My PhD in molecular biology, performed in Dublin, Ireland, investigated genes involved in drug resistance and apoptosis in cancer cell lines. To put it mildly (and politely), I was not fond of lab work. However, collaboration with clinicians investigating the expression of and association of these genes with survival in breast cancer patients caught my attention. I found it intriguing that the lab results and biomarker data could be meaningful in the clinic, and might even be useful in cancer treatment. Post-PhD, I found myself in Bethesda, Maryland, a long way from the lab and the biomarkers back home, embarking on a fellowship in Cancer Epidemiology. It was the polar opposite of the lab, and many people (including myself) questioned my apparent career change. Why would anyone with a background in molecular biology want to learn epidemiology? Everything was new and unfamiliar, and I was way out of my comfort zone, but it was also exciting and challenging and stimulated me to learn more. Personally, combining the two disciplines was the only way biomarker discovery may benefit patients.
I do not regret my decision. I have worked with some of the most inspiring and engaging people throughout the world, including in Ireland, the USA, and Denmark. As my research broadened, I also realized that epidemiology is multidisciplinary and there are many “hybrids” like me.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle facing epidemiologists in the next five years?
Definitely funding. It is tough to get sustainable and renewable funding. I have seen some hugely talented colleagues leave positions in epidemiology due to a lack of funding. Unfortunately, the administration and governments in several countries only have short-term visions of the benefits of scientific research and have apparently forgotten that without funding, and long-term vision, we cannot work to improve global public health.
Do you have any pets?
No. Rosa the rabbit disappeared in the dark of night and we haven’t had the heart to replace her. When I get home to Ireland, my children borrow Barry, a dog my parents inherited from my brother. Barry is a female Cairn terrier with a best friend called Shazzer—a fat, lazy cat. Barry’s skills as a guard dog are dismal, but if another cat looks sideways at Shazzer, it is war.
Why did you join SER? What keeps you coming back?
Some of my US collaborators mentioned the annual meeting. Actually, when I say “mentioned”, what I really mean is they talked relentlessly about the meeting and why I should attend. My first meeting was in Boston in 2013. Since then, I have gushed about the SER Annual Meeting to my colleagues in Denmark. Four from our department attended in 2013 – but in 2016 and 2017 the numbers were around ten. The journey from Aarhus to Seattle is endless, and the jetlag is nothing short of brutal, so we spend a lot of the Annual Meeting in a sleep-deprived haze. Yet, we keep returning for the open and friendly atmosphere, the scientific advances, and of course, to catch up with some great friends. What I particularly like about SER is the lack of hierarchy. There is the opportunity to chat to everyone, from the “freshman” to the “greats”. After each SER meeting, I come home feeling inspired, and I often incorporate what I learn at the meeting into my teaching and research methods.
What advice do you give students who want to become epidemiologists?
Do not be intimidated and ask questions. Asking a mentor to explain a concept again makes them a better teacher, and helps you as a researcher. It’s a win-win.
Outside of epidemiology what do you enjoy doing?
I like to spend time with family and friends and getting home to Ireland. I have played the violin since the age of four. I don’t play so often these days but still play in a piano quartet.
What is something that not many people know about you?
Many of my friends and colleagues know that I love music of all sorts – from Bach to Bono. What they might not know is that at the age of 16, I was really torn between pursuing a career in music or a “proper” job. At the time, I was playing with local and national orchestras in Ireland, and I was charmed by the sounds of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and many other classical greats. The “proper” job finally won the battle, mainly because I was worried that taking on music as a career could diminish its appeal as a hobby. It was the right decision. Music has helped me to develop an instant network no matter where my career has taken me; Ireland, USA, and not least, Denmark, where, even without a word of Danish, I could immediately join an orchestra and play along.
It was great fun to participate in the “SER-Jam” at SER 50th Anniversary, not to mention accompanying the legendary Bernie Harlow for his wonderful rendition “Margaritaville”…………..if only I’d had a heads up on his “Fifty years we’ve loved our epi”……