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Issue 147 Spring 2023

Endocrinologist > Spring 2023 > Society News


| Society News

Márta Korbonits MD PhD DSc FRCP is Professor of Endocrinology and Metabolism at Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary University of London. Her tenure as President of the Society for Endocrinology began in November 2022 at our AGM. Here, she talks to us about her career, her hopes for her presidency, and her advice for aspiring endocrinologists.

Please tell us about your early career

Márta Korbonits, President of the Society for Endocrinology from November 2022

Márta Korbonits

I am a clinician who has always been interested in science and research. I undertook my first research project during my undergraduate years, and my first job after graduation was actually in research and teaching at a university. When I moved to the UK, due to the regulations around medical licences at the time, I could initially only work in research. While I felt at that point that this was a huge disadvantage, I enjoyed the warm support of Professors Michael Besser, Ashley Grossman and Peter Trainer and, ultimately, this academic grounding really helped me to develop as a clinician scientist and prepared me for the wonderful combination of the clinical and academic aspects of medicine.

Once I was able to join in with clinical work, I started with clinical trials and completed first an MD and then a PhD. Putting together my lab results and the clinical study results, I was lucky enough to get an intriguing set of translational data under my belt. Armed with these, and a bit of courage(!), I applied for an MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship, which was a major step in my career and created a real opportunity to be a clinical academic. I have carried on with this ever since. And, 20 years later, when I was a member of the same MRC Fellowship Committee, I could really feel the weight of the career-changing decisions that were made there.

What is your specialty?

The first project I found myself working on, here in the UK, was related to the regulation of growth hormone. As it turns out, I found this fascinating, and so I have followed a path arising from this work ever since. Initially, I was testing an experimental drug – a growth hormone secretagogue that stimulated growth hormone release. It turned out that the drug acts via a novel receptor, and this led to the identification of a natural hormone: ghrelin. I was in the right place at the right time. I do think that luck is something you need in science, alongside hard work.

From growth hormone, my interest led me to pituitary tumours and their tumourigenesis. The genetic mechanisms underlying these unique lesions later became one of the pivotal topics in my career. Ghrelin also led me down another path, related to the metabolic effect of hormones. After a bumpy start, we had some exciting findings. One of the projects started as an in vitro laboratory experiment and, after 14 years of research, led to a clinical trial. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see this project through. To start with an idea in basic science and end up with a clinical study is the most exciting aspect of my work!

What attracted you to endocrinology?

I was always interested in endocrinology. In medical school, we had an amazing professor of endocrinology, Professor Edit Gláz, who inspired my interest in the subject, and made me see the logic that is so central to the field. In my first academic role after university, I was tasked with teaching young medical students about the endocrine axis, so I decided to try to breathe some life into this subject for them. I hugely enjoyed this stint of teaching, which became a second wave of my love for endocrinology. I ended up at Barts Endocrine Department, one of the most prominent endocrine units in the world at the time. And I am still here, after 31 years!

What do you hope to achieve as President?

I want to provide the maximum possible support for endocrinologists, especially during these challenging economic times. Key to this will be emphasising the core aims of the Society: to support people who are ambitious, who are early in their careers, and who are interested in making an impact in the clinical, basic science and translational aspects of endocrinology. I want to bring people together for discussions at meetings and training courses, and to provide opportunities to encourage basic science and medical students and trainees to select endocrinology as a discipline. I think these are the absolute key issues which we need to support.

What big challenges face the Society and endocrinology at large?

Endocrinology, as a subject, is so exciting – the science is so beautiful. You can never get bored of it. We need to let people know how wide and varied a subject it is, and to encourage the next generation to specialise in the discipline.

Endocrinology produces well-rounded clinicians, whose training is grounded in both endocrinology and general medicine. This creates doctors who have a reputation as lateral thinkers and problem solvers, figuring out even the most complex patients in a hospital. Ensuring that we protect this reputation of endocrine expertise, and engage and retain endocrinologists, is important for our field, and our Society.

Bringing both endocrine scientists and clinicians into research will also stimulate a continued enthusiasm for the subject. We are seeing a worrying trend of reducing numbers of clinical academics in general, so the Society will need to play its part to keep endocrinology at the forefront, both clinically and academically.

What are you most proud of in your career?

I am probably most proud of the Fellows whom I have trained, and who have gone on to wonderful clinical or academic careers. I keep in touch with all the Fellows and PhD students I have supervised, and it is lovely to see where their paths have taken them, after being at Barts.

In terms of scientific achievements, there are quite a few of which I am proud. None of them is a showstopper, but I believe they have had an impact, one way or another. My early work on ghrelin resulted in my most highly cited paper – with a medical student as the first author. It is quite a simple paper, but it came out at the right time. Then the data around the hormonal regulation of the metabolic enzyme called AMPK led to the clinical study I mentioned. Identifying the genetic cause of the Irish giants and our work on genetic aspects of pituitary disease are now key aspects of my work. I am excited about some data that we are working on right now, so I feel I have lots of things to look forward to and to be happy about.

Who shaped your career?

Quite a lot of people: I have already mentioned Professors Gláz, Besser and Trainer, but most importantly Professor Ashley Grossman. I am really grateful for his incredible mentorship and friendship over the years. Then of course Professor Adrian Clark, who gave me the permanent position where I still am. Of course, my career has very much been shaped by my trainees. Their hard work led to my successes. It is difficult to narrow it down to just a few names; they are like your academic children, and you can never mention your favourite child!

If you had three pieces of advice for aspiring endocrinologists, what would they be?

• First, you need to believe in your ideas – and in yourself. This is the most important. And then push the ideas through. A bit of perseverance is needed sometimes.
• A second piece of advice would be to accept that setbacks are part of academic medicine, and not something that should make you consider changing your career. It is all part of the game: you are faced with a roadblock, but that does not need to constitute a failure. You need to understand that nobody ever receives all the grants they apply for. You hardly ever get your paper accepted without some pushback. (I might even say that, if your paper is easily accepted by a journal, then you did not submit it to the right journal!) You need to continue to believe in your work, to strengthen it, and to keep going.
• Finally, you need to be able to reinvent yourself from time to time. Keep your eyes open, see the links between two questions that others might not see, pick up new ideas from practically anywhere, learn new techniques, be alert. I hope we can create an environment where we can nurture this creativity through a healthier research culture. This is the way to give the best chances for those who are interested in pursuing clinical or academic endocrinology in the future.

How would you choose to spend a Sunday?

If I think of a ‘dream Sunday’, I would spend it with my family, now including two grandchildren, and would either go walking or swimming.

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