Career story: Gravesend to Glasgow (UK), via USA, ‘on a braintrain’

[Adapted from: ‘People and Ideas’, Journal of Cell Biology, and produced with the kind permission of Professor Karen Vousden, Director, Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, Glasgow]

If at age 14 you told a Careers Adviser visiting your school that you wanted to be a Research Scientist and they said “that’s much too difficult, how about working in a bank”. What would you do?

Professor Karen Vousden, now Director of the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, Glasgow, UK, had other ideas.

When Karen Vousden was a little girl growing up in Gravesend, Kent, UK on the South bank of the River Thames she wanted to be a teacher. Her mother was a school dinner lady and her father was a skilled toolmaker in a local factory. Karen’s mum and dad supported Karen in her school work, but neither of them knew much about careers in science.

After primary school Karen went to Gravesend Grammar School for girls and it was here, Karen says, that she had outstanding chemistry and biology teachers. She became absolutely fascinated with these science subjects and her teachers encouraged Karen to follow her ambition of becoming a scientist (and not to follow the careers advice). After secondary school Karen went to Queen Mary College, University of London. Here she followed a course in general biology but graduated with a BSc in microbiology and genetics in 1978. She followed this, at Queen Mary College with a PhD in genetics in 1982.

Karen has always said that she did not have a career plan or strategy but made her career decisions, given her interests and qualifications, on what she thought would be interesting and enjoyable work. Towards the end of studying for a PhD Karen thought she had better think about getting a job!

A post (advertised in ‘Nature’, a weekly science journal) at the Institute of Cancer Research in London attracted Karen’s eye. She obtained this post-doctoral appointment and stayed there from 1981 to 1985. She enjoyed the exciting and intense research environment speaking of it as “fantastic” right from the start.

Karen’s next move was to go to the United States “because she thought it would be fun to work there”. At the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda she worked on Human Papillomavirus, a virus associated with cervical cancer and for which there is now a preventive vaccine.

After Bethesda Dr Vousden returned to London to set up and lead the Human Papillomvirus Group at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research from 1987 to 1995 after which she returned to work in the USA. In America Karen held several posts directing laboratories and programmes during which time became interested in the functioning of a gene called p53, other genes associated with it and the protein products of them. In 2002, Professor Karen Vousden was appointed Director of the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow, UK, where she has overseen a £15 million expansion plan. In addition to directing the Beatson Institute, Professor Vousden leads her Tumour Suppression research group where her team to work on the p53 tumour suppressor gene. Professor Vousden is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Edinburgh and has received many honours for her work including a CBE.

Biological aspects of Professor Vousden’s work
If you are studying biology at school the chances are that you will not have heard about the p53 gene, but if you are a teenage girl in the UK you will probably have been offered a ‘jab’ to protect against human papillomavirus (HPV).

The p53 gene and the protein products associated with it, that Karen and her team now work on, have a pivotal role in cancer. This is because ‘p53’ is a so called ‘tumour suppressor gene’. It has been called the ‘guardian of the genome’ because during the G1 phase of the cell cycle, (which you will study in general outline), p53 acts as a quality control checker. It only allows cell division to continue if the quality of the genetic material in the nucleus is acceptable. If the quality is not good the p53 gene induces the cell to commit ‘cell suicide’ [called programmed cell death or apoptosis]. In most cancers it has been found that the p53 gene is either absent, damaged or malfunctioning. It now appears from Professor Vousden’s current work that p53 may have another role to play. [Ref: Yee, K. S. and Vousden, K H., (in the journal) Carcinogenesis vol.26 no8 pp1317-1322, 2005]. You could have a part to play in this research. Join us in the cell biology community!

Take Away message:
Professor Vousden has said that she based her career decisions on whether the work would be interesting and enjoyable, but she says, success only comes with hard work and, because there are disappointments along the way, you really need to choose an area of work that you can feel passionate about and enjoy.

Link Out:
See for more information about the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research. For more information about programmed cell death, p53 and the cell cycle at At the home page site select softCELL e-learning, then ‘Key Concepts and Messages, No.9 Cell Cycle Control’