An Interview with Kirsty Flower

Current Job: Research Associate, Epigenetics Unit, Department of Surgery and Cancer, Imperial College London7036_926896817054_4203539344879017700_n

Scientific Discipline/Field: Cancer Epigenetics, mainly ovarian and breast

Epigenetics is broadly defined by changes to the DNA or the proteins which package DNA (chromatin) and affect how genes are expressed, without changing DNA sequence.

Country: UK

Pick some letters (L,G,B,T,Q etc.): L

Twitter: @cassyorkirsty

What does you job involve?

I was first employed on a very specific 3 year postdoc project. The project was to investigate DNA methylation patterns in breast cancer tumours, and compare tumours with BRCA1 mutations to tumours with normal BRCA1 protein expressed. Using these patterns, we developed a prediction model to try and categorise sequence variants of BRCA1 of unknown significance into either “pathogenic” or “neutral” to allow better diagnosis in families with high familial risk of breast cancer. This project required a lot of development of lab methods initially, so I spent a lot of time optimising protocols in the lab. Then I spent a long period learning how to analyse the data, and develop the prediction model, before writing up the paper (which is about to be submitted to another journal after being rejected). During this time I also took on various responsibilities in the lab, for example training users on specific pieces of lab equipment, supervising masters students, reviewing manuscripts.

My job has changed recently due to a change in funding sources, so my time is split between finishing up what is left over from the last project, providing postdoctoral support to a group of PhD students whose supervisor is a clinician and therefore less present in the lab, day to day supervision and input on the direction of 2 PhD student projects, as well as developing my own project (this part is still to be decided! But I’m interested in developing some ideas on DNA methylation in sub-populations of blood cells in ovarian cancer patients).

I’ve also become involved in postdoc career development as a postdoc rep for our division, which means I attend exec meetings and also I sit on the academic opportunities committee, which is involved in our department Athena Swan application. I sit on Imperial I600’s committee (Imperial’s staff LGBT) but I’m not a particularly good committee member, as I work on a different campus and struggle to get to the meetings…

How did you get to this job (education etc.)?

I did an undergraduate degree in Biochemistry at Sussex University. During my final year I did a project in a lab, and was not expecting to want to do a PhD. The PhD student supervising me managed to convince me to consider a PhD. The lab I was already working in had a position coming up, it suited me to stay in Brighton at the time, so I applied and was offered it. I was convinced I’d failed my finals though – I sent my future supervisor a very pitiful email, apologising for wasting her time because there was no way I was gonna pass my exams… Thankfully I did, got a 2.1, which was all that was required, and started my PhD after that summer.

I worked on Epstein Barr Virus (EBV), a virus associated with some cancers including lymphomas for 3 years. I looked at how DNA methylation affected the way a viral transcription factor bound to DNA, and where these sites were in the viral and human genome. I took an extra 9 months to write up, it should not have taken that long but because it was unpaid I needed to work to pay rent so I did a lot of undergrad teaching, which in turn slowed down the writing process. It was the right thing for me to do though, as I wasn’t ready to leave Brighton.

I started looking for postdocs during the write up time, and was lucky enough to be offered interviews for the first three I applied for in London. However I definitely had a favourite, and that was my first interview. I really enjoyed how the interview went, and the people I met on my tour round the lab. They later told me that I had been their favourite candidate as I didn’t just talk about my own work as they showed me round, I actually took an interest in what they were working on! Not a hard thing to do, I’m surprised that was the stand out thing… seems it pays to be nice! I was definitely under-experienced for this role, so did not expect to be offered it. When I got the phone call I was very surprised. I took the job, started in July 2011, submitted my PhD in Sept 2011 then defended in Dec 2011. This job was for 3 years, in the last year of that my boss and I applied for money to stay, one of which, a 2 year grant, was awarded. So now I’m here until mid 2016.

Do you feel being LGBT has affected your career decisions?

I don’t think it’s affected my decisions, although I haven’t had the desire or opportunity to go somewhere where it would be an issue.

Have you had any reactions from colleagues about being LGBT, either good or bad?

People often assume I am straight and I don’t always find an appropriate time to come out, or I feel like I am constantly coming out to different groups of people. Yes, sometimes it is not something that comes up in general conversation, but I think its really important for people to know. Its good to to challenge expectations and stereotypes in all situations. Leaving my Brighton bubble was definitely weird, as I think I shocked a couple of people in my new lab by being very forthright about being gay and talking about going to gay bars. But overall there was barely a reaction, which is exactly as it should be, and my girlfriend was always included in social events without question. Its definitely easier to come out whilst being in a couple, and as I have recently become single for the first time in years I need to find new ways to come out, as I have always relied on being able to refer to “my girlfriend” to make it clear.

Did you have any role models growing up (LGBT, STEM, totally unrelated…)?

I don’t remember having any specific role models growing up. I feel like I have more role models now. My PhD supervisor (Prof Alison Sinclair) and co-supervisor (Dr Michelle West) are definitely amongst my role models, unapologetically successful women in academia who balance their work with their home life. Prof Dame Athene Donald writes a brilliant blog at Occam’s Typewriter, she is definitely a role model/idol too. I have also come into contact with brilliant women at Imperial through the Athena Swan application committee.

What are your plans for the future?

I’d love to stay in academia and become a lecturer, but I am fully aware of how difficult this can be. I really enjoy what I do, I like being busy and being challenged. So I’m happy to work really hard over the next few years to give it as good of a go as possible… if it doesn’t work, I’ll find something else. My career so far has been based on what I enjoy doing (which has been labeled as hedonistic by some!). I hope to continue to do that.