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Working life: Trials Manager Jen Lawson

by Guest Author on 24 Aug 2016

Jennifer Lawson is the Trials Manager for the recently launched Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study looking to do the most in-depth research ever conducted to find out how Alzheimer’s disease develops. She is part of Professor Simon Lovestone’s Translational Neuroscience and Dementia Research group at the University of Oxford.


Career in brief

  • Psychology BSc
  • Worked at the Oxford Mental Health Trust as a Research Coordinator
  • Part time Cognitive Neuroscience MSc whilst working full time at the Trust
  • Managed the feasibility study that has led to this Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study

My career path has been slightly unusual. Like many of my peers studying psychology, I planned to become a clinical psychologist. So I went to gain experience working in Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, assisting with clinical trials and other research studies.

I quickly realised that I had found a fascinating area that I really enjoyed and wanted to keep on working in. Now I’m a trials manager at the University of Oxford, in the Department of Psychiatry. I’m one of the few people I know in the department doing this sort of work who doesn’t have a PhD. So far I haven’t needed one. I do quite often get people writing to Dr Lawson and I wonder who that is.

Part-time study, full-time work

Once I realised that I wanted to stay in research, I began my MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience. I studied part time while working full time at the Trust. It did kill a lot of my evenings and weekends for about two years, but it was worth it. I enjoyed it but above all I think having that extra qualification studying neuroscience in more depth, bumped my CV enough to move my career forwards.

My first multi-centre study

The feasibility work that lead to this research was the first multi-centre study I’d run, which was somewhat daunting at first. I was aware that there was a lot to learn and new challenges to face, but it went extremely smoothly. I’d done a lot of work in local centres and when I moved onto multi-centre trials I found that the same kinds of problems that I have to tackle locally exist, but on a bigger scale. Issues were mostly around logistics and how the protocol would work in particular centres. Centres had subtly different set-ups so I had to work with them to ensure things could be adapted as necessary.

An unusual trials manager

I think often people look for postdocs to do this kind of job, and that makes me an unusual trials manager. However I think my experience helped me more than anything else – I’d spent a lot of time working on drug trials led by the pharmaceutical industry and on studies run by academics here in the department. I had come across a lot of the challenges that research studies tend to face, and after a while I developed a good eye for which things I need to be concerned about, and which things are reasonably straightforward to resolve.

It’s fascinating to be part of a team looking for treatments for Alzheimer’s disease and understanding how the disease works. It’s a field with such huge unknowns and people are making advances all the time.

Important work

I am quite lucky in that I don’t have a history of Alzheimer’s in my family. But unfortunately, many of my friends have. As a kid I used to go with my best friend to see his grandma after school almost every day. She developed Alzheimer’s some years after we finished school and passed away just a couple of years ago, which was devastatingly sad for everyone that knew and loved her. It’s so prevalent, it affects nearly everyone in some way. It feels particularly worthwhile to be working on something that touches so many people’s lives.

I love being part of this group. We’re not just looking for biomarkers and running clinical trials, we also have people in the group looking at basic science, cell cultures, animal models and mining complicated datasets.

Do I belong here?

The first talk I attended here made no sense to me and I remember thinking – ‘should I even be in this room?’ But over time I’ve learnt so much from it. You often don’t realise how much you have picked up until someone asks you a question about something, and you find you can explain it pretty well. That’s one of the best things about working in such a diverse research group – we are constantly challenged to make our work accessible, spurred on by the blank looks we get from each other if we don’t.

Communication is key

I take every opportunity to communicate the work I do. In medical research, the reality of developing new treatments or therapies is that they take a long time to translate into clinical practice and to reach patients. The unfortunate effect of some media reporting is that findings can be over-inflated, giving unfounded hope when research is years away from clinical application. But, if communicated correctly, I think people can take a lot of hope from the exciting advances taking place in medical research.

I think the more researchers who are happy to speak to the camera and the media, the better. It’s easy as a scientist to sit in your office and not interact with the media or go out and do public speaking because you’re busy with your research. But it’s important: we need to get out there and explain why our research matters.

As told to Sylvie Kruiniger

Jen talks about the joys and challenges of working in an interdisciplinary team in our MRC talks podcast.

The Deep and Frequent Phenotyping study is a new multimillion pound study, involving the most thorough and rigorous series of tests to detect Alzheimer’s disease ever performed on volunteers. Funded by the MRC and the National Institute of Health Research it hopes to improve the success rate of clinical trials for treatments in Alzheimer’s disease. In the below video Jen explains why the study is needed. 


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