Meet the Researcher: Elaine Duncan, University of Glasgow

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Elaine DuncanDDW’s Diana Spencer speaks to Elaine Duncan, a PhD student on the lifETIME (Engineered Tissues for Discovery, Industry and Medicine) CDT at the University of Glasgow.

DS: Can you tell us what you do and what you’re working on at the moment?

ED: I’m currently a PhD researcher at the University of Glasgow. My research is focused on developing a 3D in vitro model of adipose tissue which can be used in the lab to help us better understand the complex signalling pathways of metabolic disorders and hopefully allow the discovery of better, curative treatments.

DS: What’s been the highlight of your career so far?

ED: Alongside my lab-based work, I am also very involved in public engagement and outreach. Part of my role throughout my career has involved designing activities to take out into the community to show that a career involving science is so much more than what you learn in the classroom. The very first time I put together an activity for a local science fair involved months of preparation and was the first time I had led a team. Seeing the reaction of the children taking part and hearing such wonderful feedback has to be one of my career highlights.

DS: What drug discovery breakthrough has been most impactful to your research?

ED: All research involves building on the work of others, so it would be impossible to list all the small pieces of the puzzle that have resulted in my PhD! However, the pioneering work by multiple groups to establish 3D cell culture models and more recently to bring these models into the mainstream by increasing throughput and branching away from cancer applications is fundamental to my work. I believe that development of better in vitro disease models will revolutionise how we do drug discovery, by reducing animal use and helping us understand and treat more complex disorders.

DS: What has been the best piece of career-related advice you have received?

ED: It’s something I struggle with but learn to set boundaries! Having a fulfilling career is important, but it shouldn’t be your whole life. Maintaining your own physical and mental health through hobbies, time with loved ones and other self-care is essential, and that can mean saying ‘no’ sometimes.

DS: What advice would you offer to someone hoping to pursue a career in drug discovery research?

ED: I’d recommend trying to get experience (or even just talking to people) in as many different types of company or institution as possible. The environment in eg. big pharma is very different to academic institutions, contract research organisations, biotech companies or spin-outs, and yet they all fall under the umbrella of drug discovery, and all have to work together to achieve our goal of getting drugs to patients. It can feel so overwhelming at first, but even understanding the differences between each sector will help you understand which piece of the puzzle you can best contribute to and what style of working suits you best.

DS: If you could make everyone read one book, article or academic paper, what would it be and why?

ED: Everybody who works with cells should absolutely read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I think it’s so important to understand the beginnings of arguably all of modern biology, and the shocking injustices that occurred. Although our scientific understanding, regulations and ethical frameworks have moved on significantly from the 1950s, this book really made me reflect on my own scientific practices and think more deeply about the people involved.

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