How would you react, as a young scientist just beginning your research career, if someone told you that you could spend 3 days with all the very top names in your field--an intimate group of 25 to 30 people discussing the state of the art? And what if there was more--the opportunity to spend up to 12 weeks working in the lab of one of these top players, gaining new insight into your research? If it sounds like a dream come true or a gift from heaven, then you'll know exactly how I felt when I learned that I'd be chosen as the recipient of a Novartis Foundation bursary (see box below).
I am a resident doctor in the department of haematology and oncology in the Georg-August University Hospital in Göttingen, Germany. Under the supervision of Claudia Binder, MD/PhD, I also carry out research, examining the interactions of tumour cells and macrophages. The head of my department put a copy of the announcement for the bursary scheme associated with the symposium "Cancer and Inflammation" into my post box, suggesting that I apply for it. The topic was a very close fit with my research subject, and I really liked the idea of being part of a conference with the best scientists in this research area. I was very interested but didn't think I had any chance of becoming the lucky bursar.
Nonetheless, you have to try, and I was very pleased to discover that the application process is very well structured and speedy. I had to submit just three pages: a CV and statements of the research I wanted to carry out, the reason for my application, and my future career aims. Amazingly, only 20 days after the deadline, I received a letter confirming that I had been chosen. It was stunning! Being selected as the bursar for the Novartis Foundation symposium was a very special moment in my scientific career, not least because it seemed like a great reward for undertaking the double burden of clinical work and research, trying to give your best in both areas all the time.
The symposium itself was very different from any other scientific meeting I had been to before. Held in the beautiful Novartis Foundation building in London, it brought together the "who's who" in my field. Each presentation was followed by extended discussion, which made it extremely interesting and informative. Moreover, it was great to get to know all the famous participants in person, after reading their papers for several years. I tried to use my opportunity to the utmost by speaking to everyone and asking all the questions that had ever popped up in the course of my own work. I can only recommend to other young scientists who find themselves in a similar situation that they should use the chance fully. There is no reason to be shy--I found all these eminent scientists to be very kind and helpful.
Part of the bursary is to spend between eight and 12 weeks in the lab of one of the symposium participants, wherever they work. During the application process, I had to choose three host labs from the list of invitees. To make the right choice, I started with an extended literature search and in the end chose the lab of Professor Fran Balkwill. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, her major subject was really close to my own research, and secondly, my supervisor had been impressed by a lecture she had once heard Fran give. Location was another reason for choosing the Translational Oncology Laboratory at Barts and The London Queen Mary's School of Medicine and Dentistry. Normally, you go to the host lab after the symposium, but because of my clinical commitments, I was able to tweak things so that the symposium actually fell in the middle of my time in London.
Thorsten Hagemann chats with his bursary host, Fran Balkwill, at the symposium.
I found the lab, situated in the John Vane Science Centre, to be very attractive and well organised. During my stay there, I established the co-culture model that I had developed in Germany, and we did a lot of new experiments, especially neutralizing antibody studies. Under the supervision of Dr. Stephen Robinson and Professor Balkwill, and in cooperation with all the other very skilled people in the lab, this was a great experience. The data generated raised several interesting points, which will be followed up in future studies in London and in collaboration with our lab in Germany.
It was very impressive to experience a different way of working, especially the very concentrated scientific atmosphere. Everyone was working on the same subject, so you could always discuss any problems very effectively, and I got great feedback on my work. This was further supported by the weekly lab meetings and by the opportunity to go to symposia at the Cancer Research UK institute at nearby Lincoln's Inn Fields.
Indeed, together with the all the very many nice people whom I met, one of the extra bonuses of the bursary was the opportunity to live for a while in London, one of the world's most exciting cities.
I returned to my department in Göttingen in January. I am already looking forward to meeting up with the new colleagues and friends I made as a Novartis bursar at upcoming scientific meetings, and we are continuing our collaboration in two further areas. In addition, I am applying for a Marie Curie Fellowship that would allow me to go back to Fran Balkwill's lab.
After this postdoc period, I intend to apply for a grant to set up my own young research group in Germany in order to continue my clinically based research. It was very surprising to see that in the United Kingdom, people are keen to build up laboratories with good connections between clinicians and basic research. In Germany, the trend is quite the opposite. I was also very impressed by the way communication and teaching were organised in Fran's lab, and I hope I will be able to carry out these ideas in my own work.
I do, however, have one suggestion for improving the scheme: I think it would be excellent if the Novartis Foundation could provide the bursar with a small budget for the lab-visit stage. Although Fran was very enthusiastic about having me in the lab and was extremely generous in helping me with the resources I needed for my experiments, I felt rather uncomfortable that I had to rely so much on that generosity. Having a small budget of his or her own would mean that the bursar could be more independent, and it would also make it more appealing for the host lab to get the bursar!
I'd like to offer my unlimited thanks to all the people who have supported me, especially my supervisor, Claudia Binder; my head of department, Professor Lorenz Trümper; Professor Fran Balkwill, Dr. Stephen Robinson, and others in the London laboratory; and last, but not least, Allyson Brown and Jane Dempster from the Novartis Foundation, for their faultless organisation and for always being available to deal with problems.