Meet the Researcher – Rebecca O’Brien

Rebecca O'Brien

Hi, my name is Rebecca O’Brien and I am a fourth year PhD student at the Trinity St. James’s Cancer Institute. I graduated with a first class honours B.A. (Mod) in Molecular Medicine from Trinity College Dublin in 2018. Following this, I was awarded the 2018 Irish Cancer Society’s Biomedical Research PhD Scholarship, to investigate the role of a group of immune proteins in the radioresistance of bowel cancer. I am carrying out this research in the Department of Surgery under the supervision of Dr Niamh Lynam-Lennon and Dr Joanne Lysaght.  

What drew you to a career in research?

Growing up I was always curious about the world and enjoyed reading anything I could get my hands on (and dreaming about making it to space one day!). Biology was my favourite subject at secondary school and I was excited by the idea of being a scientist and exploring questions that were not yet answered. Like most, cancer has left its mark on my family, so I was extremely passionate about understanding cancer and exploring how best we can treat it. This led me to study Molecular Medicine at Trinity College Dublin. In the final years of my degree, I undertook fantastic laboratory placements that reinforced my desire to pursue a career in research. 

Can you describe a typical day? 

Every day is different, but generally I start the day checking on any cancer cells I have growing in the lab and working on ongoing experiments. Later on there may be a meeting with my supervisors to discuss experimental results or trouble-shoot any issues. Depending on the day, I might receive a tumour biopsy or blood sample from a cancer patient who has chosen to donate a sample to research, so I will prepare this for future study. Each day I also spend time analysing data, preparing conference abstracts and planning upcoming experiments. In the evenings, I head home, squeeze in a run or a walk, and relax with a cup of tea and a book.

What has been the greatest challenge in your career so far?

I think the pandemic has been difficult for many researchers. Our research institute was closed for several months which halted all experimental progress. When we returned there were shortages of essential reagents which was challenging, and it was difficult to adapt to working at reduced capacity. 

What has been the most rewarding experience of your career to date?  

In December, I was awarded ‘Best Research Presentation’ at an international conference which was wonderful. It is very rewarding to have your work recognised by other scientists, especially experts in the field, and it was a reminder that I must be doing something right! I also love to take part in the organisation and running of science outreach activities for primary and secondary school pupils. I am grateful for the opportunity to share my research, to help make science accessible for all and to hopefully inspire some future scientists.

Who inspires you? 

There are too many to name, but Marie Curie, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Katherine Johnson and Mina Bissel are just a few of the strong, female pioneers in the STEM field who I admire. I am also hugely inspired by Vicky Phelan and her courage, tenacity and campaign for change. 

What do you like to do with your time away from the lab? 

I started ballet at the age of four and although I dance less now, I enjoy taking classes when I can. I live by the coast, so most weekends you will find me close to the beach, either with my dog or getting a coffee with friends. When I take time off from the lab, I love travelling, so I am looking forward to hopefully explore some new places this year.

What advice would you give to someone looking to pursue a career in research?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to labs or research institutes that you are interested in. In my experience, most will be happy to discuss potential research and funding opportunities. Research can be difficult and things don’t always go to plan. In this respect, the research environment and mentorship are just as important as the research question. Before starting a position, I would recommend chatting to PhD students or post-doctoral researchers within the lab to get a feel for the group. The challenges that naturally accompany research are definitely made easier by a friendly, supportive environment.