When Roisin Loftus decided she wanted to leave academia for a career in the pharmaceutical industry, working on medicines that treat different types of cancers, her mentors and peers were shocked.
Academia can be an amazing place but for Roisin, she had her sights set on something else.
“I loved the research and my PhD was a very positive experience, I had a brilliant supervisor and supportive lab environment. I was looking at a particular type of immune cell called a natural killer cell, which is at the forefront of our anti-cancer immune response. I discovered that the way these cells break down nutrients is very important for their anti-cancer function. This is now a hot area of research, since there has been a shift in focus towards making medicines that support anti-cancer immune cells to fight cancer.
“I heard about a professor that was coming from Harvard and she was interested in natural killer cells and was starting a lab in Trinity the year I was finishing my PhD. She was looking at them in the context of obesity. I knew I had to be a part of this exciting research group and started in her lab as a postdoc shortly after finishing my PhD. I thoroughly enjoyed my postdoc and found it very exciting to be a part of the team that discovered natural killer cells in people with obesity don’t work properly. This is because they are full of fat- meaning that people living with obesity are at a much higher risk of developing cancer and other co-morbidities,” she says.
She took what she learned and now works as a medical science liaison at Novartis, working on medicines that treat different types of cancers. The main focus is on a new type of personalized anti-cancer therapy.
“It’s a really exciting therapy to be working on and I find the science behind it fascinating,” she says.
Roisin works on CAR T cell therapy- where they take the patient’s own T cells- a type of immune system cell- and change them in a laboratory to attack the cancer cells in the patient’s body.
“I wanted to really take hold of my anti-cancer research experience and apply it in a very patient orientated way. I was always passionate about the concept of immunotherapy, where you unleash the power of someone’s immune cells to cure their disease. It’s an immunologists dream to use the immune system to cure the disease,” she says.
Whilst in academia, one of Roisin’s favourite parts of the job was the communication aspect, “chatting through ideas at conferences” but she found it hard to step out of the arena. Having spent so long getting her PhD and then securing independent funding for a postdoc, people thought she was “mad to leave”. But she stayed true to her desires, which told her that a move to the industry was the right one for her.
“Generally you require a few years of industry experience to secure a role like this but I leapfrogged due to my proven track record of being a successful communicator, winning multiple prizes for my presentations at national and international conferences.”
Surprisingly she didn’t do all STEM subjects for leaving cert; instead doing Biology, Home Economics, Geography and Maths but she says she “hounded the Biology teacher” every day!
“I sat up the front every day and would ask endless questions. My poor exasperated teacher would say, ‘that’s not even on the curriculum’.”
Her sense of curiosity comes from her mum, an artist, who had a strong desire to understand the world around her. She is her biggest influence. “There was no one with a science background-doctors or pharmacists in the family,” she says.
She did a Natural Science degree in Trinity, but berates herself for “only getting a 2:1”. “I was always passionate about research though, so I took it upon myself to organise a lab placement in Sweden in third year, on a study around anti-cancer molecules in human breast milk and the fact that it turned out to be a project in urinary tract infections instead showed my resilience in being able to deal with unexpected outcomes and potentially gave me the edge when it came to securing a much sought after PhD placement,” she says.
“I love the sense of fulfilment my job brings and knowing I am helping to get a potentially life-saving treatment to Irish patients in need. I know it might sound grandiose but I am excited to hopefully make a difference to the Irish medicine landscape,” she says.
Roisin would like to see more female role models in science, women who have really made it in the pharmaceutical industry, as well as having more support around family planning, as she thinks both those might encourage more girls to go all the way with STEM.
So how does she keep herself healthy and happy when she has some downtime?
“I go trail running with my husband and also do sea swims at Seapoint and Howth. It’s scientifically proven to help boost the immune system. But that’s not why I do it,” she laughs. “I just want the buzz”.