Diabetes Week : How did I get into diabetes research? by Hugh Thomas


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After I explained that my PhD was researching the “origins of [Type 2] diabetes” to the cashier at Sainsbury’s, his reply took me a bit by surprise; “Oh, are you into diabetes then?  I can’t imagine many people are into diabetes.”  To say I’m “into” diabetes is like saying A & E doctors are “into” resuscitation.  But it did get me thinking about how I started research, a topic I’d been planning to write about for Diabetes week.

I’ll start by admitting that I never imagined myself as a researcher.  Too dry, I thought at school.  Too much time spent huddled in a corner with only test tubes for company.  Successes measured in abstract chemical reactions and DNA gels.  I wanted to be a doctor, work with patients, and see direct and instant results.  Naively, I think now, I wanted the “glamour” that came with it (whatever that might be!).

After not working hard enough at A-level to study Medicine (and having been somewhat disillusioned by the seemingly self-perpetuating circle of “you need work-experience with a doctor to get in, and you can only get work experience if you know a doctor”), I started a degree in medical genetics, by far my favourite field.  Not only was university ludicrous fun (I went to Swansea), two years in I found I really, really enjoyed my course.  Given my earlier dreams of doing medicine, I was a little surprised to be pouring heart and soul into relatively inconsequential essays because I wanted to, not because I had to.  By my final (3rd) year, I realised research was (a) something I might actually enjoy and (b) might conceivably be good at.  It’s always worth seeing something out…

The vast majority of 3rd years studying life sciences will undertake a final year research project.  It’s a chance to get lab experience in a real, functioning university lab, get used to day-to-day techniques that most students will have only read about, and conduct novel research with the chance of kick-starting their research careers. It’s also a chance for lab groups to get free and enthusiastic labour, if they are willing to put up with hand-holding for the first few weeks….

I was assigned a project in the reproductive biology group, studying the role that excess testosterone could have on the inflammation present in the womb before conception.  I was hooked when I started working on cells derived from biopsies from women with polycystic ovary syndrome-related fertility problems at the local hospital, who collaborated with our research group.  Here was live human tissue, and in a few days of experimenting a researcher could paint a picture of the molecular minutiae that was influencing each woman’s fertility; why two superficially similar women could have wildly different fertility outcomes.  This was the beauty of modern medicine live.

So, it’s fair to say I was smitten.  My first exposure to diabetes research came with examining the relationship between polycystic ovary syndrome, a very common endocrine disease in women, insulin resistance and weight gain.  But I didn’t just want to be involved in diabetes treatment. As the hackneyed quote goes, prevention is better than cure.  The issue of childhood obesity leading to risk of adult obesity has been extremely topical in the last decade, yet, as has become increasingly clear, the earlier you can nip a problem in the bud, the more damage you can prevent, at reduced cost.  This is what I found most attractive about the PhD studentship offered by Diabetes UK; it proposed using basic science to provide the foundations for public health treatments, for a disease that is rapidly affecting more people, at younger ages, and at huge societal and economic cost (my first blog post covered the basics of the research).  That scope is something I never really stop finding invigorating, and it’s thanks to the support and generosity of Diabetes UK and the charity’s supporters that make it possible.

My path into research is fairly typical of a lot of my peers, and I’d use it to highlight the options available to those interested in a career in medical science.  If a field of research captures your imagination, and you work hard, the options are abundant; we are incredibly lucky in the UK to have world-leading research establishments and the financial support from universities, charities, the research councils and private companies to fund the work and development of young researchers.

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