Researcher in the Spotlight October 2015

Carrie D

Dr Carrie Duckworth PhD, MA Hons is a tenure track research fellow in Cellular and Molecular Physiology in the Institute of Translational Medicine at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on the regulation of gastrointestinal architecture and the maintenance of gut homeostasis, in particular on the processes that modulate the susceptibility to the development of colitis and colitis-associated cancer.

What is your research about?

My research interest lies primarily in the study of the epithelium of the gut. The epithelium consists of a single layer of cells, turning over around every 5 days, and yet forms a very effective barrier against invasion into the body by bacteria and other microorganisms that are found in great abundance in the intestinal lumen. This barrier function of the intestine fails as either a cause or a consequence of several intestinal and systemic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), coeliac disease (CD) and sepsis, often resulting in excessive inflammation, epithelial cell destruction and further perpetuation of disease. My lab aims to target the processes and mechanisms responsible for this breakdown of intestinal barrier function, epithelial cell destruction and inflammation in order to develop novel therapeutic approaches. We have recently identified the NF-κB2 transcription factor as an important regulator of intestinal epithelial damage in murine in vivo models and in intestinal organoid culture, and are currently developing novel methods to modulate the NF-κB2 signalling pathway to prevent injury to the intestinal epithelium.

How did you come to be working in this field and was this something you always wanted to do?

I have, for as long as I remember been interested in how the human body functions. As a reception class kid, I found an old encyclopaedia under the bed in our spare room and I was fascinated by the diagrams of organ systems. For my 4th birthday, my parents bought me a toy microscope kit, which I wanted in preference to a bike. From this point onwards, I wanted to be a “mad” scientist. I conducted a job study on a career in biomedical sciences in Year 9 and from this realised that I’d need a degree to achieve my dream job. Nobody in my family had been to university so this was very useful. I went on to do 5 A’ levels during which I really enjoyed learning about the gastrointestinal tract, possibly because my dad had ulcerative colitis. I studied for my BA degree at Cambridge University and sadly during this, my dad passed away from colitis-associated colon cancer. I then pursued a PhD at the University of Liverpool in gastroenterology, which became more and more exciting as time progressed as I became involved in several different research projects. Following 3 post-doc positions and a lot of hard work, I obtained a tenure-track fellowship post (equivalent to lecturer) which was (and still is) for me like winning the Lottery!

Why is your work important?

Naturally, my work is the most important on Earth…… doesn’t every scientist say that?! Host genetics contribute to the susceptibility towards intestinal diseases, however this is not the full story and these genetic factors almost always interact with the environment to establish disease. For instance, around about 30% of the Caucasian population carry known genetic risk factors for coeliac disease, yet only 1% are affected. Additionally, there is now a growing need for personalised medicines based on the interaction of drug treatments with patients’ genetics, either in terms of the clinical efficacy of these interactions or their unwanted side effects, which frequently damage the intestinal epithelium. My lab is exploring the interactions between genetic and environmental factors on gut function, which will have a huge impact on how patients are treated for gastrointestinal disease. There are around 100 trillion bacteria in the normal human gut and these bacteria have been described as the most recently discovered organ in the body. As a scientific community, we are still defining the intricacies of this ‘new’ organ and how it interacts with both the intestinal epithelium and the rest of the body. By investigating methods of preventing the breakdown of intestinal barrier function, this will prevent the passage of these bacteria into the body.

Do you think your work can make a difference?

Yes, if I didn’t then I’d be researching something else. My ultimate aim is to improve patient quality of life by driving the development of novel therapeutic strategies. My work also contributes to the enhancement of knowledge and innovation in the scientific community.

What does a typical day involve?

I don’t think I have ever had two days alike and I am therefore unable to describe a ‘typical’ day! I commute to work and back for 1.5 hours in each direction daily and arrive at my desk shortly after 8 am, I’m then often on the 6 pm train back home. I regard my career as a way of life rather than a job and work creeps into my schedule at every available opportunity in the evenings and at weekends. I am at an early stage of my academic career and as such continue to spend a significant amount of time in the lab myself and also directly teaching PhD, MRes, and BSc students who I officially supervise, and also others who are officially supervised by more senior academic colleagues who are no longer able to spend time in the lab. I collaborate with several research groups in my institute, across the Faculty and at other institutions worldwide. I sit on several committees and attend meetings, seminars and conferences, lecture, give research talks, manage research budgets and write papers and grant applications. I am also establishing an alumni mentoring scheme for PhD students.

What do you enjoy most in your job?

I thrive off problem solving and wanting to do things that no one in the world has ever done before. I enjoy the multi-faceted nature of the job and that each day brings something new. Life is too short and I wish everybody could be happy and comfortable, so the thought that my research may lead to novel therapeutic developments for several debilitating diseases that may help to enhance or prolong life is very rewarding.

What do you enjoy the least?

The one thing that will continue to frustrate me is something that also makes science exciting as a result of delving into the unknown. This is that research output is not entirely a function of effort. A large amount of time and effort can be spent on experiments resulting in a negative finding that is very difficult to publish in a good quality journal. Additionally, in the current economic climate, many well written, good quality research projects are unable to be funded and resubmission to the same grant awarding body is often not possible. I often wonder how many good research proposals are filed away in the back of filing cabinets around the country, never to be seen again.

Have you faced any challenges being a young women in science?

Not beyond those faced by males at the same stage of career. My department and institute are very supportive to both young women and men in science. I am a founding member of our Athena SWAN committee, which has been instrumental at helping to understand the needs of both women and men at each stage of their career and has been successful at generating a culture change to promote fairness to all, which we are continuing to improve upon. I think the biggest problem faced by women in science is when to have a baby so that it doesn’t have a negative impact on their career progression as a result of ‘time out’. It will be interesting to see the impact that the new government ‘Shared Parental Leave’ policy will have on the numbers of women staying in science now that there are no financial implications for their partner to take leave instead if they do so wish.

Tell us something about you that might surprise us…

Random is a good word to describe me. I got married last year, played tennis in my wedding dress and made my own cake. Whilst white water rafting in the Zambezi River in the summer, I almost drowned in the first rapid!

What advice would you give to students/early career researchers?

Maintain accurate and detailed records of everything you have done in the lab. Determine the reason behind every step in an experimental protocol and understand what you are trying to achieve before setting foot in the lab. Use your own initiative and try to be one step ahead of your supervisor. Depending on the definition of early career researcher, I potentially still fall into this category myself. I am currently 7 years post-doc and have been in an academic post for 2 years. I would say the best piece of advice I could offer anyone striving for an academic position would be to focus on generating lots of data and producing good publications as this environment is both ruthless and competitive.