Ashley Nicholls in the lab and playing football

“It seems strange trying to describe my career path, as the words imply that there was some sort of intention or plan as to where I wanted to go or what I wanted to be,” says Dr Ashley Nicholls, a postdoctoral research associate at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.

Although Nicholls started his career playing professional football, he has since swapped his kit for a lab coat and a whole new team.

I just got involved in things I thought were positive, I enjoyed doing and found interesting.

Dr Ashely Nicholls

Destined for the pitch

“At 16 I decided to continue my education by studying for my A-Levels, after initially being released from Ipswich Town Football Club’s footballing academy, I had all but given up on the idea of playing football professionally and was playing local football for fun with my friends,” he explains.

But fate had other plans. Nicholls was invited to play for his county football team while studying for his A-levels and then subsequently went along for England schoolboy under-18’s football trials. “By some miracle, I managed to be selected for the squad and managed to play all of the games that season, culminating in a game at the old Wembley stadium in front of 60,000 supporters against Hungary.”

Following a successful stint playing for his hometown club, Ipswich Town, followed by a few years at Darlington FC and Cambridge United, Nicholls began to tire of playing professional football. “The commitment to nutrition, being away from home for Christmas and New Year, sitting on a coach for hours to play away games and staying in hotels and the isolation that comes with it was starting to get harder, physically and mentally.”

Nicholls knew that the transition from full-time football wasn’t going to be easy.

“Luckily enough the professional footballer’s association (PFA) were excellent at providing support for me and many of my previous colleagues. They helped me to enrol in university and fund part of my fees.”

Tackling children’s cancer research

Researcher in the lab

Nicholls researches new drugs to treat childhood leukaemia.

During his degree, Nicholls balanced studying and training throughout the week, with a weekend football match. “I did this for 3 years before acquiring a degree in Biology and then decided to take a one-year internship at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge.”

It was here where his passion for studying cancer developed. “The project was specifically looking at how our body is designed to naturally protect itself against cancer and how some populations of people seem to have more protection than others against the disease.”

After his internship, Nicholls was asked if he would like to do a PhD following the same research at the University of Exeter. After 4 years completing his PhD and a year of teaching at medical school, it was clear that his future lay in cancer research.

Right now, Nicholls is working on two projects, one of which is in partnership with AstraZeneca, aiming to develop new drugs to treat childhood leukaemia.

“Our focus is to find vulnerabilities in leukaemia cells that are not found in normal, healthy cells. Hopefully, this will enable us to find drugs which target and destroy cancer cells specifically.

“As for the next 20 years or so of my ‘career’, I still have the same values as a 17-year-old…… I don’t really have a plan, but I know whatever lies ahead, I will try to choose things that bring me joy in my life, allow me to continue to meet great people and make great friends and most importantly, help as many people as I can.”

Nicholls also reflects on the impact of the pandemic on his work, and what he’s looking forward to as things return to a ‘new normal’. “Making new connections in-person always allow strong working relationships to form, sparking discussions that light the flame of a scientific idea and allowing it to come to life,” he comments.

“We have been a bit short of that in the past 18-months and I am really looking forward to re-experiencing that collaborative team environment, by meeting people in person and sharing new ideas.”

Nicholls isn’t the only one who took an unusual route into research. Just down the corridor sits Dr Jessica Taylor, a postdoctoral research associate at the same institute as Nicholls, studying a type of brain cancer commonly found in children and young people.

A zig-zag career

Like Nicholls, Taylor didn’t start her career in children’s cancer research, or even in science, instead taking a more roundabout route. “I left home at 16 and dropped out of college at 17. Between the ages of about 16 and 21 I was couch surfing – I didn’t really have anywhere to live. At that time, I was doing bar work, pub work, anything that I could get.

Taylor managed to scrape together some money with friends, and got a pub on lease. “It was this massive old beautiful pub, that was really rundown and not doing very well. I managed it with a friend and we lived in the flat above,” Taylor recalls. “I also did a bit of acting on the side. I auditioned for Hollyoaks when I was 18 and managed to get a 3-episode part, as well as doing a lot of extra work.”

Together, they ran the pub for a few years, “but it wasn’t for me in the long run,” Taylor adds, “I wanted to do something else”.

Finding a passion for cancer research

Researcher in the lab

Taylor is working on developing new treatments for medulloblastoma.

Salford University offered Taylor an access course, which meant she didn’t have to go back to school to do her A-levels. “I didn’t really try in school. I had a really tough home life,” she says. “An access course is basically an extra year on top of your uni course. And during that I fell in love with chemistry. It was great and I was really good at it – which was weird. If you spoke to my chemistry teacher in school, she’d be in shock! I got a C in GCSE chemistry.”

Taylor was drawing towards the end of her biochemistry degree and was unsure where she wanted to go next. That was until she spotted an industrial placement opportunity with AstraZeneca for undergraduates.

“I was told they only ever offer places to students from ‘red brick’ universities. They said that I’d never get a place but that I could apply if I wanted the practice completing application forms. I submitted an application 10 minutes before the deadline, and I got a place!

“Working at AstraZeneca, on placement, really turned my ambitions on. It was whilst I was there that I decided that I wanted to focus on cancer.”

Developing new treatments for children with brain tumours

Fast forward to today, Taylor is working on discovering new treatments for a type of brain tumour known as medulloblastoma, a cancer that mainly affects children.

“These tumours are very much more curable than other types of brain tumours,” explains Taylor. “In fact, around 95% of children who have this cancer will be cured. They have 10-year survival of 95%.”

With statistics that look so positive, Taylor comments that people often question why she is working on a ‘curable’ cancer. “The problem is that these children have very considerable long-term effects, for example Alzheimer-like symptoms – short term memory loss, seizures. It’s not the cancer that causes them, it’s the treatment.

“So many children have horrendous treatment over a very long time which gets rid of the cancer but then they don’t manage to fulfil their dreams of education, getting a job etc. They’re always being supported by their family, which is very hard on the children and on the families as well.”

In order to tackle this problem, Taylor, working in Professor Richard Gilbertson’s lab, is looking at developing therapies for medulloblastoma that can ‘highjack’ the cancer and kill the tumour from the inside. These are the same drugs that will help reduce toxicity.

“Thinking of the children who are who never going to be able to live fulfilled lives because of their treatment motivates me every day.”


More on this topic