Foreign intrigue

October 7, 2005

'It's great to focus on work and have time for life'

Is a stint abroad a good career move? Becky McCall looks at the experiences of three researchers - one who went to Africa and stayed, one who has moved around and one who is happy to stay put

There are worse places to be a medical researcher than London.

Yet a rising number of scientists are going abroad - and not to America, but to some of the world's poorest countries.

Martin Holland, a Medical Research Council research fellow, left the UK for The Gambia, where he found the work immensely rewarding and the life intoxicating.

But it can still be frustrating at times. Holland recently went to pay his utility bill at the offices of the national electricity supplier. Having queued for almost an hour, he made his payment - but it could not be registered because of a failure. Two days later, his supply was cut, which can cause more than just inconvenience. "Sometimes it's more than a kettle that can't be boiled - there could be samples in the fridge," he says.

"Generally, I do anything very technical back in London and then bring it back out here for patients."

But to Holland - an immunologist who works on trachoma, an eye infection that is the world's leading cause of preventable blindness - this is part of the rich fabric of life in Africa. His patients are no longer 3,000 miles away. And he and his partner live in a large house set among lime, papaya and banana trees.

"Many sunbirds visit our garden, and we often sit outside and have breakfast watching them collect nectar from the hibiscus flowers, which beats sitting on the 8.05 from Hitchin to King's Cross," he laughs.

It is just a ten-minute cycle ride into his lab. If he is not working at the bench or in the bush, he can be found repairing old bicycles and cycling with the Gambian contingent for next year's Commonwealth Games.

Holland, who was born and raised in the UK, recalls how his perspective shifted when he began working among the Gambians. He found their resilience astounding and humbling. "A few months ago we operated on an old man. He underwent a procedure that involved injecting the eyelid with anaesthetic and making incisions in three places to right an inturned eyelid. There was a lot of blood. But apart from greeting me, he never made a sound throughout."

Holland, 42, obtained his first degree in biology from York University.

After a job as a research assistant, he decided to focus on immunology and worked on Goodpasture's syndrome, an autoimmune condition that affects about 50 people a year in the UK and is usually treated with success.

"Compared with the billions of people suffering from parasitic diseases elsewhere in the world, I felt I was looking in the wrong place for satisfaction," he says. "So I accepted the offer of a PhD at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on a disease that was new to me - trachoma."

Trachoma is said to be like having sand or grit stuck under your eyelid, and when a sufferer blinks, the cornea is scratched. Bacteria live inside the membrane lining the eye. Scar tissue builds up with each repeated infection until it eventually deforms the eyelid, then the lid turns inward and the eyelashes scratch the cornea. Untreated, this leads to heavy scarring and blindness.

Holland made his first research trip to The Gambia in 1988 with David Mabey, professor of communicable diseases, with whom he has worked closely ever since. "My initial impression as we travelled through the most populous area of The Gambia was how dark it was. There was no light, and it seemed deserted," he remembers. Gradually, he became aware that there were people around - traders were open late into the night and working by hurricane lamps. "The next morning, I was struck by the intensity of noise from the bird and insect life, the strong sunlight and the brightness of the clothes."

Returning to London reinforced his belief that working abroad was the right move. "I remember getting on the Tube at Hammersmith after the flight home and being struck by the ugliness of a carriage stinking of urine and some down-and-outs fuelled up on alcohol early in the day."

Seventeen years later, his fascination with Africa continues. He does not sit in the clinic and wait for patients. He is happy to drive 100 miles through ditches and dust clouds to find people who need surgery. His long-term aim is to discover how infection causes the disease so doctors can vaccinate against it.

Asked what he would advise a young researcher considering work in a developing country, Holland is enthusiastic. "Don't expect to change the world overnight - be realistic. Part of why you do this is to understand the overall situation, not force your own ideals on the local people. It's a great place to focus on work but also to have time for life itself. Enjoy the experience, and it will change your life."


Age: 42

Education 1989-93: PhD at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on cell-mediated immune responses to Chlamydia trachomatis in humans

1985-87: MSc in immunology at Kings, Queen Mary and Chelsea Colleges, University of London.

1981-84: Degree in biology at York University

Research work 2002 onwards: Visiting research fellow, Medical Research Council Laboratories, Banjul, The Gambia

2000 onwards: Lecturer in immunology, clinical research unit, department of infectious and tropical diseases, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

1997-2000: Research fellow, Institute of Infection and Immunology Research, School of Biological Sciences, Edinburgh University

1995-97: Higher scientific officer, Moredun Research Institute, Edinburgh

1987-95: Research assistant and then research fellow, Molecular Immunology Unit, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

'I have the flexibility to explore new ideas'

Cleo Bishop always looks forward to Monday mornings. "It's not like going to work. I enjoy what I do," says the Medical Research Council scientist.

"I usually arrive at about 8.30am and stay for as long as it takes. If the experiment takes 14 hours, I see it through to the end," she explains.

Bishop traces her interest in biology back to her childhood in the United States, where she spent hours exploring marine life washed up on the beaches of California. She can now be found in the more high-tech surroundings of a laboratory at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre in London.

With the support of an MRC Career Development Award, she has been exploring how human cells respond to foreign DNA - knowledge that will be crucial for gene therapy. She considers her scientific career a vocation rather than a job.

Winning a place in such a supportive unit is the Holy Grail for most scientists. Her lab, unlike those at many universities, has a full complement of support staff, so Bishop can spend her time conducting experiments rather than washing glassware or ordering reagents. But she sees the best part as being at liberty to take the science as far as she likes.

"I can try state-of-the-art techniques, and I have the flexibility to explore new ideas. We are encouraged to push the boundaries," she says. "I am also fortunate in having a hands-on director who can dedicate himself to research rather than having to be distracted by lecturing and tasks away from the lab".

Career Development Awards aim to cultivate young researchers who are not only good scientists at the bench but who can also manage their futures within the scientific community. "It's a fantastic springboard for a young scientist. We attend MRC-run courses that train us in how to supervise students, manage teams and write papers and so on - things that we would otherwise have to learn as we go with little guidance," Bishop adds.

Positions such as hers are much sought after. Almost 100 applicants applied for her current role, and she feels very fortunate to be where she is.

Bishop hopes that this is just the beginning of a long career with the MRC.


Age: 29

Education 1998-2001: PhD at University College London. Studying small proteins involved in photosynthesis

1995-1998: Degree in biology, University College London

Research work

Currently career development fellow at MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, Imperial College London. Looking at how human cells respond to foreign DNA.

1997: Undertook summer studentship at biology department, University College London, at characterisation of the tubulin-binding protein P23

'Changing fields brings something new'

Oliver Billker, a malaria researcher studying the life cycle of mosquitoes, has moved institutions and countries to further his career. After a PhD on malaria transmission at Imperial College London, he returned home to Germany to work on a different pathogen. He argues that opting out of malaria for a while stood him in good stead - as did encountering inspirational scientists at the Max Planck Institute. "It is important to change fields," he says. "It allows you to bring something new to your research area."

When he returned to malaria research, Billker knew he had to be back in the UK. "At the time, there were only a few groups working on malaria in Germany. Britain is still one of the best countries for this research."

While still in Germany, he won an MRC Career Development Award, which allowed him to set up his own lab at Imperial.

He argues that knowing how to write an application is a vital skill. "When I apply for funding, I try to come up with unique ideas and just go for it.

I've always supported myself on fellowships, even when doing my PhD - so I've had some practice and I've definitely got better over the years."

Billker is not tempted by life outside the university system in a research council unit. "Imperial offers the best facilities for the research I do, and there is a commitment to support research in this area. I'm going to apply for a more senior fellowship, and my aim would be to stay here."

He enjoys relative freedom at Imperial. "I do nearly 100 per cent research," he says. "I do some teaching but can cherry-pick what I do. It can be really rewarding."

He likes to take risks in his research so as to stand out from the crowd, but he says short-term contracts can lead to risk-averse attitudes. "As a young scientist, if you go for a fellowship you don't have a permanent position, and you need to be successful in a very short time. Perhaps if you have a long-term perspective it is easier to take risks."

Anna Fazackerley


Age: 36

Education 1999: PhD at Imperial College London, working on the mosquito transmission of malaria parasites

1995: Degree in biology at the Free University of Berlin

Research work 2003 onwards: Research fellow at Imperial College. Running lab funded by an MRC career development award. Hoping to find new targets for anti-malarial drugs by studying life cycle of mosquitoes

1999-2002: Research fellow at the Max Planck Institute of Infection Biology, Berlin. Changed subject area to study mechanisms used by bacterial pathogens to enter human cells

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