"Nothing holding me back": unravelling the secrets of cancer’s interaction with the immune system
Oliver Cast (Clare Hall) tells us about the difference a fully funded scholarship has made to him and to his laboratory. Through his Harding Scholarship, he too is making a difference, in the area of cancer research.
Without the Harding Scholarship, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to achieve my goals and support the work of our group
Oliver (Ollie) Cast isn’t the first in his family to study at Cambridge. His father completed his degree in chemical engineering at Trinity. His mother specialises in neuro rehabilitation therapy.
“My father is very analytical,” says Ollie. “My mother is much more about ‘how is this going to help people?’” Ollie seems strongly influenced by both ways of thinking; his research has the potential to help a great many people. He is analysing how chemotherapy changes the immune system of cells. To do so, he examines large datasets, looking at DNA and genes and trying to understand how different treatments affect the interaction between cancer and the immune system. Through recognising the methods cancer uses to exploit the immune system, new treatments may be developed.
Growing up, Ollie was interested in becoming a doctor. “I was fascinated by the complexity of the human body,” he says. “It is so incredible — and so complicated.” But he realised that he wasn’t suited to the kind of rote learning required for medicine. “I am more interested in understanding how the body works.”
Ollie completed a degree in human biosciences at the University of Plymouth, graduating with first-class honours and following up with a stint as a laboratory scientist at Thermo Fisher Scientific. He became interested in viruses that can multiply inside a cancer cell and split it open. If some viruses target cancer cells, could viruses be used to treat cancer? In order to understand the interaction better, he went to Imperial College London to undertake a Master’s degree in cancer biology, which he completed with distinction.
Through his girlfriend, Ollie met a student at Cambridge researching exactly the same area of computational biology. He did a rotation project at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, giving him a sort of “trial run” at Cambridge, and followed that up by working as a research assistant in the Miller Laboratory (Cancer Systems Biology group). He became determined to undertake his PhD there, knowing it was a great fit for him and how much he wanted to work with his current supervisor.
“At Cambridge there is so much going on,” he says, “including some really amazing start-ups. There are all sorts of different collaborations, and world-leading experts to learn from.”
Despite being accepted to study at Cambridge, though, Ollie found himself in the predicament facing many potential postgraduates at universities throughout the UK: he needed to secure funding. He couldn’t afford to support himself and the group did not have enough core funding to pay for a PhD student. Offered a place at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, he turned it down in the hope he could find a way to stay at Cambridge.
Following a difficult period of uncertainty, Ollie received the fantastic news that he had been accepted into the first cohort of the Harding Distinguished Postgraduate Scholars Programme. “It’s been doubly wonderful in that not only am I able to undertake a fully-funded doctoral programme, but the Laboratory has an extra body working on our really important research. Without the Harding Scholarship, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to achieve my goals and support the work of our group.”
Ollie has had a fabulous first year. “There are a lot of great social events going on at the Institute and the College,” he says. “I had a preconceived idea about a high-pressure environment. But while you certainly work very hard, mental health and having a break are treated as very important.” Although lockdown has been disappointing and Ollie is looking forward to returning to the lab, he has been able to continue his research from home and has achieved a lot during the past months, including the publication of two papers, one in Nature.
“I am really pleased with my studies so far,” he says. “One of the great things about my scholarship is that it’s unrestricted. I can take risks and use new technology to take my research in interesting directions. There’s nothing holding me back!”