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Dr Vicky Forster “My Mum told me to be the one to figure out the problem. So that’s exactly what I set out to do.”

Dr Vicky Forster is uniquely qualified as a cancer researcher. At 8 years old she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, and during her treatment wouldn't stop asking the doctors questions about it.

Eighteen years later, in 2012, she received her PhD from Newcastle University's Northern Institute for Cancer Research. A tweet she sent celebrating the end of her viva exam went viral and was shared over 11,000 times. It said: "Dear Cancer, I beat you aged eight, and today I got my PhD in cancer research. Take that." It even gained coverage in The Guardian. Now, five years later, her career in cancer research keeps going from strength to strength.

Last year Vicky received a Travel Fellowship from the European Association for Cancer Research (EACR). The EACR Travel Fellowship Programme, which is co-sponsored by Worldwide Cancer Research, supports the development of researchers through visits to centres of excellence, or participation in specialised practical workshops and courses.  As well as being able to make real scientific progress that might take years in their home labs, recipients appreciate the opportunity to experience different cultures and meet other scientists.

The Fellowship allowed Vicky to travel and team up with a research lab at the Hospital for Sick Children, otherwise known as SickKids Hospital, in Toronto for a one-month collaborative project, which eventually led to her being offered a position in the lab of Professor Uri Tabori. We caught up with Vicky and asked her why the Fellowship was crucial at such a pivotal time in her career.

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How did your career begin in cancer research?

When I was diagnosed with cancer as a child, I showed a keen scientific interest in my disease.  I asked the doctors a lot of questions about my diagnosis and treatment and the whole experience definitely piqued my interest in medical research. From then on I knew I wanted to get into human biology. I went on to do my undergraduate degree at Durham University and was lucky enough to spend some time in cancer research labs in both London and Durham during the summers.  I completed my PhD in 2012 at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research in Newcastle, focussing on how a particular type of leukaemia starts.

Following my PhD, my postdoctoral work in Newcastle was partly set up by me and focused on investigating mechanisms of brain toxicity in childhood leukaemia patients treated with a drug called methotrexate, a common chemotherapy agent. When I was going through treatment myself I suffered from bad short term side effects from this drug. I had temporary stroke-like symptoms after taking it, where my left side was paralysed all the way down. Years later I met a couple of parents whose children had experienced a similar thing.  I was puzzled as to why, after 20 years, still nobody knew why these symptoms occurred. I spoke to my mum about my own experience and she told me to be the one to figure out the problem. I also met with the consultant who treated me two decades before and consequently decided to apply for some funding to do a research project to investigate these side effects. The project was funded and my work, with the help of several wonderful colleagues in the UK, aimed to investigate why these patients are so badly affected.

What made you apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship and what did it help achieve? 

I knew that if I wanted to realise my ambition of one day running my own lab I ideally needed to gain experience working abroad so during my postdoctoral work at Newcastle I started to scope out possible locations. Toronto looked like a fantastic city, culturally diverse and something always going on. I looked up some research groups in the city, and the SickKids Hospital stood out, I loved the idea of working at a paediatrics-focused research institute.   In 2015 I booked a trip to Toronto not really knowing anyone and having never been there before, setting up some meetings through contacts at Newcastle. After an amazing experience and meetings with potential supervisors, I knew I wanted to work there which led me to apply for an EACR Travel Fellowship to head back.

During my initial visit I found some experts in Toronto working on a project similar to my own work on methotrexate, so I arranged to do a placement in the lab of Professor Rosanna Weksberg at SickKids Hospital with the help of the EACR Travel Fellowship grant. The Weksberg lab is part of a project which looks at the long-term impact of methotrexate on the brains of leukaemia survivors, and they are currently looking at changes in DNA methylation as a possible causative factor. Given the substantial overlap between our two research areas, we decided to collaborate and use my cell line models to see if there were any changes in global DNA methylation patterns after taking methotrexate. So I went to work on a one-month data sharing project with their lab, fitting in a quick visit to New York on the way where I learnt new stem cells techniques at the New York Stem Cell Foundation, even meeting with the scientist Valentina Fossati who invented the very techniques I was learning! As a result of my one month in Toronto with professor Weksberg and our collaboration, we are currently writing up our results to submit to be published in a scientific journal.

I completed my postdoctoral position in Newcastle in and after being so inspired by Toronto during my visits, I came back! I am currently working for Professor Uri Tabori, back at the SickKids Hospital Research Building, on a rare genetic cancer predisposition disorder called biallelic mismatch repair deficiency. The whole team are incredibly supportive and inspiring and I’ve never regretted my decision to return.

The Travel Fellowship allowed me to have an incredible leg up to form these connections, even though it was just for a month. It made the transition from Newcastle to Toronto easier. I don't think I would be here without it. It meant I could easily network and talk to colleagues I wanted to work with and also experience SickKids as a place to work before committing to moving here.

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How do you find living in Toronto?

Living in Toronto is amazing. As someone who's come from abroad, it's an incredible welcoming, hospitable and diverse place. There's so much going on yet it's a surprisingly relaxed city. SickKids Hospital is a truly inspiring place to work and I was pleased that they offered me a position to work there after the Travel Fellowship. 

What's next for you?

At the moment I'm applying for research fellowships which is the next step to starting my own lab. I'm also incredibly fortunate to have just been selected as one of 22 TED fellows, and to be speaking at the global conference happening in Tanzania in August. My talk will be about my work in childhood cancer side effects and my own experience of being a cancer survivor.  I want to spread the idea that cancer survivors are a unique and growing population of people, but we need more research dedicated to us, including into the side effects of our treatments.

Follow Vicky’s journey at a 2017 TED fellow https://www.ted.com/participate/ted-fellows-program/meet-the-ted-fellows

Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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