Becoming a leader in radiotherapy: Dr Emma Harris, Programme Foundation Award

Cancer Research UK

 

Programme Foundation Award holder Dr Emma Harris trained as a clinical medical physicist before doing her PhD in radiation physics in cancer research. After working for the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, she came back to oncology and is now a Team Leader in the Joint Department of Physics at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and The Royal Marsden hospital in London. Emma focuses on ultrasound and X-ray imaging to help guide radiation therapy of breast and abdominal cancers.

Emma is at the "Transitioning to scientific leadership" stage in our Fellowships Competency Framework, and here she explains how she demonstrated in her application the skills and experience we expect of researchers at this point in their careers. She also tells us how our Programme Foundation Award is the right fit for her to quickly translate her research to the clinic.

 

Career stage: Transition to scientific leadership

When I applied for Cancer Research UK’s Programme Foundation Award (PFA), I was almost three years into my Team Leader post at the ICR. I’m probably a little bit older than your typical Team Leader as I trained as a clinical scientist before doing a PhD in radiation physics in cancer research. I didn’t qualify for my PhD until I was around 30, then spent another couple of years working for Defence Science and Technology before I decided to come back to cancer research.

The PFA scheme was right for me as I was looking to develop my team and move my career on. I felt my rounded experience from multidisciplinary working in the clinic and project management in a government laboratory gave me a good foundation for running a team. CRUK is the perfect funder to support my research as it allows me to take the basic science through to the clinic, which I think is quite a unique thing for a funder.

Research experience: Collaborating across disciplines

I was in a strong position to demonstrate I’d been working collaboratively – including internationally – with other groups and could publish and deliver with other people. I’d spent a short time with a couple of groups in the US where I collected my own data within their labs. I already had publications and since the award I’ve also been sharing trial data.

I work in a multidisciplinary way, so whether we’re developing new software and algorithms to optimise radiotherapy imaging or developing new devices, it’s all being done alongside clinicians and radiographers who are ultimately the end users of the technology. For my application, I could go to my collaborators for letters of support confirming they wanted to continue in that vein. I’ve also sought new collaborations for the PFA and strategic collaborations to help me deliver the programme and find the right people who are good advisors.

Future research ambitions: Optimising radiotherapy

Through this award, I’m building a body of work to optimise radiotherapy through the development of ultrasound technology.

Radiotherapy is an incredibly important treatment for cancer − 50% of patients get radiotherapy as part of their cancer treatment. I started my work under someone else’s programme and have taken that off, made it my own and am building on it. I’m developing new ultrasound technology and we can’t make sure that works unless we try it on in-patients. It has to be an iterative process of developing, testing and then feeding back into the development chain.

Skills: Leadership, career support and project management

I had already supervised PhD and MSc students. I lectured on medical physics topics, trained on professional training courses and convened workshops for postdocs. I’ve been on one of the EMBO Lab Leadership courses, which was brilliant for networking, project management courses and team leader training. I could also show I effectively communicated my research to patient focus groups as I seek feedback from patients about potential new ideas, grants or trials.

I now encourage my team by including them on collaborations, getting them involved in grant writing, and applying together for awards. I provide supervision for them and am talking to them about what they need to build their career to get fellowships and that it is possible!

Looking to the future

Having six years of funding from CRUK is great at this point in my career: it supports me to be able to develop new ideas, focus on the longer term, move things around and think about what we’re going to take forward.

I’m a year in now and we are just submitting our first publication and a few conference abstracts, which is pretty exciting. Although within the field of radiotherapy I think I’m fairly well known already, this award has improved my reputation and gets me invitations to speak and teach at major international conferences and events.

 

Career profile: Dr Emma Harris

2017–2023: CRUK Programme Foundation Award, The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR)
2013–current: Team Leader, Joint Department of Physics, ICR and The Royal Marsden hospital
2011–2013: Principle Research Radiotherapy Physicist, Joint Department of Physics, ICR and The Royal Marsden hospital
2004–2011: Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Joint Department of Physics, ICR
2002–2004: Project Manager and Physicist, Defence Science Technology Laboratories
2002: PhD Medical Physics, University College London
2002: MSc Medical Physics, University College London

 

Why we've introduced our new Competency Framework

Research Careers

We aim to support and nurture the most talented and dedicated researchers, which is why in 2018 we are changing the eligibility criteria for our early- and mid-career fellowships. We've removed post-PhD time restrictions and introduced a Competency Framework outlining the range of skills and experience that applicants should demonstrate.

   

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