Heidi is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Cancer Cell Cycle Group in the Department of Oncology. She discusses her research, and experience of the Oxford-Celgene Fellowship.
What is your research background?
My research background is in biochemistry and molecular biology. I laid the foundations of my current work during my undergraduate studies at the University Hospital Hamburg-Eppendorf, where I did my diploma thesis on receptor tyrosine kinase signalling in cancer. I then moved to studying protein folding and misfolding with a translational aspect in neurodegenerative diseases and obtained a PhD in biochemistry at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry near Munich. I continued with my studies as an EMBO Long-term Fellow at the University of Oxford in the Department of Oncology, and as a Fulford Junior Research Fellow in Medicine at Somerville College.
What are you researching now?
I am still doing research on posttranslational modifications and how they affect protein homeostasis. Since I was awarded an Oxford-Celgene Fellowship, my focus has been on citrullination of proteins. This is the conversion of the amino acid arginine in a protein into the amino acid citrulline. Citrullination of proteins is very interesting because little is known about the readers of this modification and how signalling is accomplished. We know that enzymes called “PADs” are responsible for the conversion of the arginine residues in proteins to citrulline, and I focus my research on citrullination of certain gene regulators, which can be involved in cancer. It is also interesting that sometimes the immune system aberrantly recognises citrullinated proteins, leading to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. I am currently following this up in a human tissue culture model.
What has your experience of this Fellowship been like?
I really value the remarkable opportunities that this Fellowship has given me. It does not only offer funding - the guidance provided by Celgene has been fantastic, and the mentors are understanding and helpful. They ensure that the academic freedom is guaranteed within the limits of the proposed project. My own project led to new collaborations across and beyond Oxford, with both our neighbours in the Kennedy Institute and research groups in the USA. The Fellowship has allowed me to work on cutting-edge basic research which can be translated into the clinic, and helped to confirm my passion for research in this field.
What has been the highlight of the Fellowship so far?
One of the highlights of the Fellowship so far was the Oxford-Celgene Fellowship Day. This is when all the Fellows, their mentors and experts in the fields meet in Oxford to present and discuss their different projects. It was a great experience – not only did I get to know the other Fellows and learn about their projects, but I also gained valuable feedback and encouragement for my own project.
The Fellowship has allowed me to work on cutting-edge basic research which can be translated into the clinic, and helped to confirm my passion for research in this field.
Why do you think it is important for researchers to engage with industry?
Growing populations, ageing societies and age-related diseases are problems faced by the whole of society. I think there are advantages for everyone when researchers exchange ideas with industry and the public to address these problems. I am passionate about research where there is a clear path to clinical application, and there are many examples to demonstrate that when industry supports researchers, discoveries from basic research are developed for the benefit of society. I believe research partnerships between academia and industry are essential to bring drug developments forward.
Do you have any advice for applicants to this Fellowship?
Having a passion for your profession and for what you are doing is key, so finding a project which really interests you could be a first step to a successful application. The ability to listen and to take advice is also important.
What are your aspirations for the future of your research?
In the short term, I hope to successfully continue with my research to be able to shed light on my research question by identifying the mentioned biomarkers. In the long term, I would like to continue to work on the posttranslational modifications of proteins and how this influences protein folding and homeostasis. Hopefully this research will contribute to a longer and healthier life for all of us.