Infection, Immunology & Translational Medicine (IITM) Oxford

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Joe Illingworth

Joe Illingworth tells the us about his experience of IITM, gives an update on his career and offers his advice to current and prospective IITM students.

Joe photo 2017

Joe Illingworth

Joe studied Biochemistry at Imperial College London. As he told us: “From the day I got to Imperial I was sure I wanted to do a PhD so I was quite driven about getting as much research experience as possible.” During his Bachelors, Joe completed a 13 week research project at Imperial in the summer between his 1st and 2nd year, and then between his 2nd and 3rd year he secured a place on the Amgen Scholars program at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. Joe strongly advises prospective IITM students to do the same: “Your interviewers will want to know that you understand what you’re getting into, and you want to know that too! So the biggest piece of advice I would give is to get research experience in addition to the minimum course requirements for your BSc/MSc. If you’re still interested after having given up a summer to work in a lab, you should find it easy to transmit your enthusiasm for the [IITM] course to the panel.”

In Oxford, after rotations in the labs of Simon Draper, Kevin Marsh (Kilifi, Kenya) and Nicholas Day (Bangkok, Thailand), Joe completed his DPhil in 2014, supervised by Simon Draper. At the Jenner Institute, Joe investigated potential targets for a malaria vaccine. As he described it: “The plan was to discover new vaccine antigens that could be incorporated into a malaria vaccine. We systematically looked at the malaria genome for genes whose protein products had not been examined as vaccine antigens. We then expressed those proteins recombinantly and examined the anti-parasitic qualities of the antibody response when those proteins were inoculated into mice.” Joe’s research produced three promising leads, which he began characterising during his DPhil.

So what is Joe doing now? Well, in his own words: “During my PhD I had an idea for a biotech company with a fellow PhD student. It had nothing to do with my PhD project and was just based on ideas that had come up in conversation between us.”

“While I was writing up my thesis, we entered the OneStart biotech competition and through the competition managed to get a meeting with Johnson & Johnson’s Innovation team. We pitched the idea to them and they agreed to fund some proof-of-concept experiments. Those experiments turned out well and we have since been able to raise venture capital cash to really get the company growing.”  Joe is now Chief Scientific Officer at the company.

Talking about the IITM programme, Joe said “I think the focus on translational and clinical research was what made the IITM experience unique. My rotations in Thailand and Kenya gave me a perspective on the challenges of tropical medicine and what is clinically relevant. That served as important context for my lab-based thesis project.”

Joe also emphasised the role IITM played in shaping his current career: “My thesis project in the Jenner Institute gave me an insight on clinical trials, product development/R&D and structuring large, team-based biotechnology projects that I really wouldn’t have got from any other non-clinical PhD program.”

“If you love science but aren’t sure that academia is for you – don’t worry, there are plenty of other jobs out there!”

“Since starting my company I’ve seen a huge breadth of career possibilities just within biomedicine, so I would advise students to think outside the box when planning their careers. The post-doc/PI pathway is an exciting and stimulating career, but that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. It’s extremely competitive, it usually requires a tight focus on a narrow research area, and it isn’t quite as social as many other jobs. There are many other jobs out there that require a PhD level understanding of science and biology that are more people-focussed and that emphasise breadth rather than depth of knowledge. So if you love science but aren’t sure that academia is for you – don’t worry, there are plenty of other jobs out there!”

“Start thinking about building a relevant CV early during your PhD!”

“If you do decide to pursue a different career path, bear in mind that the metrics that your supervisor might prize – viz. publications – may be less relevant in your chosen career. Other extracurricular activities may be more useful. I didn’t publish a first-author [paper] during my PhD and no-one in the industrial biotech world has ever asked to see a list of my papers – but they have looked at other elements of my CV. So start thinking about building a relevant CV early during your PhD!”