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Why I decided to swap the US for the MRC

When searching for his next career move in 2012, Prof Jeff Pollard wanted a prestigious place to call his new home. After decades in the US, he found what he was looking for in the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh. Here he tells us why he chose the UK to do his science, and why the MRC name was such a draw.

Professor Jeff Pollard

Professor Jeff Pollard

I am often asked why, after 25 years, I would leave a prestigious position in the US to return to the UK.

By the time I left in 2013, I was the Louis Goldstein Swann Chair in Women’s Health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, the Deputy Director of the Cancer Center and Director of the Center for the Study of Reproductive Biology and Women’s Health. My work had been recognised with several prestigious awards including the highest award of the American Cancer Society, the Medal of Honor for Basic Science Research. So why would I move?

I’d begun to feel like I wanted a new challenge, but the truth is I hadn’t necessarily planned to come back to the UK at all; in fact I was looking at posts in the US when the directorship of the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health came to my attention. I wouldn’t have returned to the UK for an ordinary professorial position; rather it was the international prestige of the MRC and the centre that won me over.

The MRC Centre for Reproductive Health has a lot of respect in the reproductive health field and carries out world-leading research. Its previous incarnation, the MRC Human Reproductive Sciences Unit, had an impressive history, but I was also attracted to the post because I knew there were lots of opportunities to build on the work of the centre. It was a very good move for me to make, and people now understand why I left the US!

I was born and educated in the UK, completing my undergraduate degree in Sheffield in the 1970s and my PhD at what is now Cancer Research UK in London. I spent some time in Canada at the Ontario Cancer Institute as a postdoc before returning to the UK and King’s College London.

The UK in general has a strong commitment to research. I would really only consider the UK and Germany as European countries to base myself in – there are good institutions in other countries, but as nations they don’t have the breadth and depth of research environment that the UK does.

The MRC, other government funding agencies and the Wellcome Trust combine to make the UK an excellent place to do science, and within that Edinburgh is one of the top places – it’s a nice place to live (apart from the weather!) and has a strong vision for how it can grow science.

The university has been very supportive, providing me with the resources to establish my lab, and we’ve also been well supported by the MRC – as well as the centre award I am PI on an MRC grant which has provided us with equipment to boost world-class optical imaging within the centre, and much of the technology is beginning to come online now.

My research focuses on two major areas. The first is the role of macrophages in the tumour microenvironment of breast and ovarian cancer and how they promote tumour progression and malignancy, particularly in metastatic disease. Previously it was thought that macrophages killed tumour cells but now we have demonstrated that usually  they help them grow. This work has led to a phase II trial of an inhibitor of macrophages in cancer. The other major area of research for me is understanding the biology behind how progesterone reduces cell proliferation among uterine epithelial cells and the role this might play in cancer.

The move hasn’t been without challenges. Any move, particularly internationally, is difficult. A lot of my research relies on mouse genetics, and setting up all the required paperwork and protocols has been challenging – it’s much less flexible than in the US.

The flip side is that working with clinicians here has been much easier here, and that accessing patient samples and pathology information – the things you need to do clinical research – is much more straightforward.

I think this is in part because the centre has excellent staff with clinical and translational expertise and also because we have a great relationship with the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre. It’s also because Scotland and the UK generally has excellent systems established to use anonymous health records, while in the US the system is much more fragmented. Initiatives like the 100,000 Genomes Project will put even more valuable information at our fingertips.

Two years in and I know this was the right move for me. I look forward to seeing what I can achieve here at Edinburgh within the MRC.

Jeff Pollard

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