Scotland’s universities produce many of the talented researchers who will go on to work in the country’s life sciences sector, and companies such as UCB Pharma have a big role to play in helping to develop the skills of those graduates.
Studying science can open up a whole world of possibilities. From the tiniest cells that make up the human body through to the massive stars and planets that form the galaxy, the choice of courses at Scotland’s universities is awe inspiring. But what happens when it comes to finding a job at the end of it? After three, four or even five years of undergraduate study followed by a further four years at postgraduate level, the world of work can sometimes seem like a scary place.
Students who are completing their doctor of philosophy (PhD) degrees at some of Scotland’s top universities are being given a helping hand by companies including UCB Pharma. As well as carrying out research within their own universities, the students also get to tap into the expertise available within UCB’s laboratories, giving them exposure to industry as well as academia.
UCB supports around 40 PhD students at any one time at 17 UK universities, including the University of Edinburgh, the University of Glasgow and the University of Strathclyde. The company invests upwards of £50,000-worth of support for many students, with its current commitment standing at around £3.15 million.
As well as top-up grants to supplement those awarded to students by the UK Government’s research councils, UCB also pays for the consumables used by the PhD researchers in their laboratories. Where possible, the student also taps into UCB’s internal research infrastructure to access cutting-edge, specialist technologies not available back at their universities. Working with universities to help train the next generation of scientists doesn’t just bring benefits for the students though – it also helps the pharmaceutical companies too.
“R&D is important to every pharmaceutical company that’s trying to bring medicines to market,” explains Neil Weir, senior vice president of discovery at UCB. “You can discover and develop those medicines yourself, or you can go out on the hunt for someone else who has discovered them, or you can do a combination of the two and work in partnership.
“Our internal R&D is very productive – we invest around 28 per cent of our top line back into R&D.
“We also work closely with universities because academic science in the UK is really of a very, very high standard. We’re building and maintaining our links with the academic community from which a lot of the real fundamental insight and biology comes.
“One of the great assets that keeps the pharmaceutical and biotech industry here is the opportunity to collaborate with great scientists who are doing fundamental work to understand cellular processes or disease processes.”
One of the steps in UCB’s R&D process is to speak to patients to find out which symptoms of a disease they find the hardest with which to cope. This allows the company to then develop drugs or therapies that will meet the specific needs of patients.
“We value information from all sorts of sources,” says Weir, who began his career by studying biology at the University of Edinburgh. “Understanding what it’s like from a patient’s perspective – as well as understanding what a doctor thinks about the disease and how they see it – adds an additional dimension that I think is very important to us.
“So we ask what is it that’s really affecting that person’s life, or in some cases their family’s life? What is it that really makes a difference to them?”
Weir points to the importance of academia and industry working together. “It highlights the notion that we’re not just doing science for the sake of science,” he says. “While I think that it’s still important to sometimes do science for the sake of science, we’re also doing science as a means to an end, of actually applying that science for the good of humanity. And in our area that is to be in new therapies.
“I think it brings benefits for the students too. A student who has completed part of their PhD in conjunction with industry has been given a broader outlook, not just in terms of great science but also in terms of how businesses run and what it takes to have a career in industry.
“I think that there’s sometimes a natural inclination in science to be very focused in your area of expertise. And I think one of the things that our students get is a broader overview.”
Part of that wider experience comes through UCB’s annual PhD networking days, which took place at the Royal College of Physicians in 2015 and 2016. The networking days are designed to help early-career researchers build up their own professional networks, which could open the door to further collaborations and partnerships in the future. Students are also given the chance to develop and practice their transferable skills by giving presentations about their research and discussing their ideas with their fellow researchers.
As well as developing their public speaking and presentation skills, the students also receive prizes for the best talks. Last year’s event included representatives from the Medical Research Council (MRC), the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBRSC), and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and a keynote address on the latest in antibody research. Hearing such talks helps students to widen their horizons and see what other options are available to them later in their careers.
“At our PhD networking day, we bring together all of our PhD students for one large symposia,” explains Weir. “We ask the students who are nearing the end of their research to present their work. It’s good for them – although I’m sure they don’t think so at the time – to stand up in front of a lot of people because communicating science is important.
“They also get to see an extraordinarily broad range of science. They will see mathematicians talking about bio-infomatic models to try and put together genetic information. They will see fundamental cell biology. They’ll see physicists looking at protein structure. So they get the opportunity to put their piece of work in the context of a much broader range of science, which I think is good.
“It’s also very good for our scientists to get out of their labs and build networks. I’m generalising, but very often scientists tend to be somewhat introverted – I think there’s something about the scientific mind that tends towards that behaviour.
“Supervising a PhD student is an important part of the personal development plan of a UCB scientist. They may not actually be that long out of doing PhDs themselves, so they can have some empathy.”
Tilo Kunath, Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine, has worked with UCB on a project for one of his PhD students, Fergus McWhinnie, who will spend three months at UCB’s laboratories in Slough as part of his three-year MRC-funded studentship.
McWhinnie is studying alpha-synuclein, a disordered protein involved in Parkinson’s disease, and is using chemistry tools to staple part of the protein into an alpha-helix shape, making what’s called a ‘healthy fold’. His work is primarily being supervised by Alison Hulme, senior lecture in organic chemistry at the university, while the biological aspect of his project is being overseen by Kunath.
“Fergus will then take the material he’s made here in Edinburgh down to the UCB lab in Slough,” Kunath explains. “Instead of simply learning techniques that he can bring back to Edinburgh, UCB will be generating antibodies that recognise this helical protein.
“It could lead to a therapeutic treatment or it could be used as a tool in the lab. It’s not just a token visit to learn stuff – he’ll actually be doing very practical work towards his PhD while he’s down there.”
Kunath thinks that the students, the academics and the wider university all benefit from the industrial placements. “The placements with UCB are very student-centred,” he says. “UCB has been nicknamed ‘the University of Slough’ because it carries out so much R&D work with academics, which is fairly unique in industry.
“The students benefit because they can see the differences between carrying out research in industry and in academia. They get to see the real-world outcomes of their work, which they don’t always get to do with a purely academic PhD.
“It’s also good that the students get exposed to different supervisors’ styles – as well as myself and Alison, Fergus is also supervised by Terry Baker from UCB. One of the other advantages we’ll see in the future is the PhD students who have been through the industrial placements will be more employable because they have more experience.”
It’s not just the students who benefit from the industrial placements though – the university is also able to reap the rewards. “We gain access to technology and expertise that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us,” Kunath explains. “UCB has antibody generation technology in Slough that no-one in academia has.
“UCB also contributes to the student’s stipend and pays for the consumables they use. The company is one of the more generous industrial partners, always making a contribution above the level suggested by the MRC.”
Kunath has also enjoyed an unexpected benefit from his work with UCB. The company has recently begun funding a one-year contract for a post-doctoral fellow who will work with him on a project that isn’t related to McWhinnie’s work.
“This new post wouldn’t have been created unless we had worked with UCB through the PhD scheme,” he adds. “We’re now working with Patrick Downey at UCB’s headquarters
Neil Bulleid, professor of cell biology at the University of Glasgow, thinks that academia and industry have roles to play in the support of the development of students. “There are benefits for both in this kind of relationship,” he says.
“For the students, these include gaining the experience of working in an industrial environment and for the company the freedom to go into areas of research that it would not otherwise be able to. A good example would be if one of my students found a way of creating new antibody formats – that would be very important.