Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, Department of Chemistry.
Where did you study before coming to Oxford?
I took my undergraduate degree in biochemistry with pharmacology at the University of Southampton and followed this with postgraduate study at Oxford in the Department of Cardiovascular Medicine, where I used biochemical techniques to look at heart muscle protein structure and discover how it is affected by inherited heart disease. I was interested in applying the logic and order of chemistry to biological systems.
How did you start researching oxygen-sensing enzymes?
In 2004 I joined the Department of Chemistry at Oxford with Professor Chris Schofield and in 2010 started my current research fellowship focusing on enzymes in our bodies that sense and respond to depleted oxygen levels (hypoxia). This response is seen in cancer cells, damaged heart tissue following a heart attack and people living at high altitude, for example.
What application does this research have for developing future treatments for cancer?
I am trying to understand how these enzymes work and how to manipulate them for therapeutic benefit, to treat diseases such as cancer. In a broad fashion, people are using this technique already, but we want to develop a more precise approach, targeting very specific enzymes and helping to avoid unwanted side effects. These oxygen-sensing enzymes are fairly ubiquitous in cancer cells, so if we could manipulate enzymes to reduce the aggressive growth response that occurs in low oxygen conditions, it could put the brakes on tumour growth.
You won a Women in Science fellowship from L’Oréal-UNESCO. What are the future implications of this award?
In practical terms, I was able to spend the £15,000 prize money on a piece of equipment that will be enormously beneficial for my research, expand the range of techniques we can use and allow us to achieve twice as much work. The award also had a very distinguished panel of judges so it has been a welcome validation of my work.
Are there enough senior level women in scientific research?
There is a lack of highly visible female role models among top-level scientists. However, I think we will see this changing over the next 10-20 years as younger female scientists advance through the ranks. Our department is applying for an Athena SWAN award, which celebrates good employment practices for women in science, engineering and technology in higher education and research.
How would you like to see your career evolve?
I would like to have a thorough molecular understanding of how this group of enzymes works, branch out to research other enzymes too, and discover how to manipulate them for health benefits. My goal is to modify the activity of one enzyme and take it into a clinical environment for therapeutic purposes.