if the success rate doesn’t decrease even further this year – there’s every indication that it will. When I started writing NHRMC grant applications 5 years ago, 22.9% of applications were being funded. This worrying trend, largely due to the lack of real increase in the overall NHMRC budget, has caused a lot of scientists to change professions or leave the country – a “brain drain” that will be difficult to recover from.

The low success rate means the outcomes often feel like a bit of a lottery. All of the applications still in the hunt are strong; it’s extremely difficult for a review panel to choose the best. In a perfect world (or, more accurately, a perfect Australian economy), most of them would be funded. But this isn’t a perfect world, and so some randomness ensues. This process of assessing applications in this type of funding scheme has been studied: Fang and colleagues provided evidence that the peer review process used by the National Institute of Health (USA) does not necessarily fund the best science – and that using a lottery-style system to awards grants would actually yield equivalent, if not better, research outcomes.

In short, a bit of bad luck could see both of my applications – which collectively took around 2 months of full-time work to prepare – down the drain.

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The papers

The old mantra of “publish or perish” is stronger than ever in Australian science. Consistently publishing in high quality journals is required for grant success, which in turn is required to keep consistently publishing in high quality journals; it’s a feedback loop that sadly consumes much of my attention.

The two papers that are currently under review are both strong bodies of work. But, again, there’s every chance they will be rejected – the current acceptance rate at the journal I have submitted to is around 20-25%.

The possible outcomes

OK, so what happens if my grant applications and research papers are both tossed out like old agar plates? Well, I will have just enough funding to keep my small research group going next year, but virtually nothing for the following year (not even my salary). The stench of worry in my lab will become even more pungent. I’m a passionate guy, and in such a situation I’d like to allow myself the release of smashing a glass beaker or two – but I couldn’t afford the cost of replacements…

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Alternatively, there is the possibility that I win the lottery. Sure, there’s been a lot of work done by my group, but in the end I truly believe there is a significant amount of luck involved. If the papers are accepted and grants are funded, suddenly the lab’s future and finances will look flush again. There will be no need to let anyone go, and I can cancel that online barista course I signed up for!

This roller-coaster we call a science career

Of course I’ve simplified things. There is a whole spectrum of possibilities between total failure and total success. But what I’m hoping to convey is the reality of life for a young lab head trying to make his or her way in the world of biomedical research. This job is a bloody roller-coaster, and it seems perverse that I spend up to half of my time applying for money so that I can simply do my job.

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I’m often asked by my close friends and family why I stick with it. One response is that I’m not sure any café would want a washed-up scientist as their barista! Seriously though, I love my job for many reasons, the most important being that I have a scientific curiosity that can probably only be sated by this type of research and a vision to improve outcomes for cancer patients. Fortunately, the satisfaction of discovery, coupled with a real chance to improve the health of our society, far outweigh my grant- and paper-related pessimism.

So, even if the grants and papers don’t come through this week, I’m going to persist – and I have many inspirational colleagues and mentors who do the same, year in and year out.

References:

  1. Fang FC, Bowen A, & Casadevall A (2016) NIH peer review percentile scores are poorly predictive of grant productivity. Elife 5.

How to get into peer review and why

Peer Review Week 2016 is taking place from September 19-26. The global event celebrates the essential role that peer review plays in maintaining scientific quality. The central message is that good peer review is critical to scholarly communications.

This year, the theme is ‘Recognition for Review’, so we have asked some of our members to tell us about how they first got involved in peer review, why it’s important to them, and why is it essential for the continuation of high-quality science and clinical research.

 

Li Chan is a clinical scientist in paediatric endocrinology at Queen Mary’s University London. She discusses why peer review is important to her – and you.

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Remember that peer review isn’t just about the journals and funding bodies; it’s also important to the author and the reviewer. The author receives constructive feedback to ensure that their work is presented in the best way and backed up by necessary experimental data. Reading other reviewers’ comments and alternative views on a given set of data may allow you to consider your work from another point of view – and that could make the difference between published and unpublished.

On the other hand, the reviewer gains career development and insight. The reviews you write for others will only aid your own future submissions. Over the years I have learnt an immense amount from both writing reviews and receiving them – and I believe this understanding of both sides of the process is necessary for it to work really effectively.

But how did I get into peer review? During my PhD years, my supervisor would ask me if I wanted to review a submission. I always said yes – working with my supervisor at the start was a useful way of learning the process as I could discuss my final report with someone more experienced. Gradually, I developed my own style and expertise.

If you are a young researcher wanting to get into peer review, I would recommend you speak to senior members of staff. They will only view your enthusiasm with positivity. And don’t think for a moment you’re underqualified; science is such a broad subject – we need reviewers with expertise in all areas, and that includes yours!

 

Karen Chapman is the Society General Secretary, as well as a member of the Editorial Board for the Journal of Endocrinology and Journal of Molecular Endocrinology. She discusses the importance of peer review in career development.

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Publications are the main criterion we are judged on – and I believe the quality of our outputs is dependent upon a thorough review process. With this in mind, I believe we all must do our part to get involved in peer review. We depend on others to review our own papers, and so we all need to reciprocate.

After over 30 years as a research scientist (and not far off 30 years as an Editorial Board member of one sort or another), I have plenty of experience of peer review – from both sides. Yes, it is tough to read the rejection letters and to have your research critically appraised by someone whose identity you can only guess at, but most of the time the reviewers have a fair point, and often their comments substantially improve a manuscript.

Many of us (me included) get into peer review by appraising a manuscript passed to us by a co-worker or lab head. My first one took me forever. I think I read all the references! However, I soon learned to speed up, and concentrate on the data and how they are interpreted. This process also taught me what to look for in my own research and how to evaluate my data through a reviewer’s eyes. I believe reviews work best when a writer suggests a mechanistic experiment that can really nail the conclusions presented. It does happen; and this could be the sign of a great reviewer!

You stand to gain an awful lot from getting involved with peer review, but if you still aren’t convinced, remember that reviewing is also beneficial for keeping up with what is new. It’s a great way to stay ahead of the game!

 

We’ll be on Twitter all week showing our support for the campaign using the official hashtag #RecognizeReview  – and we’d love to hear your experiences of peer review! Also, check out some of our online talks for even more advice on getting into the peer review game:

Wayne Tilley – The Peer Review Process
Dr Josef Koehrle – Responding to reviewers comments

You can also sign up for free webinars and talks through the Peer Review Week 2016 official website.