The Chain-Florey Fellowship and Lectureship schemes are the Imperial BRC’s flagship clinical academic training programme. The schemes aim to train excellent clinicians in cutting-edge biomedical sciences, to produce the next generation of world-class academic clinicians. They are jointly funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Imperial BRC to give medical graduates the opportunity to carry out a three-year basic research PhD in a laboratory at the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences (LMS) at our Hammersmith Hospital site.
Dr Harry Leitch is a Chain-Florey Lecturer and has been recently appointed Head of the Germline and Pluripotency Group at LMS. We caught up with Dr Leitch to find out more about his research journey.
Tell us a little about your research
I am interested in the broad areas of stem cell biology, pluripotency, germline development, epigenetics and reproduction (pluripotency is the ability of a single cell to make every other type of cell in the adult organism). Most of my work focusses on the mammalian germline cycle – which encompasses how early germ cells develop, as well as the earliest stages of embryonic development. This thread to my research allows me to think about a wide range of questions – such as studying how pluripotency is established and controlled in the early embryo, how we can make pluripotent stem cells from embryos at different stages, characterising how early germ cells are established and develop during embryogenesis to eventually give rise to sperm and eggs, establishing culture conditions for germ cells, and researching the epigenetic changes in the germline.
Describe your typical workday/ week
Typical?! At the moment life is fairly chaotic as I’m in full-time clinical training and balancing this with my research. I’m a paediatrics trainee and currently doing my clinical work at St Mary’s Hospital – which is a great environment, but busy, as you can imagine! When I’m not on the wards, I’m in the lab or the office keeping myself occupied with research work. I’m lucky to have the support of the MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences and the Chain Florey Scheme, which has made balancing both aspects more manageable. I also enjoy the challenge of combining both science and medicine – life may be a bit atypical, but there’s never a dull moment. I was recently awarded a BBSRC grant and stepped up to being a Group Head at the LMS – and this means that I have new people starting in the lab. I guess this will mean less time doing benchwork myself and that my role will be more to support my team to produce the exciting results and new ideas.
What attracted you to the Chain-Florey Clinical Research Scheme?
At the time I applied I was becoming a little disillusioned with the clinical academic pathway in the UK, and was considering a move to the USA. I even thought about giving up medicine altogether. What I saw at the LMS was a world class institute that was really passionate about training and supporting clinicians who want to do basic science. They seemed to get that academic-minded clinicians are a heterogeneous and varied group – each with slightly different background and career paths and therefore different needs. They weren’t afraid of offering bespoke support under the framework of the Chain-Florey Clinical Research Scheme. I joined the Chain-Florey Foundation year 2 scheme – which was a perfect match for me. My research had progressed much more quickly than my clinical training and so this gave me dedicated research time to work fairly autonomously but with excellent mentorship by Petra Hajkova (an established Group Head). After this year I was able to obtain an Academic Clinical Fellowship in paediatrics, which is my current position. With the dedicated research time this position allowed me, I was able to obtain my first substantial grant and make the step up to Group Head – whilst continuing full steam ahead with my clinical training and progression.
I’ve found working within the Chain-Florey Scheme incredibly refreshing – rather than concentrating on the barriers and inherent difficulties of dual training, the ethos has been about finding ways to make things work. The ‘buy-in’ we have had from representatives at Imperial College and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust has been imperative to smoothing the way on the clinical side. Of course, the ongoing funding support from the [NIHR Imperial] BRC is absolutely essential at every level of the scheme.
What were the biggest challenges you experienced and how did you overcome them?
There are constant challenges in the current clinical academic pathway – which sometimes feels a bit like a sausage factory. How did I overcome this? I moved to London and joined the Chain Florey Scheme, simple as that! Of course, not every clinician scientist will be suited to the scheme – not everyone wants to do the largely basic science that we have on offer at the LMS. But it is critical that the Chain-Florey, and other similar schemes, are there to develop the talent we do have.
What impact has the Chain-Florey Clinical Research Scheme had on your career and future plans?
My career is only in its infancy – who knows exactly how it will end? But for me the Chain-Florey scheme has been transformational. Having been a disillusioned junior house officer, feeling like a square peg in a round hole, and that my research momentum was petering out, it has given me the kind of bespoke support I needed to not only keep the research going but actually to progress quite rapidly to where I am now – starting my own research group. At the same time, I’ve found the right clinical speciality in paediatrics and have progressed at the same rate as my peers with no time wasted and, I hope, providing a good level of care to patients and families. I hope to continue to develop along this trajectory and I’m certainly very happy at the LMS, and to be working at the College and the Trust. I hope they’ll keep me! There are lots of challenges ahead including finding a clinical niche that will allow me to productively contribute to the NHS, even though I hope to have an increasingly research-heavy role. Of course, I’m by no means the finished product and I hope I can rely on the ongoing support of all those who have been so good to me so far. I’m certainly at an early enough stage where it could all be a colossal disaster – but I’m working pretty hard to make sure that isn’t the case. Fingers crossed!
What would be your message to other clinicians looking to engage in research?
That’s obvious – do it! If you’ve got any inclination towards research then the only way to find out if it’s for you is to give it a bash. It’s not for everyone. And it certainly should not be approached as a box ticking exercise – that’s just a huge waste of everyone’s time and money. Luckily in medicine there’s the full scope of research from clinical trials to policy, public health to basic science and much, much more. So there’s certainly something for everyone – should they so wish it. Of course, my type of lab-based fundamental science is not for everyone, but I think it’s really important that we make the most of the incredibly diverse skills we already have in medicine.
Speaking to colleagues who have been involved at different stages of the scheme it has fulfilled many roles: allowing people with next to no research experience to complete PhDs and gain high quality research training, it has kept people in the UK who would have looked to transfer abroad, it has kept people in medicine who might have thought about jumping ship to pure research, and an unanticipated benefit has been recruitment of foreign-trained clinician-scientists into the UK system – benefiting the NHS and the academic environment, as these trainees not only contribute to research but provide crucial service provision in NHS, manning the wards and treating patients. So the support the BRC has shown the scheme is a very canny investment.
And finally, I should of course comment that if anyone is interested in fundamental science and the diverse range of research done at the LMS then they should come and find out more about the Chain-Florey scheme – which is currently (or soon to be) advertising posts at a range of levels!
A range of posts are currently available:
Chain Florey Research Continuation Fellowship