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Pharmacologist in Phrame with our Editor in Chief, Margaret Cunningham

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Published: 25 Aug 2021
By Aisah Aubdool

In our August 2021 issue of Pharmacology Matters, Aisah interviews someone whose name will be familiar to regular readers of Pharmacology Matters – our Editor-in-Chief, Dr Margaret Cunningham.

Hello Margaret and welcome to Pharmacologist in Phrame. Let’s dive straight in. What is your background and career pathway to date?

My pathway into science started in 1999 at the age of 17, when I was appointed as a modern apprentice laboratory technician at the University of Glasgow in the Department of Medicine and Therapeutics. As part of my apprenticeship, I obtained vocational qualifications (SVQ Level 2 and Level 3) and attended college part time on a day release basis over 5 years to get my Higher National Certificate and Higher National Diploma in applied biomedical sciences. In 2004, I left my technical post and entered year three of the BSc (Hons) Biochemistry and Pharmacology degree programme at the University of Strathclyde. In 2006, I was awarded an AJ Clark PhD studentship and joined Professor Robin Plevin’s laboratory to investigate the molecular pharmacology of thrombin G protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). In 2009, in the final year of my PhD, I gave birth to my son and when I graduated in 2010, I relocated with my new family to the University of Bristol. I joined Dr Stuart Mundell in the Bristol Platelet Group as a postdoctoral research assistant (PDRA) and my research involved investigating platelet GPCRs. In 2014, I secured a Chancellor’s Research Fellowship and returned to the University of Strathclyde to establish my own research group. In 2019 I was promoted to Senior Lecturer. During my fellowship, my family grew with the arrival of two daughters.

How did you decide to pursue an academic career? Did you have a role model who influenced your decision to work in science, specialising in pharmacology?

I had many role models that helped to shape my decision to go into academia. During my apprenticeship, I gained valuable research experience working across different cardiovascular research groups in the department where I was based. I was surrounded by some excellent postdoctoral and postgraduate researchers at that time who were a rich source of inspiration. They encouraged me to continue my studies and highly recommended the joint honours pharmacology courses offered at the University of Strathclyde, which is where I eventually decided to go for my degree. The people I met during that period were very influential in the onwards steps that I decided to take into science.

What would be your advice for the next generation of early career researchers (ECRs) and new investigators?

One question you are always asked at every step of your career is ‘what do you plan to do next?’. Sometimes the best plans do not work out for various reasons, so my advice would be not to stress about always having to have a firm next step. Keep your options open and do what is right for you. Success on the academic path is weighted on the success of outputs such as grants and papers – the outcomes of which are beyond our control. Naturally, success is great, however rejections can be demoralising so having support available is essential, particularly in the early stages of your career. I managed to build a good support network through the people I met during my apprenticeship, on courses, at conferences and other researchers I met by chance. I would encourage scientists early in their careers to think about who they have in their circle for support, to help celebrate the successes and console the failures.

If there was one thing I wish I had known when I was an ECR it would be that having a family does not necessarily equate to career demise. When I was pregnant during my PhD, I seriously thought that I had ruined my chances of having a career in academia and that downtime taken with maternity leave would impact the choices available to me. There was no shortage of stories depicting poor progression in science for women following maternity periods due to gaps in CVs and a losses of research time. At that early stage in my career there were few visible role models to really appreciate that it was possible to navigate through the different career trajectories in academia whilst juggling childcare responsibilities. I have to say though that it was completely different when I had my daughters during my Chancellor’s Fellowship. Many of my colleagues and the scientists in my academic professional network have families so it did not feel like I was in a minority situation. In fact, it was more like a community of people who could share experiences and offer advice and support.

Margaret's PhD graduation

How did you choose your PhD project?

I was fortunate to be part of the proposal development for my PhD. I was encouraged to attend institute seminars during the third and final year of my undergraduate degree. During my summer placement and final year project in the Plevin laboratory, one of the invited speakers introduced me to GPCR dimerization. This triggered some ideas that I felt could be developed into a PhD proposal. I worked with Robin to design a PhD project and contacted the invited speaker for support to deliver parts of the prospective work plan with the expertise from their laboratory. The project was funded through the Society’s AJ Clark studentship.

I had a wonderful experience during my PhD. I was part of a great laboratory and was afforded opportunities to learn new techniques and experience research environments across institutes in different countries.

What would you consider your greatest achievement so far?

I would say that being able to reach the stage where I have my own laboratory is one of my greatest achievements. In secondary school I didn’t have any ambitions to pursue science, however I had good role models that inspired me at a critical stage in my life during my apprenticeship. I am now in the fortunate position to support students as they navigate their own pathways into science. You can never really pay back the support you receive from others, but you can pay it forward to help others.

Tell us about your current research – have you always enjoyed working on GPCRs?

GPCRs, particularly proteinase-activated receptors (PARs) and purinergic P2Y receptors, have been a large part of the research I have been involved in over the years. Since establishing my own research team, I have managed to develop some healthy collaborative partnerships that have allowed me to take my research in different directions to look at GPCR and non-GPCR targets (gap junction proteins, kinases, alarmins) across pathophysiological settings (cancer, cachexia, neuropathic pain and cardiotoxicity). 

What does your typical work week look like? How has this changed with the current situation with COVID-19?

I don’t think a typical working week exists in academia. Each week can differ considerably depending upon the time of year, with teaching commitments and grant deadlines. I have my weekly lab group/collaborator meetings, and I support my PhD students in the laboratory with any training needed for their projects. I also have my own lab projects ongoing that I am working on for funding proposals. I also commit one hour per week for the MCR pathways mentoring initiative in one of my local secondary schools. This is a relationship-based mentoring programme aimed at helping young people build Motivation, Commitment and Resilience (MCR).

During the teaching semester, the working week generally shifts to additionally accommodate the design, delivery and coordination of classes for undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, in addition to supervising final year undergraduate projects and MRes projects. Throughout the working week, I also factor in time for meetings between the internal roles I have and external roles I hold with professional Societies and external examiner responsibilities. To maintain some level of healthy work-life balance I block out my diary to protect time at weekends for my family.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the typical challenges that many had to face, including laboratory closures. My husband and I had to factor in home-schooling our 11-year old and keeping two toddlers entertained when schools and nurseries closed. We just had to adapt to the changes really, and luckily my university accommodated flexible working arrangements during the pandemic period.

What are the current opportunities and challenges for women in science?

The challenges for women in STEM subjects are well recognised but there is some progress, through opportunities such as dedicated fellowships, mentoring, and leadership schemes. I would like to see similar opportunities to support inclusion in science to address other barriers that exist beyond gender.

How will pharmacology teaching change in the forthcoming year at your current university?

At the moment, the situation is still not clear on what on-campus activities will look like. We have some excellent pharmacological organ bath simulation models that we’ll use to continue to support aspects of pharmacology teaching. We also have recorded material to support lectures and laboratory practical learning. We have a great pharmacology team on hand to support delivery whether it is online or face-to-face.

What do you enjoy the most about being Editor-in-Chief of Pharmacology Matters?

I enjoy the energy of the editorial committee, interactions with the Society staff and the different ways the magazine offers a forum for pharmacologists across all career stages to contribute topical articles. The magazine provides opportunities for people early in their careers to develop their writing and editorial skills. Those interested can join us from 11.30-12.15 on Wednesday 8 September (during the virtual Pharmacology 2021 conference) to learn more about the magazine and how to get involved.

As a Reviewing Editor for the journal Pharmacology Research & Perspectives (PR&P), do you think it is important for ECRs to get involved in peer review?

I joined the PR&P editorial board as an ECR just before I moved into my independent fellowship position and I have learnt a lot from the training the journal provided in peer review practice and from interacting with the other editors. I think it’s important for ECRs to get involved and identify ways to gain formal experience in peer review. This can also lead to other opportunities to get involved in journal initiatives, for example Twitter journal clubs and special editions.

Can you tell us about any outreach activities you’re involved in?

My outreach, public engagement and widening participation activities vary – from supporting outreach in primary and secondary schools to participating in career fairs, science festivals and school mentoring schemes to support student development. One of the projects I am currently involved in is called ‘Sustainable impact by design: a pilot study of effective STEM dissemination for hard-to-reach audiences’. This project involves working with professionals from across disciplines to develop engaging STEM activities for school-aged participants with supported learning needs and their family members.

What are on your thoughts on mentorship and how would you choose a mentor?

Mentoring can be beneficial when you reach periods of role transition across the different stages of your career. I found having a mentor most helpful when I entered my first postdoctoral role as I had just completed a brief maternity period after my PhD. I found my first formal mentor through the British Pharmacological Society’s Women in Science mentoring scheme, which is unfortunately no longer in place. I was matched with a senior academic female mentor who had experienced pregnancy during her PhD and progressed successfully through her career to become a professor in pharmacology. She was a solid role model who I could relate to on so many levels and we developed an excellent mentoring relationship for the duration of my postdoctoral years.

I then had a different mentor when I started my Chancellor’s Fellowship at Strathclyde. This time I chose my mentor from a different discipline based at Strathclyde. She was a professor in physics and knew my institute well. Even though I completed my fellowship and was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 2019, I still have the same mentor who has been unbelievably supportive during my career to date, both on a professional and personal level.

I chose my mentors based on areas of professional development where I needed it most, as I recognised that one mentor would not be able to advise in all areas, and that their time is precious. I then sought additional support from those around me to develop my skills for teaching.  Choosing a mentor largely depends on the support you need. Not all mentoring relationships will work out, but when they do, they can be life changing.

Rapid question round with Dr Margaret Cunningham

Favourite film? Amélie
Sweet or savoury? Sweet
Tea or coffee? Coffee
In vitro or in vivo? In vitro
GPCR or ion channels? GPCRs
Scotland or abroad? Scotland


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Published: 25 Aug 2021
By Aisah Aubdool

About the author

Aisah Aubdool 

Aisah graduated with a BSc (Hons) in Pharmacology before gaining her PhD in 2014 from King’s College London, under the mentorship of Professor Susan D Brain. Aisah moved to William Harvey Research Institute in 2016 as a postdoctoral research fellow in the lab of Professor Adrian Hobbs. Aisah’s research focuses on studying the role of C-type natriuretic peptide in vascular remodelling and aortic aneurysms.

Aisah joined the British Pharmacological Society in 2010 and is currently the regional Ambassador coordinator for London. She is also the Vice Chair of the IUPHAR Young Investigator Committee, as well as a member of the Pharmacology Matters Editorial Board and the Public Engagement and Policy Committee at the British Pharmacological Society.

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