£6m bid to get more female medics into cancer research

Clinician scientist Dr Karin Oien Pic: John DevlinClinician scientist Dr Karin Oien Pic: John Devlin
Clinician scientist Dr Karin Oien Pic: John Devlin
A charity will tackle the lack of female doctors in senior cancer research posts by putting £6 million of funding into Scottish laboratories, creating flexible and part-time jobs.

Cancer Research UK is to increase its number of early-career clinician scientists – doctors who also carry out medical research – from four to 34 over the next five years at its research centres in Edinburgh and Glasgow, with a focus on retaining female researchers. The number of clinician scientists in Scotland is in decline, particularly in senior posts. Traditionally the path to becoming a clinician scientist involves doctors taking time out of training to undertake a PhD before returning to complete their medical training in their chosen specialisation.

However, many clinicians do not come back to research after qualifying as consultants – particularly women.

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The new positions will allow doctors to study for the MB-PhD qualification earlier in their careers, as well as offering flexible positions which would allow them to stretch the period of study over longer than the traditional three-year PhD.

Portrait of Michelle Mitchell at the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre. Pic: Lesley MartinPortrait of Michelle Mitchell at the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre. Pic: Lesley Martin
Portrait of Michelle Mitchell at the Edinburgh Cancer Research UK Centre. Pic: Lesley Martin

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: “We think this programme will be particularly appealing to women, given its flexibility. We want to encourage more women clinicians to get involved in cancer research and create powerful role models that will help attract and retain more clinician scientists in the future.” She added: “We are the first research fund in the UK to go for this model.”

The creation of the positions models research in the US. Seventy per cent of women who have undertaken the US equivalent – an MD-PhD – stay in the field.

The number of clinical academics in Scottish universities at reader or senior lecturer level declined by 33 per cent between 2004 and 2017, according to data from the Medical Schools Council.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “We recognise there can be obstacles recruiting women into science-based professions and we are delighted that Cancer Research UK is joining us in the effort to tackle these inequalities.”

Case Study

Dr Karin Oien is a clinician scientist based in Glasgow. An honorary consultant in liver and gastro-intestinal pathology at the city’s Queen Elizabeth University Hospital, she is also clinical reader in pathology at the Institute of Cancer Sciences at the University of Glasgow.

It took 17 years from the time when Karin started out as a medical undergraduate before she embarked upon a clinician scientist fellowship. It was only then that she started thinking about having a family. She had her first child when she was in her late 30s.

Karin, now aged 50, with three children, said: “Ultimately as doctors, our aim is to do our very best to care for our patients. By qualifying as scientists, we are also asking questions and conducting research that will help the patients of tomorrow. This is vital in the fight to beat cancer.

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“However, it can be challenging balancing a young family with clinical work, teaching and research – finding the time and especially the extra bandwidth and thinking time you need.”

As a pathologist Karin examines tissue samples from patients to make a diagnosis and predict if their disease might progress, and to help decide which treatments might work best for them.

Karin studied medicine at the University of Glasgow, taking two years out of her training to do an intercalated science degree in pathology.

After completing her medical training, she decided to specialise as a pathologist, which involved a further five years of training. Keen to continue in research, she took some more time out to do a PhD in cancer before returning to finish her pathologist training and being appointed as a consultant. At the same time, she was awarded a Cancer Research UK fellowship to continue her research.

Karin said: “Lots of good progress has been made in terms of increasing funding and flexibility for parents, carers and people with additional responsibilities – both within universities and the NHS.

“The situation isn’t perfect yet, but there is an increasing awareness of the issues and certainly there are many fantastic role models at our universities and in cancer research across the UK.

“This new programme of training and support for clinician scientists is another significant step forward. The increased flexibility it will offer, and additional funding and support after doing a PhD that will allow more time for doctors to do research, is a big step change in Scotland.”

She added: “There is more work to be done to increase the number of doctors who do research in Scotland by making sure there are more clinical academic posts available at consultant level.

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“But this investment by Cancer Research UK will deliver a highly enthusiastic and educated workforce in Scotland that will not only be able to deliver new diagnostics and treatments but, working within the NHS, they will also be able to help discover and develop them in the first place.”