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In focus with...Professor Sir Bruce Ponder

Friday 17 May 2013

Bruce PonderI am privileged to have been the first Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. The Institute opened in 2007, but for me the story starts much earlier in 1995 when, almost by chance, I took on the Chair of Oncology in Cambridge. 

Happily immersed in cancer genetics and with only a distant memory of medical oncology, I was an elector for the Chair, not an applicant. When I was appointed, it was a surprise to me – and even more to the community and to my wife, neither of whom thought it very wise. But the opportunity to bring the science of Cambridge to bear on the practical problems of cancer was too good to miss, and this challenge, to which the Institute has been central, motivates me still.

Working at the Institute

The Institute made an impact from the start. I think that core funding was critical in this. It allowed us to make clear and immediate offers to world-class group leaders and to managers of our key core resources. Moreover, these recruits knew that they could bring existing staff and plan their move – in many cases from the USA – with minimal disruption to their lab. The contrast with my experience of recruitment within the University was striking.

We recruited in selected areas of cancer biology – gene regulation, epithelial cell biology; in areas with a strong technological base – genomics, in vivo imaging, bioinformatics, mouse models; and clinician-led laboratory groups in specific cancers: breast, pancreas, prostate and ovary. To build links and to bring in the physical sciences, we also recruited group leaders with joint appointments in mathematics, chemistry, biochemistry and in the Stem Cell Institute; and we appointed adjunct faculty including academic clinical colleagues and group leaders from Sanger, MRC-LMB, Gurdon, the MRC Cancer Unit, and Biochemistry.

This carried some dangers. With only 21 group leaders in total, we were spread thin. The mix of disciplines was intended to stimulate interaction, so our recruits had better be interactive.  We looked carefully for this when recruiting (I recall one stretch of 41 dinners in 49 days). 

Once in the Institute, there were weekly Chalk Talks restricted to group leaders, at which it was expected that each in turn would have the confidence to present new ideas or early work in progress, and not results in press. I think that over the first years these built a sense of belonging and provided significant cross-fertilisation of ideas and new collaborations. 

One of my best memories of the Institute is the feeling of a community of scientific colleagues. Competitive, certainly, but also very engaged and ready to help one another develop their projects.

The Institute had a high proportion – (8 out of 21) – of clinician group leaders, 5 of whom had substantial clinical responsibility as well as a lab-based programme. Equally a challenge in the initial years was to convince the more basic researchers that there were no merit points to count towards tenure for working with human tissue just because we were a ‘translational’ Institute: they were there to do whatever they judged the best and most interesting science. My impression is that the ‘basic science’ group leaders became so intrigued by the clinical problems that surrounded them that their work moved on its own in that direction: they are now some of the best ‘clinical scientists’ that we could have.

Panoramic shot of the Cambridge Research InstituteA key to the success of the Institute has been its scientific core resources – in genomics, histopathology, flow cytometry, IS, and so on. Both the Institute researchers and external reviewers constantly remark on their quality and contribution. Here, core funding has again been important, but also - I hope – the philosophy that we did not want to find in 2016 that we still had the cores we had set up in 2006. Not always easy in practice, but we have tried to encourage every core manager, once their service is established, to stay at the cutting edge through their own research projects, attendance at meetings, and regular interaction with group leaders.

I have focused on the science. It is easy to forget how important the ambience of the Institute is in generating scientific success – obvious things like the quality of the cafeteria, the meeting rooms, the admin staff, but also many less obvious, go to make up the ‘buzz’ that is the unmistakable sign of somewhere that works. I said how fortunate I think I have been with the quality of our scientific staff, and that goes equally for everyone in the Institute. A challenge in the early days was that staff were managed directly from London: and that was not the same, I suspect for them, and not for us. Local is better.

The future

Finally, what of the future? I hope to get back into my own research about the mechanisms underlying polygenic susceptibility to cancer. But first, I am still Director of the Cambridge Cancer Centre, and there is the Centre Renewal to complete. There is amazing scientific potential in Cambridge. The challenge lies in finding the right balance between ‘bottom up’ – bright individuals going where their science takes them – and the need for focus and structure. We are working on it.


Updated: 29 April 2013