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What is it like to study at the UK’s leading academic research centre?


As we start to recruit our latest round of PhD students, we provide a window into student life at The Institute of Cancer Research.

Posted on 28 October, 2015 by Amy Drummond

As we start to recruit our latest round of PhD students, we thought we’d provide a window into student life at The Institute of Cancer Research.

Not only is the ICR the UK’s top academic research centre and a charity, but we are also a postgraduate college – and have been training students since the 1930s.

PhD students play a vital role in research at the ICR, and have been behind many of our important discoveries over the past eighty years.

One of our first students to be awarded a doctorate was Dr Edna Roe, a medical physicist who investigated the structure of cancer-causing chemicals – known as carcinogens.

Another one of our students, Jacques Miller, made a vital discovery in the 1960s that helped lay the foundation for all of modern immunology and immunotherapy. He discovered the essential role of the thymus in our immune systems.

When thinking of cancer research, you might assume that the field is confined to the study of biology and genetics, but in fact physics-related research in imaging and radiotherapy, and chemistry-related drug discovery projects, also play critical roles in the work of the ICR.

Our PhD students work in a multidisciplinary environment alongside clinicians from our partner hospital, The Royal Marsden. Past projects have encompassed many innovative research areas, from 3D printing for radiotherapy, to the use of evolutionary algorithms to design drug molecules.

Hannah Traynor, a PhD student at the ICR, said: “I applied to several prestigious universities but the ICR was the place where I really wanted to study and I feel privileged to be here. In my team there is a wealth of academic and industrial experience to call on, and if you need more help it is easy to find someone. And the small student cohort at the ICR means your opinions get heard and you can really influence change.”

Jamie Dean, who is working towards a radiotherapy PhD, said “There is a real sense of community both within the student body and the rest of the ICR. The opportunity to work with some of the top cancer scientists and clinicians on cutting-edge research for patient benefit is highly rewarding. Moreover, students are considered an integral part of the research teams, and our views are sought and respected by more senior staff.”

This year’s PhD projects span research into ways to improve imaging and radiotherapy for neuroblastoma – an aggressive form of childhood cancer – to investigating how basal-like breast cancers reprogramme their energy metabolism and how this can be exploited to improve treatment.

Our students are supervised by some of the world’s leading cancer scientists, whose work frequently hits the headlines – including some of those who were featured in a BBC Panorama documentary earlier this year.

All our PhDs are fully funded, many of them through grants from organisations including Cancer Research UK, the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Some of our projects are funded centrally by the ICR, or through generous donations from individual supporters or trusts.

The ICR also runs an MSc in Oncology for clinicians, which teaches students about the latest in clinical practice.

Not only does studying at the ICR help progress the careers of these bright scientists and clinicians, but it also gives them the opportunity to play a crucial role in our cancer research. We are very much looking forward to welcoming the new intake of PhD students, and to the contributions they will make.

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