Spotlight on ECRs: Dr George Robinson
George shares his recent successes, being awarded a Versus Arthritis Career Development Fellowship, as well as plans for the future and advice for other early career researchers (ECRs).
1 August 2022
Interview by Dr Puja Mehta, UCL Respiratory
George (@GeorgeARobinson), a post-doctoral research fellow, has been awarded a 5-year Versus Arthritis Career Development Fellowship for his project 'The role of CD8+ T-cells and type-I IFN in juvenile-SLE and accelerated atherosclerosis'. This multidisciplinary project will span across the Centre for Adolescent Rheumatology and the Centre for Cardiometabolic and Vascular Science at UCL, with international collaborations with leading Rheumatology and Cardiovascular disease researchers. Through this project, George aims to improve long term cardiovascular disease outcomes for young patients with juvenile-systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).
It is an absolute pleasure to be joined by Dr. George Robinson who is a newly minted Versus Arthritis Career Development Fellow at UCL, working in the Division of Adolescent Rheumatology. Congratulations George on this amazing recent achievement. Could we start by an outline of your professional journey?
Thank you very much for that lovely introduction and to be chosen for the spotlight series. I started out my academic career by doing a BSc at the University of Nottingham, in biochemistry. I wasn't entirely sure what I wanted to do, but knew I wanted to do science, and had a particular interest in both biology and chemistry. To be honest with you, at that stage I didn't even know that there was something called biochemistry! During that time, I took a particular interest in a module on immunology and towards the end of the three years, I decided that I wanted to pursue a research career particularly wanting to do a PhD, heavily focused on immunology with cell biology. That was where I got picked up by Professor Liz Jury.
I applied to a project [in Prof Jury's lab] to investigate lipid metabolism in lupus. This an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the human body tissue. This is something very interesting because the immune system protects us from infections and bacteria, but can also go wrong. I was interested in finding out why that might be, and so I did a PhD for three years with Professor Liz Jury and in collaboration with Professor Ines Pineda Torra. I continued this research onwards with postdoctoral studies, again with Professor Liz Jury and also collaborating with Dr Coziana Ciurtin. Together with my 3 mentors we produced some great research leading to my career stage today, where, as you have just mentioned, I applied for career development fellowships… and I have just been successful!
Congratulations, a very prestigious fellowship and a huge achievement! What are you planning to do next?
My fellowship will focus on lupus still, but in younger patients and specifically looking at a cell type called CD8+ T-cells. These cells have been shown to be heavily involved in autoimmunity. What I want to do now is to look at them in younger patients, because it is important to target disease from early diagnosis. Finding out what goes wrong in an early age could prevent long term problems that these young patients develop, as they obviously have the disease for longer and have a higher treatment burden. I will also be looking at cardiovascular disease, as this is a leading cause of mortality for lupus patients, including young patients.
Fantastic! It sounds like such important work. It is really great that you have got this funding and protected time to do this. What would you anticipate your career vision to be, i.e. where do you see yourself going with this next?
I hope to build up a network of collaborators, big datasets and research outputs from this fellowship, that will lead me onto applying to more senior research fellowships. This will allow me to build my own research group based on my ideas; a big lab with people researching and trying to develop some great outputs to drive research forward, which is my ultimate ambition. And eventually get a permanent position at a university, and maybe become a professor which ultimately can be my goal.
A very important goal, and there is no doubt that you are going to achieve it! You have obtained a very competitive fellowship, and funding is so difficult in the current climate. What advice would you have to earlier career researchers who are just starting out and want to do as well as you have?
I would say choose a subject that you are really interested in and passionate about. I would like to also share some advice that may not be accepted by everyone. But I have always really tried to work between the hours of 9 to 5. It is just something that I have always been keen to do and I have really stuck by that, and it means that:
- you aim to get all of your work done within that time, which essentially puts a bit of pressure on you to work efficiently;
- it gives you that five o'clock finish and you can work on the social aspects of your life;
- it means that when you start the next day you have had that rest and you are ready to work efficiently 9 to 5 again.
So, I think it is a good system - overworking essentially makes you burnout and can a negative impact. It has worked well for me and I have tried to stick by that.
I am so glad you said that because self-care is so important, and despite you having a huge list of accomplishments, sticking to 9 to 5 is a really good piece of advice to early clear researchers. You don't need to burn the midnight oil and the candle at both ends in order to achieve what you have. A really refreshing perspective!
Definitely, there were a lot of people telling me when I first started my PhD ‘you are going to be working crazy hours and working on weekends’. I just tried not to, and it seems to have worked out well and I want to promote that. I also want to say that a really important thing is to surround yourself with a really good network of support. I have had three mentors throughout my PhD and postdoctoral studies. I would also like to point out that they all women. We should support women in science—they are all incredible researchers and they have supported me throughout my career, and without these mentors I wouldn't be where I am today. It is a mutual system, so you get back what you put in!
Great nuggets of advice - don't burnout and also seek the right support in the right people and find those good people and keep hold of them! Can we get more of an insight into your personality? What drives and motivates you, but also what frustrates you and how do you overcome these frustrations?
My interest in immunology underlies everything. I love researching immunology and I like that people outside of research also take an interest in what I do because of this widespread area, which makes the job really rewarding.
What drives me is celebrating the small things in science. When you get little successes and you celebrate those, it drives you onto the next thing in your research career. Something that I like about academia is that you can have many different tasks, requiring different skills, running in parallel from a single research project, such as lab work, to publishing your work, presenting at conferences, and applying for grants and awards. Whilst it is a lot of work and you may not be successful in many of those things, even if you get one success, you can bounce on that to the next one, and essentially this fuels my motivation and gradually builds my CV.
Whilst the successes drive me, and I aim to cling onto those successes for motivation, what frustrates me is the constant rejection in academia. This is especially difficult when applying for big grants, and the amount of time you put into these applications. For example, when applying for fellowships, I had many setbacks in big applications that took me many months to put together. Whilst it is frustrating at the time, it is important to not stop trying as you can use the feedback and lessons learnt from that rejected grant application to improve your next application and be more ready. With the right motivation, eventually you will get there, but it can be very frustrating at times. Again, if you have a very supportive network around you, that helps a lot with dealing with the setbacks, as colleagues and mentors will pick you up and guide you in the right direction, especially when they have a lot of experience in these scenarios.
Thank you so much for your time, it has been such a pleasure to talk to you. Congratulations again and thank you for providing such amazing advice to early career researchers who hopefully will achieve as much as you have!