Fewer young people are studying science at school. Catherine Scott met one young women who is bucking the trend and helping to save lives.
WHEN petite blonde Becky Middleton tells people what she does for a living they often don’t believe her.
Becky, from Rotherham, is one of the youngest scientists working at the cutting edge of cancer research in Yorkshire and part of a new generation helping to save the lives of the future.
“I can tend to be a bit dipsy when I’m not in the lab so when I tell people what I do they don’t really believe it,” says Becky who is studying for a master’s degree in natural science at the University of Leeds, which invlves a joint discipline of chemistry and biochemstry.
She is spending a year working for Dr Patrick Eyers at the Institute for Cancer Studies at the University of Sheffield. She spends her days in the labs at the University’s medical school at the Hallamshire Hospital, Sheffield looking at why some people become resistant to cancer therapies and trying to find new ways to combat that.
Her post, and Dr Eyers’ project, are funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research.
And Dr Eyers believes the importance of encouraging young scientists like Becky cannot be overestimated.
“Becky is just the type of scientist that we need to keep here in Yorkshire. She is talented, but also is an inspiration to other young people who might be considering taking up science,” he explains.
“The scientist of today is very different from the past. They have to be able to disseminate information, write papers and give presentations in order to secure funding. You cannot just be a dreamer stuck away in a laboratory. Being smart just isn’t enough.”
And Becky is far from the stereotype of a boffin in a lab coat cut off from reality.
She is a bubbly 20-year-old who loves running and socialising with friends when not in the lab.
“As part of my degree we can spend a year in industry. I did look at that but it just didn’t interest me. I really wanted to work in the medical field. I met someone who was collecting for Yorkshire Cancer Research and I asked them if they ever took anyone on placement. They put it out on the Yorkshire Cancer Research forum and Patrick contacted me and said he was interested. I was slightly worried about whether the university would let me do my placement in research rather than industry but they seemed quite happy.”
YCR funds summer studentships in its labs in a bid to promote the next generation of cancer research scientists, but Dr Eyers was so impressed with Becky that he managed to find funding to keep her on until May this year.
Becky has more reason than just an interest in cancer research.
When her mum was a teenager she suffered Hodgkin’s disease twice and was treated at the Weston Park Hospital in Sheffield.
“When my mum was 16 she was diagnosed with cancer and then it came back when she was about 18 or 19 – not much younger than me,” says Becky. “I remember when I was little running tombola stalls for Yorkshire Cancer Research with my grandma to say thank you for what they did for my mum. Now it seems that things have gone round in a circle. When mum was my age she was being treated in Weston Park Hospital and now I am working in the Yorkshire Cancer Research labs. It feels like I am giving something back.”
Becky was always interested in science at school although there are no other scientists in her family. “I decided to do science at A-level and although I said I would never do chemistry my auntie convinced me to do the hard stuff.”
In the end Becky studied Biology, Chemistry, Maths and further maths at A-level and then went on to study chemistry, biology and biochemistry at university. But as much as she is no dumb blonde, Becky Middleton is no girlie swot.
She is extremely sporty and when not in the lab behind her microscope she is out pounding the countryside as a member of the Rotherham Harriers, a running club which is doing very well in regional, national and international competitions.
“A lot of people in the lab run,” says Becky. “ It does give you that other side to you life. Having spent the day challenging your brain it is good to challenge yourself physically.”
Competitive running also enables her to spread the word about Yorkshire Cancer Research.
“I always saw myself working in a hospital but I didn’t think I was good enough to work in cancer research. I didn’t think that I had enough experience,” adds Becky.
But for Dr Eyers the challenge is holding on to Becky and other young scientists like her.
“There is always the danger of a brain drain to London or Cambridge or out of the UK. It is really important that we keep talent like Becky in Yorkshire, but it does come down to funding. It would be great if someone could sponsor Becky as she’s the sort of person we really want to keep around. Having people like Becky around is inspirational to other students as she is a great example of a modern scientist.”
A recent report found that young Britons were the least likely to consider studying science. The Young People and Science study for the European Commission survey nearly 25,000 15 to 27 year olds across 27 countries. When asked 86 per cent in the UK said they would probably or definitely not consider studying natural sciences.
But for Becky science has always held a fascination.
“I was interested in how our body works and why things happen. At college I was one of only a few girls studying chemistry but at degree level there were more.”
Becky’s YCR placement finishes in May and in September she will return to Leeds to complete her master’s. She is then considering doing a PhD.
“If YCR funded a PhD that would be amazing. It is very competitive, but I do see myself staying in medical research.”
90 years of supporting research
Yorkshire Cancer Research is the most successful regional cancer research charity in the UK. It originated 90 years ago when the tragedy of cancer was first fully acknowledged after World War I. Over the last 25 years it has spent more than £90m on ground-breaking research.
Based in Harrogate, YCR is an independent charity currently funding research projects at universities in Bradford, Hull, Leeds, Sheffield and York costing around £4m a year.
For more information on the charity and how you can help visit www.yorkshirecancerresearch.co.uk or visit their Facebook page www.facebook.com/yorkshire cancerresearch.