Dr Jim Smith: Research Scientist

Alexa Stanger interviews the Francis Crick Institute Scientist

In early 2016, the new Francis Crick Institute building will open at St Pancras. These facilities promise to be the new hub of interdisciplinary scientific research in London, attracting top researchers from around the world to pursue their topics of interest, advancing our knowledge of science. The Francis Crick Institute is a biomedical research centre, with a commitment to the highest quality scientific research. Dr. Jim Smith, a Director of Research at the Francis Crick Institute and both Deputy CEO and Chief of Strategy at the Medical Research Council (MRC) provides an insight into the inner workings of the Crick, its strategy, and about the wider world of biomedical research.

What is the strategy behind the Crick Institute?

The Institute is made up of two founding Institutes: Cancer Research UK’s (CRUK) London Research Institute and the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research. The research strategy is different from the research strategy that many research institutes have. Many research institutes tend to be subject-based - you will find units for regenerative medicine and units for infection or structural biology or things like that. Their longevity, their half-life almost, depends upon the half-life of the field. So if, say, regenerative medicine falls out of funding fashion, which can happen to scientific fields, then that institute will suffer because it’s no longer doing research that people fund. The Crick is using a different approach: it funds the best science that it can lay its hands on. When we recruit new scientists we won’t be saying ‘somebody working on viruses has just left, we need to recruit somebody else working on viruses.’ We’ll say ‘somebody’s left, we’ll recruit the best researcher we can lay our hands on.’ Be it he or she, working on cancer, regenerative medicine, structural biology, infection, global health, whatever. The strategy is to recruit the best scientists and that’s a different strategy from many places.

How do you recruit these top researchers? Given that London is a very expensive place to work in, how do you motivate them?

London is a fantastic place to do science because there’s so much science going on. It’s a great place to attract people and it’s a great transport hub – you can be in Paris in two hours, you can be in Cambridge in 47 minutes, you can be in Stevenage for GSK (GlaxoSmithKline) in 22 minutes. People like living in London and we’ll pay people as well as its possible to pay them, so we’ll attract people from abroad, we’ll try and find them housing and we’ll help to give them good childcare and so on. All the best places to do science are expensive to live: Cambridge, Oxford, Boston Massachusetts, it’s a fact of life, but London’s one of the great cities so that’s why people want to work here.

When you are pursuing your research and you discover that you encounter a research dead end, how do you recover from that?

The Crick is going to be doing three sorts of research. There’s what we call discovery research, which is research for its own interests without necessarily seeing a practical use for it. My own research is on how frog embryos develop - we didn’t know that it would inform anything about human development, I was just interested in it as a basic science question. Then there’s translational work where you might begin to see a glimmering of how that basic research or that discovery research is translated into benefit for human beings. Then there’s applied research, which is getting something from the bench to bedside. We’ll be doing predominantly discovery and translational research.

Discovery research rarely leads to dead ends if you do it properly. You have a hypothesis and you test it and it will give you an answer and you’ll work your way forward, steps forward and steps back, and sometimes you’ll get somewhere and sometimes you won’t. Science is a sort of weird journey in that respect and you shouldn’t imagine it as being a journey that has clearly defined paths and signposts. You sometimes have to set off - I’m stretching the metaphor a bit here – into the uncharted forest and hack through it a bit and if you hack through it a bit and realise you aren’t going anywhere, you just turn back and go down another uncharted path. When you reach the end of a path and turn back – is that failure? No, that’s just the way science is. Science is an exploratory process and, done properly, you’ll learn as much through the hacking process where you reach a dead end as you will when you manage to get your way through. So I would say that whatever you do, if it’s done properly, it’s not a waste of time.

Would you say one requires quite a lot of patience as a researcher?

Scientists need to be patient; they need to have confidence in themselves. The people funding them need to be aware that science is a slow process and that sometimes you will go up a blind alley and come back again. The best science takes time and resolution and courage. You may find that after two or three years you haven’t gotten very far at all – except that you have because you know ‘I won’t go down there and I won’t go down there’. It’s a funny old business actually. It’s fun!

How do you take the research into a treatment that is commercially available for humans?

It requires a lot of time, and money, and patience. One of the important things is to recognise when your work is ready for that next step towards helping people. Even senior scientists need to have some mentorship and advice that will help them identify translational opportunities and help them go forward with the next step. The main route is by having people in the Crick who have experience in this process, who have succeeded in it in the past. We have what we call an Entrepreneur-in-Residence [who] walks around the institute, chats to people, goes to people’s lab meetings, discusses their work and knows what people have been doing in the past and what has led to success. The other thing we’ve got in the Crick is innovative links with industry, particularly with GSK. GSK have agreed to put - I think it’s about eight - people into the Crick, who are interested and expert in things like medicinal chemistry and so on. So while we’ve got the Entrepreneur-in-Residence identifying opportunities, we’ve also got the people from GSK skilled in identifying opportunities but also capable of carrying them forward. So it’s by mixing up the people who are doing the basic research and the translational research with the pharmaceutical company people that will make it easier for people to recognise the opportunities and then get them shifting into the clinic

What would be the focus of medical research in the future? For example in the news there’s been a lot about antibiotic resistance.

Well, antimicrobial resistance is a real challenge. Global warming, regenerative medicine, things like dementia - the MRC are thinking hard about all those things. The Crick will think hard about all those things as well but it’s important to remember that although the Crick is big, it can’t do everything. The important thing is to play to our strength, which is to recruit the best people, who will identify the most important problems.

How did you turn your interest in science into a career?

When I was at school, doing O Levels, I was good at most things but I had a terrible stutter when I was a kid and I thought that I needed to choose a career where you wouldn’t have to speak in public very much. In my naivety I thought that science would be one of such careers because I visualized the scientist as some sad figure hunched in a white coat bending over test tubes. So that’s partly why I did science and I could’ve done something different.

So I suppose that image of the medical researcher being alone and solitary is –

Completely wrong. Medical science – science – is becoming more a social career in as much as you don’t get the lone scientist working at the bench or the lone mathematician, well, maybe the odd mathematician. It’s a communal business so you have to be collaborative, interactive, generous, in a way that I described previously, in as much as you take pleasure in the success of others. And you have to speak. You have to give presentations all the time, which I hadn’t quite realised.

I guess we shouldn’t be intimidated to enter this field?

The rule is to stretch yourself – do things that frighten you a bit and then you can’t go wrong. What I mean is, you should always do things that frighten you. Intellectually I mean, not necessarily physically.

What advice would you give somebody in secondary school wanting to pursue a STEM career or medical research? What do you think is important to know before advancing in this field?

Work hard. I think it’s important to maintain an active interest in the area. Read widely, and as soon as you reasonably can, make contact with more senior people in the field. I found in my own career that having a friend, a mentor, a supporter that I can speak to and discuss things with has been very, very helpful. And I think you can never start it too early – mentorship, and it can continue throughout your career – I still have people that I speak to now when I’m thinking about problems. So, work hard, be passionate, care about science, care about the truth of science, recognise science as the way of understanding the world, read widely, and take advice from as many people as you can.

Alexa Stanger VII