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Bringing medical research to your door

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Published on 17 January 2024

 The John and Sam Dawson PhD Scholars: Georgia Howick, Sarah Helm and Jeni Devi
The John and Sam Dawson PhD Scholars: Georgia Howick, Sarah Helm and Jeni Devi

The University of Sunderland is taking the next step in bringing medical research from the lab to your local doctor with the announcement of the first three John and Sam Dawson PhD Scholars.

The John Dawson Drug Discovery and Development Research Institute was created in 2023 to help improve the health and the wellbeing of millions of people worldwide. The Institute was created thanks to a generous £5 million donation from pharmaceutical entrepreneur John Dawson and his wife, Sam. John, a graduate of the University, is the former CEO of Alliance Pharma, a world-leading international healthcare organisation.

The John and Sam Dawson PhD Scholarship Programme was launched following the opening. The Institute aims to find and support talented researchers in drug discovery, diagnostics and biomarkers, drug delivery, data science and Artificial Intelligence. 

Sarah Helm, Georgia Howick and Jenileima (Jeni) Devi are the first John and Sam Dawson PhD Scholars, and are now based at the John Dawson Sciences Complex on the University’s City Campus.

Sarah Helm, 41, from Blyth, Northumberland, has worked in the NHS for 19 years in the Haematology and Transfusion departments at Northumbria Healthcare Trust as a Biomedical Scientist. Now Sarah is pursuing research into blood cancers.

She says: “It is a really wonderful experience being able to carry out research in a topic in such an interesting field that I’m so passionate about. And it is wonderful to be able to do this in such a supportive learning environment. 

“After my PhD I would like to have a career in research particularly in the field of cancer immunotherapy.”

Fellow PhD student Georgia Howick, 22, from Brighton, recently completed her Masters degree in Pharmaceutical Chemistry at Manchester Metropolitan University, and is now examining ways of developing drugs for the treatment of renal diseases.

“Being awarded this studentship has been an incredible opportunity for me to join a great team of individuals and start my career in drug discovery research,” says Georgia. “I have been able to meet like-minded people in my field and start working on an exciting project.

“I hope to continue working to contribute to the field of drug discovery and develop new medicines.”

Jeni Devi, 39, is originally from Imphal, north-east India, but now lives in Newcastle, where she completed her MSc in Industrial and Commercial Biotechnology, after working as a bioscientist for 12 years. 

“The John and Sam Dawson PhD studentship has given flight to a dream that I have harboured in my heart for a long time,” Jeni says. “As a bioscientist, research has been at the centre of my work for the last 12 years.

“This PhD studentship is the wind beneath my wings, giving me the ability to pursue my research dream in antibiotic drug discovery in an environment that is well-structured with support, resources and mentoring.

“I feel honoured and grateful to be a recipient, and with the encouragement I have been provided I feel ready to chase this dream tenaciously.”

Professor Jane Armstrong is the newly-appointed Head of the John Dawson Drug Discovery and Development Research Institute at the University of Sunderland. 

Professor Armstrong says: “The John and Sam Dawson PhD Scholarships are a fantastic opportunity for the University to invest in scientific careers and fund high quality, innovative research which aligns to the strategic investment areas of the John Dawson Drug Discovery and Development Research Institute. 

“After a highly competitive application process, we have appointed three outstanding candidates. I look forward to seeing their progression and contribution to their chosen field as they develop into independent researchers over the next three years.”

As well as supporting the PhD Scholars as Head of the Institute, Professor Armstrong is conducting her own research into skin cancer. 

“Since 2022 I have been working as a consultant for AMLo Biosciences focussing on development of novel prognostic tests for skin cancer,” says Professor Armstrong. “From January 2024 I will take up the role of Chief Research Officer on a part-time basis.”

AMLo Biosciences are based in Newcastle, and provide prognostic tests for early stage melanoma to better identify patients true risk of disease progression.

“My University work will prioritise leading the John Dawson Drug Discovery and Development Research Institute, with recruitment of additional staff in early 2024 to support the day-to-day management of the Institute.”

The John Dawson Drug Discovery and Development Research Institute brings together expertise in clinical, laboratory and data science to address issues of local, national and international importance. The new Institute will focus on areas including the discovery of new medicines, developing targeted delivery methods and the identification, development and validation of biological markers and tests to diagnose or monitor disease.