PhD student Carolin Salmon on finding cancer biomarkers
Carolin Salmon started her Ph.D. at the University Clinic Essen, Germany in 2019. She works with ovarian cancer samples to understand how tumors evolve and respond to treatment at the single circulating cell resolution. She hopes this work will lead to the discovery of biomarkers that could help predict new treatment targets for personalized medicine.
After getting your Master's degree in Pharmacology at the University of Düsseldorf, what is it that got you interested in cancer research?
I’ve always been interested in cancer research - it’s a devastating disease that affects millions of lives. I’ve always wanted to do my part to understand the disease and develop treatments. I love that my current project is all about working in a real-life setting. I get to work with clinicians and see how patients are responding to treatments. I also feel lucky to be working directly with clinical samples; it really makes me appreciate the complexity of human biology - there are so many factors to consider, which I wouldn’t realize in any other setting.
That must come with its challenges.
Yeah, of course. I can’t afford to fail. When you recruit a patient at primary diagnosis, you want to follow them throughout their treatment. When you fail to detect CTCs at one time point due to your experimental setup, although you have follow-up data, you still have a missing data point. That’s challenging for me. I also collaborate with two different medical centers across Germany, collecting samples and teaching them how to use the method we developed in our lab.
I’m working on a project which was already running when I started, so I’m now trying to optimize established workflows with many steps. I’m also going to be working with huge sequencing datasets, so I need to get into bioinformatics - that’s a big thing that’s coming up for me. It’s my own project, so I want to do it right.
It’s a lot to take on. So how do you stay motivated?
I always thought it was a bit crazy when people say: “you know you’re doing the right job when you can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning”. But, for me, it really is the only way to be happy about work.
Don’t get me wrong, I have frustrating moments and bad weeks, but I want to see this project work and help patients. Getting a cancer diagnosis is devasting for everyone, especially if the diagnosis comes at a late stage. Thinking about this helps me focus on the bigger picture.
And when an experiment fails, which happens a lot, I reassure myself that this is part of the research process – to “re-search” – to look again. You can’t always get it right the first time. For me, “bad” results are an opportunity to grow. You can’t do everything perfectly all the time – that’s not how research works.
I also have a lot of support from my supervisor. She’s always encouraged me to be open and talk to her about my challenges.
Do you also find time to relax?
Yeah, I love horse riding. I feel lucky to have this. It’s something I’ve been able to continue doing during the pandemic – fortunately horses need some movement and it’s an activity I can do outside. I’m also into running. I try to integrate some fitness into my day – mainly in the evenings – just to get my head straight again. Movement is a great way to relax. Ph.D. life is not just about sitting and thinking – it’s important to get out and do something different.
What’s in store for you in the next few weeks? We’d like to catch up with you again to see how you’re doing.
I learned very quickly as a Ph.D. student is that you don’t often count in weeks. I’m now having to think months in advance. Things take a while; it’s a learning process to know you won’t be able to get everything done by tomorrow. I’m also figuring out how to juggle lots of different tasks: coming up with ideas, writing, doing experiments, looking for patients to include in the study, collaborating, presenting… it can be difficult, even uncomfortable at times, but that’s how you grow, right?
My focus for the next months will be processing samples like crazy and analyzing my sequencing results. I’ve never worked with such large datasets before, so I’m keen to see what I can do with them. I’m also going to the ACCR meeting in April. I’m looking forward to seeing what others are doing and getting some inspiration. I’ll also be presenting a poster there, so I’m excited about that.
For anyone who’s thinking about doing a Ph.D., what’s your one bit of advice?
It’s difficult to pick one thing. I would say you’re on the right track if you want to work on challenging topics. If you like having the freedom to develop your own ideas and find ways to realize them. You must also be interested in your topic to do good work – ask yourself , would I still find this interesting in two years?”
I would also recommend getting some experience. As part of my studies, I had the chance to work in the pharmacy department at the University of Erlangen. I was lucky enough to have my own project for six months. It gave me a taster of what it would be like to do a Ph.D. My qualifications could have taken me in lots of different directions, so it was good for me to get my head around whether I wanted to do a Ph.D. or not. It’s also helpful to speak to people who’ve been through it. I’m grateful to have had colleagues who were very encouraging and supportive.
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