Helen Coleman, cancer professor and reluctant lab coat wearer

Helen is Professor of Cancer Epidemiology at Queen's University Belfast

How did you get into cancer research?

I was studying human nutrition as an undergraduate at Ulster University in the early 2000s and spent my research placement year at the MRC Human Nutrition Research centre in Cambridge. By the final year of my degree, I knew I wanted to work in research and started seeking PhD opportunities. My Mum had been diagnosed with breast cancer during my studies, and around the same time some exciting discoveries were being made in nutrition and cancer aetiology by cohorts such as EPIC. I thought there was mileage in cancer as a research career choice, as well as being highly motivated by my Mum's diagnosis.

I approached the late Prof Liam Murray, who had established a cancer epidemiology research group at Queen's University Belfast, and was advertising for a PhD student in cancer survivorship. After meeting to discuss this opportunity, we agreed that I wasn't really suited to that project, but thankfully there was another PhD opportunity specifically tailored to nutrition and cancer research. To my delight, I was able to 'scoop' the position.

I fell in love with cancer epidemiology research and basically refused to leave – I am now a professor in the same research centre.

Do you wear a lab coat? And if no, why not?

No, although I have submitted to wearing one during media coverage of some of my research. Apparently, the public equate cancer research with a lab coat (or so the photographer insisted!). As an epidemiologist, most of my research involves data analysis and therefore I'm sitting at a computer most of the time. This does not make for fun photo opportunities, but I still enjoy it.

I do collaborate with lots of cancer researchers who do wear lab coats and their work makes vital contributions to my molecular epidemiology research [this is the study of genetics and small molecules in the body across populations and their impact on disease].

What part of your research career are you most proud of?

Probably every time I have overcome rejection, which – let's face it – can be often. One moment particularly stands out though: I was really proud of the first time I published a paper as senior author in the journal Gastroenterology in 2016. It was a systematic review on lifestyle factors for serrated colorectal polyps [growths on the surface of the colon or rectum] and was one of the first papers that reflected me as the senior investigator that was published in such a high-impact journal. My husband even took me out to dinner to help celebrate that one.

When you were a child what did you want to be when you grew up?

I didn't have a strong preference but I liked the idea of teaching or secretarial work. Given that lecturing and administration is a big part of being an academic, I wasn't far off the mark!

Did you ever set fire/make anything explode in science lessons at school?

Not unless we were supposed to – I only remember burning certain elements during chemistry lessons (potassium is a purple flame, right?). I did make our microwave explode at home when I was a child though. I put micro-chips in for 30 minutes instead of three minutes … an early lesson to stay away from highly processed food, perhaps!

Thank you from Helen

Helen Coleman, WCRF researcherI'm an Academy Fellow, which means that when I was at the start of my career, World Cancer Research Fund paid for me to go on a course related to cancer prevention. Fellowships are awarded to scientific or policy professionals at various stages of their career to broaden their knowledge of cancer prevention and survival through diet, nutrition or physical activity. Your donations help us to create experts – thank you.