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Getting to know our BJP and BJCP Early Career Researcher prize winners

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Published: 13 Mar 2019
Category: Journals

Each year the British Journal of Pharmacology (BJP) and the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology (BJCP) award prizes for the best paper published by early career researchers in the journals over the previous year, corresponding authors can nominate their eligible co-authors upon submission to the journals and the journals’ senior editors judge the nominations. Awardees receive £1,000 in prize money, a certificate – presented at the annual joint BJP and BJCP editorial board dinner – and one year of complimentary membership of the Society.

Our 2018 winners

BJCP Early Career Researcher Prize – Flory Muanda-Tsobo (FMT)

Use of antibiotics during pregnancy and the risk of major congenital malformations: a population based cohort study

BJP Early Career Researcher Prize for D&A Excellence – Catherine Wilder (CW)

Facilitation of ischaemia‐induced ventricular fibrillation by catecholamines is mediated by β1 and β2 agonism in the rat heart in vitro

BJP Early Career Researcher Prize for Scientific Novelty – Nils Rorsman (NR)

Defining the ionic mechanisms of optogenetic control of vascular tone by channelrhodopsin‐2

Describe the key discovery from your article, and its implications for the pharmacological community

FMT: Our study was designed to examine the risk of birth defects associated with the gestational use of antibiotics. Our findings were able to characterise the risk of specific malformations following the use of individual antibiotics. For example, we demonstrated that the use of amoxicillin, cephalosporins and nitrofurantoin during pregnancy were not linked to an increased risk of major or specific birth defects. This finding has important implications for the clinical pharmacologist community, since it will help physicians prioritise the use of safer antibiotics during pregnancy.

CW: One of the key findings from our research article is that when the risk of ischaemia-induced ventricular fibrillation is low, in this case because the ischaemic zone in the isolated perfused rat heart was made small, then the addition of catecholamines increases the incidence of ventricular fibrillation. Interestingly, this facilitation was not only via the β1 adrenoceptor, but also via the β2 adrenoceptor, findings which could have wider clinical implications in the context of prophylaxis against sudden cardiac death. Targeting cardiac β2 as well as β1 adrenoceptors in those at risk of ventricular fibrillation and sudden cardiac death therefore warrants further consideration and investigation. Indeed, perhaps it is time to pursue this as an independent direction for new drug discovery.

NR: The primary purpose of our study was to clarify the ionic mechanisms underlying the light-induced contraction of channelrhodopsin-2 (ChR2) expressing smooth muscle cells. At the outset of the study, it had not yet been established whether ChR2 could mediate stable currents for sufficiently long periods to induce the contraction of smooth muscle (on the minute time-scale rather than the millisecond or second time-scale utilised in optogenetic studies of cardiomyocytes or neurones). Once this was established, our focus shifted towards understanding the finer nuances of the light-induced contraction. We showed that the activation of optogenetic proteins can affect the currents passed by native ion channels, as well as the ion concentrations within the cell. The work provides an important insight into aspects of optogenetics that need to be considered when employing this increasingly popular technique.

What inspired you to take up research?

FMT: Early on in my career, as a young physician, I struggled to prescribe the correct treatment for maternal infections in early pregnancy without concern for foetus safety. Though antibiotics are among the most prescribed medications during pregnancy, guidelines are not always clear on the medications that should be prioritised for both the safety of the mother and the foetus. This prompted Dr Berard (my PhD supervisor) and I to conduct this study to shed some light on a critical question in clinical pharmacology.

CW: It was during my A level biology classes that I was first intrigued by the idea of a career in research. I was fortunate to be taught by two teachers who had PhDs and experience in a research environment – they made those A level lessons come alive, being able to give context to the biological protocols that we were learning that seemed so abstract at the time. However, it wasn’t until I was at uni at King’s College London, studying physiology and pharmacology, that the idea of conducting research became a reality. I approached my pharmacology lecturer, Mike Curtis, about the possibility of spending some time in his lab over the summer. We managed to get funding for a six week studentship from the Society, and at the end of that six weeks, he offered me a PhD starting the following year. Now, seven years on and starting to establish my own scientific career, I have my A level biology teachers and Mike Curtis to thank for inspiring me to take up research.

NR: I really enjoyed studying chemistry and biology at A level, so the opportunity to study both of these topics rendered an undergraduate degree in biochemistry the perfect choice for me. I also had the privilege of putting the academics into practice by working in different laboratories during the summer breaks. It was during these breaks that I was able to experience first-hand how rewarding and enjoyable a career in research could be. Conducting experiments as part of a real project and generating new data was incredibly exciting. As such, these placements were the beginnings of my desire to pursue a career in science.

What position are you currently working in? What does this involve and what are you working on?

FMT: I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Clinical Evaluative Sciences (ICES), which is a world-renowned institute for health research. My research program aims to reduce the risk of medication errors in patients with chronic kidney disease (CKD). This is a major public health concern since many medications used in this population are eliminated by the kidney. Therefore, physicians should dose reduce these drugs or avoid their use to prevent major side effects. Similarly to pregnant women, CKD patients are excluded from clinical trials, as such, evidence is lacking to guide the optimal management of patients in this group.

CW: I am currently a BHF-funded postdoctoral research associate at University College London, working at the Hatter Cardiovascular Institute. I am interested in the role that pyroptosis, a highly inflammatory cell death pathway, plays in acute myocardial infarction and ischaemia-reperfusion injury, and how pyroptosis can by targeted as a novel therapeutic target for cardioprotection.

NR: I am a Research Scientist working at a synthetic biology company spun out of the University of Oxford called OxSyBio. By exploiting its unique technology platform, OxSyBio is able to prepare 3D synthetic tissues for diagnostic healthcare applications. The development of these synthetic tissues involves the combined use of engineering, robotics, chemistry and biology. The variety of disciplines within the company offers a greater breadth of scientific questions than I think is commonly seen in a more traditional academic setting and is an aspect which I value greatly. At present, my work is centred on how biological components can be utilised to study the functionality of synthetic tissues and how it can be increased. I find this work intriguing, highly rewarding and I believe that what we’re trying to achieve is truly valuable.

Can you tell us about your career path to date?

FMT: I trained as a physician in Democratic Republic of the Congo, where I started an internal medicine residency at the teaching hospital of Kinshasa. Concomitantly, I worked as a clinical investigator on several randomised clinical trials conducted by the Kinshasa School of Public Health, in collaboration with the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Antwerp University. In 2011, I began a Master’s in Pharmacoepidemiology at the University of Montréal, and in 2012, transferred to the PhD program. I successfully defended my PhD thesis in March 2018, and I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at ICES and Western University in London (Canada) since December 2017.

CW: After completing my PhD at King’s with Mike Curtis, during which I conducted the work that led to the publication of the above research article, I stayed on as a postdoc in Mike Shattock’s lab, working with James Winter on the isolated innervated heart preparation using optical mapping imaging techniques. I then moved to my current postdoc position at UCL where I have been for the last year and a half.

NR: Following the completion of my undergraduate degree, I was awarded a place on the Ion Channels and Disease DPhil program at Oxford. My primary DPhil project was conducted in Paolo Tammaro’s laboratory, and it led to the paper described above. After submitting my thesis, I continued working in Paolo’s laboratory for a further four months to complete some additional experiments. At the same time, I was working as a part time lab technician in a different laboratory. After this period, whilst waiting to complete my viva voce, I was applying to a variety of roles in different areas. The results of the multiple applications led to a difficult choice: academia or industry. In the end I chose to take up an offer to work at OxSyBio. Though working for a start-up has risks associated with it, the opportunity to work on a project a little outside of my comfort zone, which would expose me to a greater breadth of research topics and techniques, provided a challenge I couldn’t resist.

What do you find most rewarding about your work?

FMT: I take great pride in the fact that findings from my work will guide physicians in prescribing the most effective and safe antibiotics to millions of pregnant women without substantive harm to the foetus. This is a major contribution in the treatment of maternal infection, especially in the first trimester of pregnancy. 

CW: I find the prospect of my research one day having an impact on patients extremely exciting and rewarding. The possibility of identifying druggable targets and developing novel therapies in the future is what drives me to pursue a career in research and gets me out of bed in the morning.

NR: What I love the most about my job, and science in general, is that I can push on the boundaries of human understanding of the world. I always feel excited about going into work to see what I can discover.

How did you feel winning the prize?

FMT: I felt very privileged. I knew that working in the topic area of the use of antibiotics during pregnancy had a great clinical impact, but I could never imagine winning this prestigious award. This is really a great honour and a career milestone.

CW: When I was told that I had won this prize for design and analysis excellence, I was completely shocked, especially after finding out from the BJP that I was selected from amongst a strong pool of other candidates. It’s a real honour to receive such an acknowledgement for the work conducted during my PhD, and it’s fantastic that the BJP offers these prizes for early career researchers.

NR: I was surprised and excited, not really believing it at first. It was only after contacting BJP to confirm the validity of the award that I allowed myself to be thrilled! It felt very nice to have one’s work reviewed so positively.

What are your plans for the future?

FMT: My long-term goal is to become an independent investigator and obtain a faculty position at an academic institution in Canada or in another part of the world. Providing high-quality information for the optimal management of vulnerable populations (pregnancy, CKD patients, elderly) constitute my main research interests.

CW: I am expecting my first child in the next month, so my immediate plans are to finish off all my data analysis before going on maternity leave! Long term, I hope to establish myself as an independent researcher and be involved in drug research and development in some way.

NR: I am very hopeful that the work I am doing currently will continue to be successful, and that the expansion of the project will allow my responsibilities to increase in scope with it. I have always found great satisfaction in supervising and guiding more junior students. Therefore, I am hoping that as the company grows I will be able to perform a more permanent supervisory role again. 

In your opinion, what are the greatest challenges facing early career researchers and how would you suggest they are tackled?

FMT: In my opinion, one of the greatest challenges facing early career researchers is to get funding to support research interests. Though the competition is very fierce, an early career researcher should keep on applying for grants to secure funding regardless of the outcome. Besides this, an early career researcher should develop strong networking and find a mentor who can aid with becoming an independent researcher.

CW: I have personally found the fellowship/grant writing process quite a daunting and challenging task. There is a lot of support out there (for example university research facilitators, charity funding bodies), it’s just knowing where to look! I also think the lack of available permanent academic positions for early career researchers is an ongoing challenge, and one that needs to be addressed if we want to keep good scientists in academic research.

NR: This question is a difficult question to answer as I have been lucky enough to not go through too much hardship in my career to this point.

Do you have any advice for early career researchers?

FMT: My advice to an early career researcher is to be curious and passionate about their research. I believe that passion is really the key that can help researchers reach their goals regardless of obstacles along the way. My second piece of advice is to collaborate and work with a team to produce compelling and interesting results.

CW: The one piece of advice I have for early career researchers is to keep in touch with fellow students, previous lecturers and old colleagues. I am not very confident at networking and find it quite daunting to go up to established researchers in my field at conferences who have no idea who I am. However, the people who I have previously worked with have become my immediate network and have helped me to progress in my career so far. Some of them have also taken on more of a mentoring role, which has been invaluable.

NR: Take the opportunity to learn new techniques at every point, whether it is offered to you or whether you have to take the initiative and ask. Even if you do not become the next expert in that particular technique, it is impressive to have a grasp of a wide range of techniques, in addition to the techniques in which you are an expert.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

FMT: In my spare time, I like watching TV shows, following sports (football, basketball, tennis) and reading. I also enjoy relaxing and spending time with my friends and family.

CW: Outside of work I enjoy spending time with family and friends, playing the piano and singing, and keeping fit.

NR: I really enjoy playing squash with my friends and colleagues. There is no doubt that one has been exercising after a tough match. Additionally, I have recently started a dungeons and dragons group which I am enjoying immensely.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

FMT: I should like just to thank you for this incredible opportunity.

CW: I should like to thank the BJP for publishing my work and for awarding me this prestigious award.

NR: I’d like to thank BJP and Wiley for awarding me with this prize, and Paolo Tammaro for being a fantastic DPhil supervisor.

To read about our previous prize winners you can visit our BJP and BJCP websites.

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