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A female researcher’s journey to a career in cancer research

Raysa Khan

According to a recent survey from Science Grrl, more than half of the population in the UK can’t name a famous woman in science.

From Marie Curie – the first double Nobel laureate, to Quarraisha Abdool Karim who has spent over 25 years researching how HIV/AIDS is spread in South Africa, Soyeon Y the first South Korean astronaut and Marie Tharp, the first scientist to map the floor of the Atlantic Ocean – women in science, around the world have and continue to make incredible discoveries, every day.

At Worldwide Cancer Research and thanks to your support, we fund many female researchers who work tirelessly around the clock to search for the answers to cancer in order to develop better ways to diagnose and stop the disease sooner.

To mark International Women’s Day, we focus on one of our female researchers who plays an integral role in developing and discovering life-saving cancer research.

Raysa Khan is a Research Fellow in Medicinal Chemistry. She works with Professor John Spencer at the University of Sussex in collaboration with the research groups of Professor Sir Alan Fersht of Cambridge University and Dr Andreeas Joerger of the Buchmann Institute for Molecular Life Sciences and Structural Genomics Consortium in Frankfurt.

Graduating top of her class in Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Chemistry from Nottingham Trent University, Raysa joined the Spencer Lab for her PhD. She received the PhD presentation first prize at the Sussex Annual Research Colloquium in 2017 where she talked about her work on developing atom economical routes for library generation of bioactive compounds.

Combining scientific curiosity with her dedication and hard work, Raysa wants to make a true impact in the research against cancer. However, being a woman researcher, her scientific pursuit has not always been easy. We asked her about her work and her journey to a career as a cancer researcher.

What drove you to a career in science and what are you working on now?

It’s the rebel inside...

I have always been interested in science and maths, but time and again I have been told that a career in science is not where a woman might fit in but the rebel inside me said that yes, I can and I must.

I decided to pursue chemistry after high school, where I had a great teacher who taught us chemistry is nothing but solving problems by asking the right questions. And the good thing is that the question does not have to be always right. It’s a process of trial and error where perseverance and dedication often pay off. The reason I came to medicinal chemistry and pursuing a career in drug discovery is that I have always wanted to make an impact and help others. This is also the reason I chose my current research project which, if successful, will help treat up to 100,000 cancer patients each year.

We are trying to re-activate the ‘guardian of the genome’

With the funding from Worldwide Cancer Research, here at the Spencer Lab, we are trying to develop new drugs that re-stabilise the ‘tumour suppressor’ p53, known as the guardian of the genome.

P53 is a protein that plays key roles in preventing cancer formation. In most human cancers p53 becomes inactive. One of the causes for its inactivation is a particular mutation, where an amino acid tyrosine is changed to one called cysteine. This creates a hole in the protein which causes it to be less stable and break down easily. We are working towards making molecules that will fit in the gap of the faulty protein, rescue it from breaking down and reactivate its tumour suppressing functions. Our work is a bit like designing a missing bit in a puzzle - we’re trying to synthesise molecules that will fit in the ‘gap’ of the faulty protein and restore its functions. Although currently, we have taken very specific and defined targets, ultimately, our research could lay the groundwork for the promising development of brand new drugs capable of targeting a wide range of cancers.

As a female researcher working in cancer research, what do you think are the main challenges faced by young female scientists and what would you tell young people who are thinking of pursuing a career in cancer research?

Misogyny and a long way to go

Born in a conservative Bangladeshi family and subsequently relocating to Sweden and the UK, I have had some mixed exposures to some of the challenges faced by young women in academia.

In Bangladesh, it is hard to ignore the prevalent misogyny and social expectation which indicates that women are not good enough to be out there in the world and make a difference like their male counterparts. Where I come from, being a female scientist is certainly not common, whereas the domain of the low paid and exploited factory hand is mostly subscribed by the female gender. When my family migrated to Sweden, I felt the instant difference and am grateful for all the opportunities that followed. However, somehow the thinly disguised misogyny prevails across the borders. Women pursuing higher professional occupations are far less common than men across the globe. When it comes to our field and particularly in STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths and Medicine), one can’t help but notice that even in this day and age, women are highly under-represented.

For me, in today’s world, more than social stigma, I believe to some extent, our most potent threat comes from the lack of confidence in ourselves. I know we have a long way to go but I have always believed that the fundamental lack of belief in ourselves and in our self-worth is what tampers our ability and puts us back.

For the young ones…

There are lots of opportunities out there to thrive in a scientific career. I believe we should embrace every opportunity to engage and showcase our capabilities. I know that we girls often lack professional female role models both in our family and in our work life. However, we’ve got to change that.

I am grateful that slowly but surely things are changing. For instance, in the Spencer Lab, we value, respect and actively uphold gender and racial diversity. My current workplace, Sussex School of Life Sciences holds an Athena SWAN Silver Award and the faculty is trying to actively improve on its commitment to advancing women's careers in STEMM employment in academia.

Thank you to Raysa Khan for this interesting and inspiring account of her journey to a career in cancer research. We are very grateful for her support and insight into being a female scientist and her advice for young people embarking on their own journeys into science.

From Argentina to Australia, Milan to Manchester and thanks to your continued support, the female researchers we fund are working 24 hours a day, seven days a week around the globe discovering, collaborating, sharing knowledge and investigating. That is why we use the money you give to fund early stage research. If we don’t invest in the ideas of today, we risk losing the cures of tomorrow – potentially life-saving answers to cancer.

To find out more about the research which is happening right now and how you can support Worldwide Cancer Research, please click here.

Communications Manager

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