Q&A with Mhairi Copland for International Day of Women and Girls in Science

Mhairi Copland is a Professor of Translational Haematology at the University of Glasgow. For International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Mhairi tells us about her most recent research including the MATCHPOINT clinical trial Mhairi led on for blast phase CML and about the importance of biobanking patient samples. Mhairi also shares her advice to the next generation of girls and women going into STEM careers (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and why it’s important to advocate for women in STEM.

Let’s go back to the beginning, could you tell us why you chose to specialise in Haematology?

I chose to specialise in haematology because I wanted to work in a speciality where you get to know your patients really well and are able to look after them all the way from diagnosis through their treatment and long term follow up. Haematology allows you to do this, from taking the bone marrow test, looking at the bone marrow cells down the microscope to make a diagnosis, then planning the most suitable treatments with the patient, and finally continuing to follow up your patients once treatment is completed.

You were recently involved in a MATCHPOINT clinical trial for blast phase CML – could you tell us about the significance of this trial and your role within this research?

I was the lead investigator for the MATCHPOINT clinical trial. Blast phase CML is a very aggressive form of leukaemia, and sadly, outcomes are often very poor, even with the currently used targeted therapies for CML. In MATCHPOINT, we combined the strongest drug for treating CML, called ponatinib, with intravenous chemotherapy. MATCHPOINT showed that giving ponatinib with strong IV chemotherapy was possible in younger, fitter patients, and also showed better outcomes than giving ponatinib on its own.

You’re also a big advocate of biobanking patient samples. Could you tell us why this is so important in the study of leukaemia?

Biobanking of patient samples is really important because being able to understand how leukaemia develops in patients is essential to finding better treatments. Furthermore, being able to test new drugs and treatment approaches in patient cells in the lab to see if they work is an essential first step in improving treatments.

What would you say is the most rewarding part of your research?

I think I am very lucky, I really enjoy looking after patients, and also helping to develop clinical trials to improve therapy. However, I also get to train the doctors of the future and support the science leaders of the future in the lab when they are doing their PhD studies and postdoc research.

Why is it important to advocate for women in STEM?

Despite the large numbers of women going into STEM disciplines, very few women go on to become leaders in their fields. In haematology, there are more women in senior positions than in other specialities, but we need to keep raising awareness of issues that can affect everyone, but generally affect women more, such as providing more support for those with caring responsibilities to allow them to achieve their full potential.

If you could give advice to the next generation of girls and women starting their careers in haematology/STEM, what would it be?

My advice would be to “go for it”, and you will be able to achieve your goals. There is an increasing focus on improving work-life balance which will benefit everyone in the long term, but in the shorter term, has the greatest positive benefit for those early in their career, and often with young families or other caring responsibilities. My other advice would be to find supportive role models and mentors (of any gender) to help guide you on your career journey.

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