Ruth Andrew is a research scientist in the Centre for Cardiovascular Sciences at the University of Edinburgh, where she studies steroid hormone action in metabolic disease, and how innovations in mass spectrometry can be applied to give greater insight into steroid biochemistry and, more broadly, lipid biology.
What inspired you to take up research?
I enjoy making things work, so I’ve chosen to tackle research from a perspective that bridges chemistry and biology. To that end, I elected to study analytical chemistry as my specialist subject in my summer studentship and honours project during my undergraduate pharmacy degree. Anyone who works with mass spectrometry instruments knows you need to be good at making things work and troubleshooting!
My undergraduate supervisor studied catecholamines, which led me to continue in endocrinology, with the massive switch from the adrenal medulla to cortex when I took up my first postdoctoral position in Edinburgh. Endocrinology offers you the chance to learn about integration of body systems, and steroid biochemistry presents lots of challenges that we can’t answer because we don’t have the right technology (or we do, but haven’t applied it).
I like researching ways to overcome hurdles in understanding steroid biochemistry from a chemistry perspective. And I admit I like playing with fascinating new approaches to mass spectrometry and new instruments. I’ve never lost the joy and satisfaction of a Friday afternoon managing to separate two steroids that were resolutely previously indistinguishable, seeing them come apart in your hands by chromatography – or now ion mobility – is really satisfying.
What are you proudest of in your career, so far?
I’m proud of our translational studies on the metabolic role of glucocorticoids and 5α-reductase inhibitors, which have come from cell and animal studies through to population-based pharmacoepidemiology. It feels a huge achievement to have made a difference to patients.
I find the Society has a very ‘we can do this’ attitude, and we are given huge support from the Society’s team to make an impact. It’s a pleasure to work with people who want to make endocrinology in the UK better, and who have your back as you try to achieve that.
I’m also very proud of what our mass spectrometry group has contributed to endocrinology, with mass spectrometry imaging. It’s good to see the current increased recognition of the role of specialist technologies/ists in academia. I’m also really proud when I look at the achievements of the students and postdocs I’ve worked with, and how they are now independently contributing to many areas of endocrinology and beyond. I’m very glad that I have the chance to continue working with many of them as they advance through their careers. I’m grateful they still want me around!
What are the main challenges for endocrinology and the Society?
At the moment, I think the main challenge is to try and heal the career wounds inflicted by COVID on the Society’s early career members. Many have had their studies interrupted, have had to study remotely, have had research projects delayed, or have had harrowing clinical duties, and the impact may not fully show for a few years.
They are being affected silently through losses in network building and face-to-face interactions, e.g. at conferences. These situations build confidence and breadth of knowledge. There are also more overt impacts on productivity or portfolio of work. I think, as a Society, we have the challenge of finding the best way to support that cohort of future endocrinologists as we try to get back on track, but we can play a role here that is harder for bigger institutions (such as UK Research and Innovation), through our more personal approach and closer network.
What do you hope to achieve during your term?
I’d like to increase the visibility of types of careers in endocrinology that are available, beyond what might be classically considered, for example, by encouraging more engagement with educators, vets and industrial scientists.
Why did you get involved with Society governance, and why should others?
I was encouraged to join the Society at an early stage by Brian Walker and I found the SfE BES conferences very enjoyable and inclusive. I joined the Science Committee in a bid to broaden my expertise and network. I still remember coming away from my first meeting, chaired by Alan McNeilly, where we’d discussed Early Career Grants and other ways to support students, and feeling I had made a positive contribution. I came home saying “I’ve done good today!”
That led me to volunteer for more roles. One important one was in co-organising the Career Development Workshops from the beginning. The feedback we had from the attendees was so overwhelmingly positive, and I got a real sense of satisfaction in helping them. More than that, I made many friends, especially Derek Renshaw, who was at a similar stage in his career to me. It’s good to hear academic perspectives beyond Edinburgh.
From there, I’ve been involved with other committees and in every one, I’ve broadened my perspective and brought what I’ve learned to other aspects of my job. I find the Society has a very ‘we can do this’ attitude, and we are given huge support from the Society’s team to make an impact. It’s a pleasure to work with people who want to make endocrinology in the UK better, and who have your back as you try to achieve that. I’m hugely grateful to Eleanor Davies who has guided me in my approach to being General Secretary, and I know I can always call on her for help.
Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists?
Career-wise – work out what you enjoy and who you like working with and be persistent. Life’s too short to be stuck doing something you dislike. Get used to picking yourself up and trying again. Try to be objective and not emotional about your career decisions – it can take a few days after that grant rejection or paper rebuttal to achieve that, but you need to conquer that skill.
Working on Society activities will repay you in many more ways than you can possibly imagine, so get involved. Citizenship roles in the Society feel really rewarding and will help you past bumps in your career where maybe your day-to-day work is not quite what you desire!