Alumni profile - Ella Haines-Kelvin
I work alongside research practitioners, research nurses and doctors in the Early Phase Oncology Trials Team, facilitating Phase I & II trials for new experimental cancer medicines often tested for the first time in humans for a wide variety of cancer types. Offering patients a lifeline with experimental treatments and knowing that our work will translate to widescale clinical benefits if the drug in question is a long-term success is very rewarding!
Why did you study Biomedical Sciences at Queen Mary?
As the first person in my family to attend university, I felt like I was entering unchartered territory. Intimidated by the prospect of a ‘degree’, in conjunction with a limited understanding as to what university life would entail, I only knew that by engaging in further study I could increase my job prospects, so I was keen to choose a traditional subject that would keep my career choices open. After visiting Queen Mary as an offer holder, I felt an immediate resonance with the stories of current students and their experiences that led them to university, feeling far more comfortable and confident with my decision to undertake a degree rather than continuing with employment.
Biomedical Sciences at Queen Mary offered the opportunity to gain practical skills through weekly labs combined with extensive teaching informed by cutting edge research from clinicians and academics. Obtaining a broad understanding during the earlier parts of the degree also facilitated the opportunity to specialise and tailor your knowledge to new areas of interest. I was intrigued by the prospect of being able to pursue my own research during my final year and customise module choices in line with subjects that I was passionate about. The campus environment and east London location also contributed massively to my decision; having everything close by with the ability to live onsite during first year made me feel a lot more settled when transitioning to independent life.
What aspects of your degree did you find most enjoyable?
Anatomy and Physiology taught in first year by the late Dr Steve Le Comber was a degree highlight by far! Steve genuinely cared for his students and went to great lengths to ensure that lectures and labs stretched our academic capabilities to the limit, whilst managing to make the seemingly impossible task of memorising the ins and outs of every inch of the body and its systems enjoyable and achievable.
Embarking on a research project during my final year at the Barts Cancer Institute offered a priceless insight into life as an academic beyond university, whilst providing opportunities to expand my practical and analytic skillsets beyond what was taught in compulsory module labs. This proved useful when job hunting after graduation as potential employers were often impressed that I had obtained professional research experience as an undergraduate student. This experience further provided me with a good grounding in the teamwork required in any field of scientific research.
Can you describe your career path up to date and touch on your current role as Assistant Clinical Research Practitioner at Guy's and St Thomas' NHS Foundation Trust?
I was keen to gain some work experience (and save) prior to starting university in the hope that it would provide some clarity on what degree I should choose. Following the completion of an Art Foundation course post A-Levels, I was keen to revisit my passion for science and was intrigued by what a career in healthcare could offer. I joined my local hospital as a Healthcare Assistant (HCA), spending a year in Oncology and Palliative Care prior to settling on the subject choice of Biomedical Science. I continued to work as a HCA part time whilst completing my undergraduate studies, as I loved the opportunities to gain hands on clinical experience alongside the flexibility and social aspect of the role.
After trying out laboratory work during my university summers, I had a brief stint as a lab assistant in hospital diagnostics following graduation, however, the solitary and repetitive nature of the work combined with a lack of opportunities to advance my knowledge left me feeling dissatisfied. Keen to return to more of a patient facing role and appreciative of the career stability that jobs in the NHS and wider healthcare sector presented, I sought out research jobs away from the laboratory. Clinical trials presented the perfect opportunity to be involved in exciting new research and work as part of a wider team, whilst retaining the patient care aspect that I enjoyed as a HCA. I was fortunate enough to gain the role of Assistant Clinical Research Practitioner in Early Phase Oncology Trials at GSTT in October 2020, and whilst I have currently been redeployed to assist clinically in ITU in response to surges in patient numbers during the COVID-19 third wave, I am very excited to progress and keep learning in my new role upon my return!
I believe research still has a long way to go in the fight for total diversity and inclusion. The idea that women are not suitable for research posts persists and unfortunately this is a prejudice that I have experienced myself. I was once told by a senior academic that as a women I would have to choose between having a family or having a successful career, and encouraged to use my “looks” rather than my work to attract attention at scientific conferences – wildly inappropriate suggestions for the twenty-first century that we now live in.
Prior to your current role, you also worked as a Research Annotator at the Alan Turing Institute where you assisted in the generation of AI systems to counteract political hate speech online. This sounds fascinating, please can you elaborate on what this involved?
My work involved helping to create classifiers to identify and categorise hateful language using free text data extracted from thousands of tweets identified by hashtags relevant to our topics of interest on Twitter. We started off looking at hate speech linked to the US election, before shifting our efforts to the growing problem of East Asian hate speech linked to the rise of COVID-19 cases as the UK went into lockdown in March 2020. Ultimately, our systems aim to train online classifiers already in use on sites like Twitter and Facebook to better identify and eliminate borderline cases of hate speech quickly and efficiently, with a view to creating safer online communities. As we are now living in the age of “big data”, AI serves even more of a purpose to extract and streamline key data to identify areas of concern or improvement. Whilst AI has already played a big part in the fight against COVID-19 in terms of disease modelling and predictions, I believe (and hope) that the government will be able to harness the advances in technology and acknowledge our past mistakes to better prepare for future pandemics that we will face.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
I work alongside research practitioners, research nurses and doctors in the Early Phase Oncology Trials Team, facilitating Phase I & II trials for new experimental cancer medicines often tested for the first time in humans for a wide variety of cancer types. Our studies aim to evaluate the necessary dosage, potential side effects and toxicities and efficacy of the experimental drug on the cancer, as well as observing how the body absorbs, circulates, adapts and eliminates the medicine. Working 9-5 most days, I split my week between the clinic, where we treat patients, complete study assessments and observe their responses to trial drugs, and the office, where we process study related data, conduct safety follow-up visits, discuss new patients eligible for trials and undertake protocol related tasks as directed by study sponsors. Having the opportunity to offer patients a lifeline with experimental treatments, and knowing that our work will translate to widescale clinical benefits if the drug in question is a long-term success and brought to market, makes the often hectic role very rewarding!
How diverse is the industry that you work in and what do you think needs to be done to increase diversity and inclusion in your industry?
Championing diversity and inclusion are core to the NHS and its values, and I believe the diverse nature of our workforce and the shared expertise it facilitates underpins the NHS’s ability to provide world class care to all patients regardless of age, ethnicity, race, sexuality or gender. At Guy’s and St Thomas’ over 40% of staff identify as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnicity, mirroring the diverse south east London population that we serve. By reflecting community diversity in our workforce, we can foster stronger relationships with our patients, creating an inclusive care environment built upon increased cultural understanding obtained from realistic representation.
However, I believe research still has a long way to go in the fight for total diversity and inclusion. The idea that women are not suitable for research posts persists and unfortunately this is a prejudice that I have experienced myself. I was once told by a senior academic that as a women I would have to choose between having a family or having a successful career, and encouraged to use my “looks” rather than my work to attract attention at scientific conferences – wildly inappropriate suggestions for the twenty-first century that we now live in.
Likewise, there is a deeply concerning absence of BME and female figures in senior/leadership positions across academia and the NHS as a whole. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement has provided a springboard for a number of schemes to promote and mentor BME talent, aiming to encourage and achieve a more diverse and inclusive leadership team in the NHS. However, it is vital that these schemes continue, stretching beyond the workplace into schools, colleges and universities in order to achieve true diversity in the healthcare industry moving forward. Likewise, I believe the promotion and need for more flexible working arrangements must be championed to ensure that individuals can achieve their desired career progression without making sacrifices to family or caring commitments.
How did your time and study at Queen Mary help your career and development?
As someone who started university as a fresher with little confidence and a lot of shyness, I remember looking at my degree programme horrified at the frequency of group and individual presentations compulsory for most modules. Fast forward three years, I was stood at the Barts Cancer Institute in the midst of third year, proudly defending my research project findings to a room of acclaimed academics. Gaining the confidence to speak publicly and have faith in my own knowledge, whilst challenging the integrity of any science I encounter are the most important things I could have learnt whilst at university. Being able to articulate and clearly communicate ideas to an audience, whilst retaining the ability to critique them are essential for any job role. When faced with the sensitivity of clinical conversations and breadth of issues plaguing the NHS however, the need for clear, confident communication with the ability to challenge when necessary, becomes vital. These are skills that I have gained from my time at Queen Mary that I will carry with me for a lifetime.
As someone who started university as a fresher with little confidence and a lot of shyness, I remember looking at my degree programme horrified at the frequency of group and individual presentations compulsory for most modules. Fast forward three years, I was stood at the Barts Cancer Institute in the midst of third year, proudly defending my research project findings to a room of acclaimed academics.
What advice would you give to a prospective student considering the course you studied and Queen Mary?
Try to keep on top of your notes throughout the semester to avoid a manic catch up on hundreds of lectures before the start of exam season, and learn how to reference your essays properly in first year – you’ll save hours (and valuable marks) in second and third year! Most importantly, remember to take some time for yourself; spend time with friends, join societies and enjoy what London has to offer, and familiarise yourself with the various support services available at Queen Mary (e.g counselling, learning support, financial advice), so that you know who to contact if you should ever find yourself feeling overwhelmed or in need of advice.
Were you a member of any societies or volunteering groups during your time at Queen Mary?
Queen Mary Netball! I joined the society in second year, and my only regret was not joining sooner! As a newcomer to the sport, I started in the development league before progressing to the third team as vice-captain in my final year. Training, matches and socials provided a good structure to my university week, making sure that I stayed healthy by committing to regular exercise yet allowing myself some much-needed social time to break up long days of studying. The confidence I gained through sport, as well as the friends and memories that I made will stay with me for a lifetime! Beyond sport, the opportunities to attend a plethora of expert led lectures and discussions hosted by academic societies outside of my degree programme were endless. I would regularly find myself indulging my intellectual curiosities by attending these talks on campus, and I believe expanding your field of knowledge beyond your degree is so important. I would encourage any prospective student to make the most of these opportunities at Queen Mary!
If you could go back and do your degree again, is there anything you would have done differently?
Honestly no! I really did have an amazing three years, meeting some wonderful people, learning so much about myself and my subject whilst making friends for life. Whilst I am sad that I am yet to experience a graduation, and that the pandemic cut my third year slightly short, I am really grateful for the experiences that I did have during my time at Queen Mary, and it has left me excited to hopefully return to studying in the near future!
What are your career plans for the future?
To build a successful career in healthcare where I can continue to push the boundaries of science for the benefit of my patients. Whilst I relish the challenges presented by research, I want to create more opportunities to further and apply my knowledge in a clinical environment. Therefore, I plan on returning to university once my finances (and the pandemic) allow, to study Post Graduate Medicine with a view to potentially undertake a PhD later in my clinical career. I hope that by arming myself with knowledge acquired through education and cutting-edge research, I will be able to better the outcomes of my patients whose lives have been ravaged by incurable diseases.
Lastly, what in your life as it is now, makes you happy?
Spending almost twelve months in a state of lockdown has taken its toll on all of us, but it has highlighted for many people (including myself) how important it is to evaluate what makes us truly happy on a daily basis – no matter how big or small. For me right now, it is waking up to sunshine, eating a slice of homemade cake and going on a long walk along the River Thames with a good book in hand. That being said, I cannot wait to be reunited with family and friends and get involved with sports again when it is safe to do so!
This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Ella or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at firstname.lastname@example.org.