Dr Sally Fletcher is a scientist at the University of Birmingham who is exploring new therapies for the treatment of chondrosarcoma.

For Sarcoma Awareness Month, Sally crushes common misconceptions about the laboratory, and shares how she is doing her bit for the planet alongside our patients.

When did you first know that you wanted a career in research?

Like many researchers, I started off young and really liked science in school. I remember being around 12 years old, looking down the microscope in a science lesson at red onion cells, and thinking that they were the most amazing things I had ever seen!

Towards the end of high school, I decided that I wanted to go to university and study biochemistry. At the start of my second year, I had the opportunity to do a summer internship at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Here I found out what it was actually like to work in a research lab, and decided it was the career for me. Subsequently, I finished my degree, went on to do a PhD, and I haven't looked back!

How did you come to specialise in bone cancer?

I studied my PhD at the University of Oxford and specialised in an area of biology called DNA repair. I then relocated to Birmingham to take the skills I learned from my PhD and apply them to a different area of cancer biology.

In my current lab, we work on proteins called oxygenases. From a bone cancer perspective, they are really interesting. Cells normally need oxygen to survive, however, bones naturally have very low oxygen conditions and bone cancer cells thrive in this environment. We are working to understand how these proteins function in low oxygen environments, and how that impacts the types of cancers that form in bones.

We think this area of research has a lot of potential for the ways we can improve the lives of people with bone cancer.

What do you do at work on a daily basis?

The cliché is that no two days are the same... and they're really not! Some days will be very bench-heavy, conducting experiments where I spend a lot of time working with tissue culture. This involves growing bone cancer cells, designing experiments, and then carrying out research experiments.

Other days, I do lots of data analysis. This morning, for example, I spent three hours taking images from a microscope that I will go home and analyse. My partner laughs because science is in some way very mundane. I spend an enormous amount of time measuring the lengths of red and green lines. Now, it might be that the red and green lines are very exciting when you pull all the data together, but all he sees is me measuring lines over and over!

So, on the practical side, it's a bit of a mixture between experiments and data analysis. I also supervise the students in our lab so they go on to become better scientists.

I'm really interested in sustainability, and I am the sustainability lead for my institute here at the University of Birmingham. In this role I help people make their labs more eco-friendly, encourage them to reduce plastic waste, and test out different ways that we can reduce our electricity useage.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

The most fulfilling part is, of course, knowing that you are contributing to improved treatments for cancer patients.

I also find it really rewarding to be supervising students, from when they step foot in the lab and don't really know how to use a pipette to when they are designing their own hypotheses and experiments. It's a really special moment when you know they are on the path to becoming good scientists.

Finally, when you design and execute an experiment and get beautiful data or an excellent result, it feels great. And it still feels great even now. I think that's what keep scientists going through the years, having those highs of successful experiments amongst many setbacks.

What is the hardest part of your job?

Contributing towards the greater fight to improving patient outcomes is incredibly fulfilling, but with that comes the pressure that you don't want to get it wrong.

When you are carrying out experiments, you want to be sure that the data you are generating is reproducible and reliable, because mistakes can set the field back. This leads to people following up on results that are not going to become useful treatments, which is not going to lead us towards the progress that's needed.

Who do you admire in the scientific community and why?

Someone I really look up to is a lady called Dorothy Hodgkin. She is the only female British scientist that has ever won a science-related Nobel prize, which she took home for her work on x-ray crystallography to determine the chemical structure of key molecules like penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin. This is an important technique in biochemistry for understanding the structures of proteins and has led to some very important discoveries.

Dorothy was active in the twentieth century, which would have been a really difficult time to be a female scientist. She did exceptionally well, and I think she is a great role model.

Do you think it's easier for female scientists now compared to what it would have been like for Dorothy?

I think it's getting better. The cliché is that it has always been very difficult for female scientists because there is the idea that taking time away from research for maternity leave sets you back.

Previously a lot of funding bodies were not supportive of career breaks like that, and I think in recent times the concept of flexible funding has become much more widespread. From this perspective it has gotten easier, but I don't think we're quite there yet.

Is there anything you wish that people better understood about research?

I wish people understood that research is difficult. I think people do understand that in an abstract way, but not enough people have been in research labs to see how it is actually carried out.

Pre-pandemic, we used to do a lot of lab tours. It was really interesting to talk to people about what their ideas about research were. We would take them into our tissue culture labs and one of our favourite things to do was ask how much money they thought the equipment cost. People often thought that big bottles were the most expensive thing, until we presented them with one 1.5ml vial that cost £350!

Research is often hard, very expensive, and chances of success are uncertain. Due to the nature of the experiments that we do, it is difficult to get definitive answers about anything, and you want to be sure that you're not publishing results that are misleading.

Similarly, it can be challenging when health and research statistics are misinterpreted or sensationalised by the media, which can have huge potential for misleading the public.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever been given?

One is always try your best, and the other is that you miss 100% of the shots you don't take. For me, this was very relevant for the funding that I've received from the Bone Cancer Research Trust, as this was my first shot at independent funding. I finished my PhD over five years ago now, and this is the point where I need to start securing my own independent funding to work towards having my own lab.

I'm extremely grateful to the Bone Cancer Research Trust because it is one of the few charities that will fund researchers in my position. There's very little funding available for postdoctoral scientists, it is almost exclusively available for people that already have a permanent academic position.

The fact that, as a charity, you are prepared to invest in people like me is just incredible, and I am so grateful for the opportunity.

Do you have a message for our patients?

I'm going to take my lab coat off and answer as someone whose family member survived cancer because of the effective treatments that have been developed.

Cancer is absolutely awful, and I would like to give everyone suffering from bone cancer my best wishes for their recovery. I know that we don't necessarily have the treatments available today but myself, my colleagues and our fellow scientists are doing everything we can to make sure that better treatments are available in the future.

To find out more about Sally's research project, please visit the link below:

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