Grace Edmunds is a qualified vet who now works as an early career researcher in the field of tumour immunology at the University of Bristol. We spoke to her about her motivation to go into cancer research, how her love of animals led to a love of science, and the impact of a teacher’s encouragement on young women.
What is the focus of your current research project?
Our immune system includes certain cells designed to kill cancer cells. These are known as ‘Cytotoxic T- Cells’, often called ‘CTL’. We know that when the body detects cancer, it activates these CTL. However, after entering the tumour, they appear to be “switched off” by molecules found in the tumour microenvironment.
In our lab, we are using state-of-the-art analyses to find out which molecules from the tumour are switching off CTL. If we discover that by targeting certain proteins, the CTL appear to come back “on” again, then we might be able to develop new drugs with applications for use in people. Trials of the latest immunotherapies in cancers such as melanoma indicate that such drugs can produce an impressive response and increased survival rate when combined with existing chemotherapy and radiotherapy options. It is therefore important to keep searching for more treatments which allow or enable our own bodies to do the cancer fighting for us. You can read more about the latest developments in tumour immunotherapy here.
Who or what inspired you?
At the age of 2 my parents bought me a book called ‘How Things Work’. Children love to ask questions and they always want to know why things happen the way they do. Mum and Dad thought the book would satisfy my inquisitive nature but it seemed to make it worse – I have never stopped wanting to understand the mechanisms behind what we see and experience every day. Biology, chemistry and physics are difficult subjects, but to me nothing beats the feeling you get when you are sat in a lesson and suddenly you understand where plastic comes from, or why the sun is hot.
I was also inspired by fantastic teachers at school. At secondary school, when I was a shy twelve-year old, I didn’t have much confidence and wouldn’t speak up much in class, particularly in subjects I didn’t fully understand or that felt quite information-packed. Then one day my chemistry teacher came up to me during a lesson when we were revising for a big test, and I remember things were starting to click in my head about how everything fitted together. My teacher leaned down and said very quietly, “keep up the good work, Grace – I think you can do really well in the exam on Friday”. I hadn’t really thought about doing ‘well’, but I took the encouragment and worked really hard that week. It turns out I got 100%. Everyone has a brain, but we all need confidence in our ability to use it. My other teachers taught me revision techniques and life skills that I have used consistently through my two degrees, and am still using today. Mainly, they made science fun and approachable; in one particular instance we learnt about radioactivity using chocolate M&Ms… There is nothing so important as an inspirational teacher.
What age did you decide what you wanted to do research?
Although I can look back and think about how much I enjoyed science at school, I think I would have dropped the science subjects if my love of animals hadn’t driven me to qualify as a Vet. I was much better at languages and I really enjoyed music and art. Science was hard and it required a lot of hours spent rote learning and trying to understand the concepts. But my overarching aim kept me going, and in 2008 I started at Bristol Vet School. It didn’t take me long to realise, at least subconsciously, that I was different to many of my peers in that I loved biochemistry and physiology (the purely scientific components of a veterinary degree) more than the lectures on animal-handling and behaviour. When we were about to transition into our clinical, animal-based years, I realised with a small shock that I would miss molecular biology. I decided to intercalate, which means that, along with 20% of my year, I took a year out of vet school to complete another science degree. Intercalating vet students take subjects from Zoology to Anatomy, but I settled on Immunology and Cancer biology. I chose this area because, once more, I was inspired by great teachers from my previous lecturers on these topics, and I wanted to get stuck in the nitty-gritty minutiae of what I’d studied so far. I was also drawn to making a difference to human and animal health through medical research. During my intercalated degree I worked on using the analysis of immune cells to combat tumours. My remit was to see if my particular team could make a new, specific technique work on a certain cell type; to my excitement and delight, we realized that it didn’t just work, it had the potential to be very powerful and effective! I was then completely hooked on tumour immunology. I finished my vet degree and worked for a year in a small animal hospital, but I stayed in touch with my supervisor because I wanted to follow the progress that had stemmed from my experiment. In the end I knew I had to go back, and I have now returned to his lab to carry on.