Hunting anti-cancer drugs in the rainforest

Jess Chu is researching plant sciences and medicine at Nottingham University, focusing on the anticancer properties of rainforest plants. In this interview, she talks to us about her job and her career in plant science so far.


Can you tell me what your job title is, and a little bit about what you do?

I’m a postgraduate student studying for a full-time 3-year PhD degree at Nottingham University. My degree is research-based so I spend most of every day in the lab, which is different to attending class or lectures. My research is part of collaboration with the University of Nottingham Malaysia campus and we are investigating a range of Malaysian Rainforest plants to see if they contain any antibacterial, anticancer and antioxidant activities. My role is to look into the anticancer properties of these plants.

Where do you work?

I work at the Centre of Biomolecular Science, University of Nottingham

”So far only 10-15% of the estimated 320,000 plant species have been investigated for their pharmaceutical purpose, so it’s quite obvious that the potential to find another good treatment is huge.”

Why’s your research topic important?

Every year millions of people are diagnosed with cancer worldwide in both developed and developing countries. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the UK and the US. Over 60% of the anticancer treatments available comes from or are inspired by natural products (such as plants, marine life and bacteria). So far only 10-15% of the estimated 320, 000 plant species have been investigated for their pharmaceutical purpose therefore there is still around 85% of plant species that haven’t been looked at! So it is quite obvious that the potential to find another good treatment is huge.

Another important thing is that many parts of the rainforest are being destroyed for paper and timber etc. This will lead to many (rare) tropical plants and animals becoming extinct due to loss of their natural habitat. By finding a useful plant(s) growing in the rainforest might give protection by the authorities to the area and stop the rainforest from being totally wiped out.

So you’re studying for a PhD – how’s that different to studying for an undergraduate degree?

Looking back, the structure of an undergraduate degree is a lot like doing my A-Levels. The similarities were that we have less but more specific classes and were taught more in depth about the chosen subjects and were given free lessons to self-study around the subject.

After getting a taste of the different topic in the undergraduate degree and there is something that really fascinates you, you might want to apply for PhD and research in that area.

”No day is the same so once we have finished with one set of experiments, we analyse the results that will direct us on what to do next.”

We were given one day a week to do lab work and we were given the full instructions on what to do in the lab book. If my experiment fails in the lab session then I will have to write the results as it is and try to give reasons for them.

Now, as a PhD student, I am in the lab almost every day and have time to repeat and optimise the method but then no day is the same so once we have finished with one set of experiments, we analyse the results that will direct us on what to do next.

I don’t have to attend any lectures but I do go to one-off lectures that are relevant to my project or when I find the topic interesting. The department will invite well-known guest speakers, not from our university, to speak about their work.

How did you first get interested in doing this job?

During my undergraduate degree, we had several lectures on cancer cell biology and I found all of it fascinating such as how they develop, grow and gain mutations in order to avoid being killed. So I went on to doing a Master’s degree in Oncology – the study of cancer, and in the second term, I had the opportunity to spend 5 months in the lab (I am now working in) and I really enjoyed being in charge of my own work hence I thought of doing more of it.

How did you get to where you are today?

I did a bachelor degree in Biochemistry then a master’s degree in Oncology and was offered a funded PhD in Pharmacy towards the end of my master’s degree.

Can you tell me about a typical day in your life?

Each day varies but most days but 4 days of a typical week will go like this:

9:00 am – I like to start my day by checking my e-mails on my university account for meeting, delivery collections etc. and checking on my cells and experiments (to set up or finish off) then I will analyse the data or look up new experiments to do.

12:30pm- I normally fit my lunchtime around what I have to get done on that day- so it might be an hour with my friends or just 15 minutes at my desk listening to some music and have a quick check on facebook, as you do.

1:30 pm – Sometimes there is a group meeting, if not, then I will continue searching for new experiments or setting another one up for a repeat.

At some point in the day my Master’s student will come to do some work in the lab so I have to make some time to supervise him when he’s in the lab. Sometimes I will need to check if any materials are running out in the lab then I will arrange to reorder the items.

6:00 pm – is usually home time for me! (Sometimes I will stay only until 5 pm and other times maybe 7pm or later!)

At my day’s activities can be reversed from after checking my e-mails! Previously, I needed to use some machines in chemistry so I was working with different people in the chemistry department for 3 months. It was nice to have a change of scenary and meet new people! Usually once a year, I will be able to attend a big meeting, which could be anywhere in the world. It’s a good place to meet others doing similar things.

Is it expensive to do a PhD?

The student fee for international students depend on the university otherwise for home students there is a lower set fee. However, there is funding available for people who are interested in studying for a PhD. Funding can range from £13, 500 – £ 18, 000 per year, free of tax, (based on people in my university) to cover living cost etc. Some large pharmaceutical companies also have training programmes that will sponsor a graduate to do a PhD.

Is a job as a scientist well paid? What’s the starting salary for someone in your field, and how much can this be expected to rise?

It can be – Yes. Recently I have found out patent lawyers who specialise in writing legal documents to protect new chemicals or drugs developed by research groups so it is illegal for other people to copy them. They will have to do conversion courses and pass legal exams but once they have passed them, they get about £60,000 to 80,000 and those who own the company gets about £1 million a year (based on a patent firm in Nottingham).

Other jobs such as being an Regulatory affair officer earns a really good salary too (£40 K or more), their job is to ensure the drugs that are entering the market is safe and the researchers have done all the right tests and have collected the right data.

Actual scientists that have made successful drugs for diseases receive a lot of money from the sales e.g. Professor Malcolm Stevens and his research group in Aston University developed Telozolomide, a very effective drug to treat certain brain cancers, the sales of this drug have recently reached over $1 billion US dollars.

What advice would you give to a teenager thinking of getting into your field?

If there are areas you really enjoy learning and want to find out more then a PhD might be fore you to do find answers that no one in the world have done it before – you will be a little expert in the area! I would encourage you to think about if this is really for you. Things such as self-motivation, resourcefulness, and organisation are good to have when doing research whereas; things like time-management etc can be developed. It is so important to enjoy the work then it won’t really feel like working

Every PhD I have spoken to have had a few low points during their research so it is important that you are interested enough in the topic to pull you through those down days otherwise can be a very horrible 3 or 4 years of your life. There are many opportunities to visit other labs – and there might be chances to go out there yourself to the rainforest or ocean to look at the materials you are working with in natural research!

What’s the best bit about your job?

The potential to find another anticancer treatment to help millions of people- very rewarding! No day is the same so there’s always something different going on (less likely to get bored). I’m around similar minded people but people from other departments are also within reach. My project so far allows me to do experiments in different departments such as chemistry and biology – so I meet and talk to more people! This means I get to learn to use different types of machines, and that keeps my job interesting. There’s lots of problem solving and it’s very satisfying to be able to solve it, and most of the time the hard work you put in will show in the end. Since many diseases develop resistance to drugs, scientists need to be very imaginative and creative in the methods they use to target the disease.

What’s the worst bit about your job?

When experiments don’t work and need repeating!

Keeping up with what’s going on in the field – there’s so so many different things going on all over the world, so keeping updated with new techniques/ experiments and still trying to learn more about cancer biology can be hard to balance.

What’s the funniest or most unexpected thing that’s ever happened to you at work?

Hmm… when some of the cancer cell lines grown in the culture flasks were contaminated and we could actually see thousands of little bacteria wiggling around! Creepy!

Or taking part in my friend’s experiments by donating blood so he could use my white blood cells… but it turned out they threw my sample away because I didn’t have enough white blood cells!

Job Summary

Study after school / college: Undergraduate degree in Biochemistry, Master’s degree in Oncology

Salary: Funding can range from £13, 500 – £ 18, 000 per year, free of tax

Hours: Usually 9am – 6pm, but this varies depending on how the work is going