International Women’s Day 2021: Championing Weston Park-funded Rebecca’s vital research
At Weston Park Cancer Charity, research is so important because one in two of us will develop cancer.
And, to mark International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the vital work of Weston Park Cancer Charity-funded University of Sheffield researcher, Dr Rebecca Andrews.
Rebecca is currently carrying out the Bone Recovery After Treatment clinical trial – studying the changes in bones during and after chemotherapy.
Here, Rebecca gives us an overview of her work, its importance and potential impact, as well as advice and views on how female representation in science and research can be improved.
Firstly, tell us a bit about yourself – where are you from and what and where did you study?
I was born and grew up in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. When I moved to Sheffield to study medicine it was great to get to know the city, with its friendly people, brilliant green spaces and easy access to the Peak District.
I met my husband here at university, and we have lived in Sheffield ever since.
Tell us about your career to date and your experience?
During medical school, I discovered an interest in research – and later completed an additional year of undergraduate training in the form of a BMedSci degree which involved laboratory research.
When I graduated as a doctor in 2012, I knew that I wanted to continue an academic career, which was made possible with the academic training option for junior doctors (which incorporates research into doctor training). Over the years I developed an increased interest in cancer as a specialty. Myeloma, a haematology cancer, brought together my clinical interest in cancer with my previous experience in bone research.
Wanting to progress my research career, I applied for a clinical research fellowship funded by Weston Park Cancer Charity. I was successful in my application and began my PhD in myeloma research in February 2018.
You alluded to it earlier, but please give us a brief overview of your work and its objectives?
I have recently returned from maternity leave to continue my PhD, researching new treatments to improve bone health in myeloma patients. Myeloma is a type of blood cancer which can cause thinning and damage to bone. This can cause problems with pain, bone fractures and poor mobility for patients.
At the moment, there are limited options for treating this problem, and patients are often left with long-term bone damage. I am doing laboratory-based research (pre-clinical) to look at new treatments to improve bone recovery, to try to reverse the damage caused by cancer.
I have also been running a clinical study with one of my PhD supervisors, Dr Andy Chantry, to assess bone recovery in patients after current chemotherapy treatments, to help us better understand the disease process. The hope is that we can use new knowledge and novel therapies from this research to advance treatments, and improve patient outcomes.
What would you like the impact of your research to be? How could it benefit cancer patients?
Ultimately, the aim of this research is to gain knowledge to improve the health and quality of life for patients during and beyond their cancer treatments.
In the future, our research team hope that Sheffield can run clinical trials investigating some of the exciting new bone targeted treatments, which could be of huge benefit to people suffering with this problem in South Yorkshire (and nationwide).
If these treatments prove to be beneficial for patients with myeloma, it is possible they could also be of benefit to other types of cancers that cause bone problems, for example breast cancer.
How important is it that projects such as yours continue to receive funding from charities such as Weston Park Cancer Charity?
It is increasingly difficult to access funding to do research and Covid-19 has made it even harder. A lot of medical researchers are worried about the future, so having access to funding from charities such as Weston Park Cancer Charity is so valuable.
Without funding, scientists can’t be employed, laboratory experiments cannot be paid for, and research cannot take place. It really makes the difference to whether a new research idea gets investigated or not. If we stop progressing our knowledge, we stop improving outcomes for cancer patients.
We are very lucky to have Weston Park Cancer Charity in South Yorkshire, making sure that funding is directly invested into research and services to improve the care and support for patients and their families.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
International Women’s Day gives us all an opportunity to remember and honour women who have previously fought against gender inequality and discrimination, and those who continue to do so today.
It is also a reminder to us all that gender inequality still exists, and to reflect on what can be done to address this. For me, I don’t want International Women’s Day to pass by without any subsequent action for change.
This year, we are approaching the one-year milestone of the first Covid-19 lockdown announcement, and I personally am reflecting on how women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, for example from rising unemployment rates and domestic abuse.
The Office for National Statistics reports that during the first lockdown, women took on 78% more additional childcare requirements compared to men; a report released in January quoted that 48% of women have experienced a drop in their disposable income, vs 41% of men.
So, for me, International Women’s Day is bittersweet. It’s a day to celebrate those who fight gender equality, but also for us all, regardless of gender, to think “what can we do to address this better?”.
Who would you say are the women who have impacted on your career the most? And what would you say is the main lesson/are the main lessons you learnt?
I am very fortunate to be surrounded by many brilliant people in the form of friends, family and colleagues who support me in my career. My PhD supervisors Dr Shelly Lawson, Dr Andy Chantry and Professor Janet Brown have especially encouraged me in my PhD and career development.
But if I were to think about women in particular who have impacted on my career, I would have to name Allie Gartland – Professor in bone cancer research at the University of Sheffield. She was the first person to introduce me to the world of medical research, and with her teaching and mentorship I was encouraged to pursue academia.
I think the best lessons I learnt from her were to be passionate and focused on what you are doing, and the importance of a happy work culture.
There are many fantastic female role models in Sheffield who work in cancer research and clinical care, and they continue to be hugely inspiring.
According to research, a disproportionate percentage of scientists worldwide are female. What would your reaction be to that, and in your eyes how could that figure be improved?
I find this frustrating, but sadly, not surprising. I think there is a still a huge issue surrounding the culture of maternity and paternity leave in the UK, which discriminates against women when both searching for and retaining employment. This may be more pronounced in science industries, as many scientists are on short-term contracts.
If workplaces better supported parents in taking parental leave, as well as putting provisions in place for supported returns to work I would like to think things would improve.
I am very fortunate to work at the University of Sheffield as there is a lot of support for women wanting to return to work following maternity leave – for example through flexible working, options to work less than full time, breast feeding facilities on site, parent forums, support groups, mentoring etc., as well as support for men wanting to take shared parental leave.
There is also financial help to allow other scientists to continue your research during your absence so that your career progression does not take such a hit. There is also, most importantly, a very positive culture about taking time out to look after your new arrival.
If some of these initiatives were adapted in more science institutes, the statistics about retaining women in science may well improve.
What would you say to empower somebody who would love to follow in your footsteps one day?
If you are interested in pursuing a career in medical research, I would say do it!
It is a competitive world, particularly with funding streams struggling due to Covid-19, but please don’t let that put you off if it is what you want to do. It’s an exciting, fun and incredibly rewarding career!