Harding Scholar Hannah Clayton: Crossing disciplines and continents to pursue groundbreaking cancer research

Harding Scholar Hannah Clayton: Crossing disciplines and continents to pursue groundbreaking cancer research

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Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholar weaves together disparate data for a unique insights into ovarian cancer.

Richard Gilbertson, Head of the Department of Oncology at the University of Cambridge, has declared, “I believe we have this at our fingertips: the capacity to extend life and eradicate cancer. But it will take a unique place and that place is Cambridge.”

Why is Cambridge so ideally suited for this journey?

It may be because of people like Hannah Clayton (Magdalene College 2021) — and the kind of philanthropic support that brought Hannah here to support her groundbreaking work in ovarian cancer.

Hannah’s research topic, ‘Machine learning to understand the radiogenomics of resistance in ovarian cancer’ weaves together the immense current interest around cancer with the role of machine learning and AI in healthcare. In essence, her PhD focuses on developing AI models to predict clinical outcomes in ovarian cancer.

Ovarian cancer: integrating data for better diagnosis and treatment

Ovarian cancer is a complex, highly heterogeneous disease. It is usually diagnosed at an advanced stage once the disease has metastasized, and developing a tool to guide optimal treatment selection could significantly improve patient prognosis.

During diagnosis and treatment, clinicians typically gather a wide range of patient data, which may include radiology, histopathology, transcriptomics, genomics and other clinically relevant information. Combining this data to provide a full characterisation of the disease poses a significant challenge, as traditional AI models use only a single data type to predict patient outcomes and thus neglect the broader clinical context. While more recent prognostic models are achieving improved accuracy for a range of cancer types, little has been done to integrate radiology data, which should provide important complementary insights about the disease.

To address the need for a more holistic assessment picture, Hannah’s PhD work focuses on the large-scale integration of different data ‘modalities’, including radiology, to inform clinical decision-making and patient classification within ovarian cancer.


Hannah explains: "These data types are on very different scales. For example, with radiology, for ovarian cancer you're taking a scan of the whole pelvic region. But when we talk about a biopsy or histopathology sample, it can be just a few cells. Or we look at a tumour that's been removed after surgery and that's bigger than a few cells but much smaller than the whole pelvis. We want to be able to align and link all this data in the correct way to create a comprehensive picture of the disease."

From South Africa to Cambridge to South Africa — and back again

Science and medicine are in Hannah’s DNA — literally. "My dad is a chemical engineer, and he was always running different experiments around the house; we had a lot of fun doing that together. I think that was probably part of what sparked my early interest in science."

Hannah’s mum is a medical doctor, working at a children's hospital in Cape Town, South Africa in the transplantation unit.

"The academic part of medicine is interesting to me and how it all works, but the actual day-to-day life of being a doctor was not the right thing for me.

"But my parents were both always very supportive of my wanting to be involved in STEM and anything that interested me. They didn't push me in a particular direction."

Hannah completed her undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Physics at the University of Cape Town. During this time, she undertook various research projects in high-energy physics, mainly focusing on the quark gluon plasma and jet broadening in heavy-ion collisions. She came to Cambridge for a Master of Advanced Study in Physics in 2021-22, where she was introduced to her current work on predictive modelling for cancer.

"I had done quite a lot of heavy theoretical physics work along with some research during my undergraduate degree, and I certainly found that intellectually stimulating. But I had always been interested in doing something with the medical spin to it. I couldn't see myself carrying on down the theoretical physics route, so I'd applied for the master's here at Cambridge in the Cavendish Laboratory rather than the maths department. The structure of the degree was some coursework with lectures, and then a research project. And I thought that would be my opportunity to try something completely different. If I didn't like it, then I would find something else to do. But if I did, then that could be something potentially to carry on and do a PhD in. I did a project with my current supervisor, Dr Mireia Crispin — also in ovarian cancer, but just focusing on radiology data and trying to predict treatment response based on features of cysts on CT scans. And I really enjoyed it!"


After this whirlwind 9-month course, Hannah returned to South Africa where she worked as an equity analyst in Cape Town for a year. "I'm someone who likes to try out a few different things to make sure I'm making the right decision — and choosing what to do for the rest of your life feels like a very big decision. I know you can change along the way, but I decided it was the right time to try working outside academia. In asset management, I picked up some very valuable skills — analysis, modelling, research skills, decision making, writing — that have been remarkably relevant to my present work."

The Harding Scholarship and a return to Cambridge

She returned to Cambridge to start her PhD in Oncology in October 2023. What made her apply for the Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme?

"As an international student, you must cast a very wide net and then do a lot of research. The PhD was not something I could have self-funded. I found the Harding opportunity on the University of Cambridge Postgraduate Study website. I didn't think at all that this would be something I would get, especially as I'd already applied to a few funding bodies and had several interviews which had all ended with rejections. It was a huge surprise when I was offered the Harding Scholarship; I'd almost given up hope at that point! If I hadn't got into the PhD this year with funding, my life could have taken quite a different course. I'm really grateful to the Harding Scholarship."

The Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme was established in February 2019 thanks to an extraordinarily generous donation from the David and Claudia Harding Foundation, the biggest single gift made to a university in the UK by a British philanthropist.

Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholarships provide outstanding PhD students with life-changing opportunities to research and study at the University of Cambridge. These fully funded Scholarships are available to the most talented students in any discipline, from all parts of the UK and the world.

Forever Magdalene

It made a big difference to Hannah to be at the same College for both master’s and PhD.

"I really enjoy living in Cambridge — not so much the weather, coming from sunny Cape Town — but apart from that it's lovely. The College system is nothing like what I experienced during undergrad. My first experience of College life was in my master's year and I made a wonderful group of friends. Magdalene has a warm, close-knit postgrad community. There are always so many talks and events and societies; there's something for everyone. And because Cambridge is such a highly regarded place, we draw speakers who I certainly would not have seen at my undergraduate university or elsewhere. I got to see Sam Altman at the Union — he's the CEO of Open AI and I do AI modelling, so that was a great experience.


"Being back at Magdalene is almost like coming home. The friends I made during the master’s year are now in the third year of their PhDs but luckily they are still around."

Hannah chooses the Fellows Gardens and the new library as her favourite Magdalene spots, and she hopes to start doing the travel and exploring that her short master’s year didn’t allow — maybe to Italy? In the meantime, with family in other parts of the UK, she doesn’t feel too far from home.

The unique Cambridge environment: collaboration and inventive thinking

Together with the focus on early detection and a personalised and patient-centric approach, Hannah feels it’s the strongly collaborative nature of the work in Cambridge that makes it such a centre of excellence for cancer research.

She observes, "Things aren't so siloed anymore; there's recognition that we need everybody's expertise if we're going to solve these big problems. It's a good place to be in terms of productive partnerships going on, with more in the pipeline. In our group we have physicists, mathematicians, engineers and clinicians all together in the same room and the same meetings, and we're all working towards one goal — just from different approaches. And of course, there are the great facilities and the very bright minds that Cambridge always attracts. That's what gives Cambridge the edge."

How does it all come together, when each area of discipline tends to have its own focus and priorities?

"We all acknowledge that we don't understand all the parts of the puzzle. I come from a physics background; I have quite limited biology and medical knowledge. By being able to have discussions with the clinicians, we develop close ties with the pathology and radiology departments. If we want help to understand our data or there's something that we don't quite comprehend, we can go and have that discussion with an expert. My supervisor is quite keen on the collaborative aspect, so if you have supervisors building those bridges and putting us in touch with each other — that's a good environment, instead of focusing on your own little piece of work, because you're not going to get very far that way.

"For me, success looks like creating something that could be applied in clinic, for disease management and treatment. This kind of collaboration is the way to achieve that."


The magic word

If she had to choose one word to describe her experience so far as a Harding Scholar, what would it be?

"The first word that pops into my head comes from a recent Harding Scholars’ event for us to get to know other people in the Programme, and we had to sit down at tables that were labelled with a word we identified with. One of the words was ‘exploration’. I know that in the first few months of my PhD I've been exploring a lot — reading and learning so much."

And the future? Even now, Hannah is keeping her mind open and her net cast wide: ‘The PhD opportunity was so big for me because it gave me the chance to try this out and see how I felt about it. I'd done a bit of research already, but this is a better reflection of what a life in academia could be like. I've certainly enjoyed it so far, and even if I don't go down the path of academia, I still have the connections I have made in Cambridge.

"You know, there's so much collaboration going on with industry. We've had people from our lab go to some pharmaceutical companies and similar. I would like to do an internship at some point during my PhD to see what working in industry might be like. A question for future Hannah, I think!"

It’s the work of visionary researchers like Hannah that is driving advances in the way we detect and treat cancer. Without doubt, Cambridge research is changing the story of this disease. It’s highlighting Cambridge as a national asset and global leader in cancer research and clinical implementation.

And it’s transformational philanthropy like the Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme that is making research like Hannah’s possible.

As Hannah concludes: "As an international student I know what the philanthropic support means and how few opportunities there are like the Harding Programme. To have been offered this is truly fantastic! I feel very lucky."


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