Professor Rajesh Thakker FRS, May Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, started his term as Society President at the November AGM. We spoke to him about his hopes and plans for his tenure as President.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND AND RESEARCH INTERESTS
I specialise in multiple endocrine neoplasia 1 (MEN1) and neuroendocrine tumours. My current research focuses on two main areas. The first is to identify genes whose mutations are involved in causing endocrine tumours and diseases. The second explores mechanisms of G protein-coupled receptor signalling to identify new therapeutic targets.
I started out as a clinician treating patients with MEN, but found they had questions that I just couldn’t answer, so I decided to get into research. MEN is a genetic disorder and, at that time, the genetic defect and the underlying molecular and cellular mechanisms causing MEN1 were unknown. So, I retrained in molecular biology – which hadn’t even been invented when I was a student! The inspiration partly came from a lecture I attended called ‘Stuck at the cell membrane’. It discussed how we were able to target things to the cell membrane, but had no real understanding of what was happening inside the cell. I thought ‘that’s absolutely right’ and decided that investigating genetics would be the way forward for MEN1.
At the Society I’ve held a number of roles, including serving on Council and being a Convenor for the Endocrine Neoplasia Syndromes Endocrine Network; I’ve acted as a reviewer, received awards and given multiple presentations. I am really looking forward to making a difference during my presidency.
WHAT ARE YOUR HOPES AND AIMS FOR YOUR TERM AS PRESIDENT?
I think that our Society has a very broad interest base, with top clinicians, scientists and nurses around the country, leading the way and producing high quality work. Endocrinology concerns a multitude of organs and systems, so a lot of what we do is very relevant to other disciplines, including genetics, oncology, biochemistry, nutrition, immunology and pharmacology. I hope to embrace this interdisciplinary aspect during my term.
For example, plans are already underway to include presentations from distinguished leaders working in related disciplines. I hope we can encourage an environment of collaboration, co-operation and inspiration for our members. This is particularly important for our younger members. Looking outside of their discipline is going to be key in advancing endocrinology. There is a huge focus on multidisciplinary research right now, and the Society should be facilitating these relationships too.
Nurturing the next generation is also of huge importance. Graham Williams introduced the Leadership & Development Awards Programme last year to do just this, and we must continue to support and develop the programme to help keep our discipline alive and ready for future challenges.
It is also imperative that we provide support for our more established members. We should ensure there are opportunities for clinicians to engage with research. This doesn’t just include lab-based work but also clinical trials, public health projects and epidemiological studies. Otherwise, society as a whole is missing out on their talents, as they are unable to engage with research to help improve patient care.
Also, we need to attract more research scientists to our annual conference, to facilitate multidisciplinary collaboration, by finding out what they need in order to bring them into our community. If possible, although probably not during my tenure, I’d like to see the Society funding scholarships for researchers. We are a long way from that, but it could make a huge difference to our scientist members and the Society. It could attract some of the top brains to endocrinology to also engage with our clinical members and help improve patient care. I would love to start the ball rolling on something like that. This is obviously expensive, so could be an opportunity to bring our industry partners further into our community, where they could sponsor such scholarships.
I would like to see us strengthening links with our industry partners. We already have some great relationships, but we can make them even more welcome in our endocrine community. This could take the form of more collaborations or sponsorship of various activities. The people working in industry are also top clinicians and scientists, so there are plenty of opportunities for us to work better together, with benefits for both parties.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FOR THE SOCIETY AND ENDOCRINOLOGY?
A lot of my plans for my term as President aim to tackle some of these challenges.
For example, we are looking at ways to attract research scientists to the Society and our annual conference. One of the biggest challenges in academia right now is the fall in funding and the insecurity of the academic career path. As I mentioned, it would be great if the Society could start some sort of scholarship scheme or find new ways of engaging scientists.
It is also challenging to keep upcoming clinicians engaged with endocrinology as a specialty. I think a lot of our focus is on inspiring the next generation and in supporting talented individuals to become our future leaders.
There is now much more emphasis on multi-disciplinary approaches to science and I believe our plans will be crucial in bringing different segments of our endocrine community together to ultimately help improve patient care. Some of these ambitions are dreams, but if you don’t have them – you’ll never achieve them, will you?
TELL US ABOUT YOUR PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENTS
My proudest achievements are the fellows and the students I’ve trained – they are all now doing fantastic things and I am so proud of them. For example, my first fellow was Dorothy Trump, a registrar in endocrinology. One day, she came to me and told me she thought I’d be disappointed as she’d decided to leave and do genetics. Of course I wasn’t, and she went on to become the Chair of Human Genetics at the University of Manchester. Sadly, she passed away about 5 years ago from breast cancer.
Several of my other fellows have also gone on to become more involved with the Society, including Simon Pearce (Newcastle University), Duncan Bassett (Imperial College London), Catherine Williamson (King’s College London), Jeremy Turner (Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust), Fadil Hannan (University of Oxford) and Paul Newey (University of Dundee), to name just a few. There are so many others.
These students and fellows are my proudest achievements. I’ll be really fortunate if anyone remembers an iota of my papers or research in 5–10 years, but the people I’ve trained will remember me and my legacy will live on through their work. Everyone should take pride in who they train and how this can lead us to accomplish even more.