Dr Karl Staples

 K Staples

What was your educational career path?

I studied biology and chemistry at college and then went to Surrey University to study BSc Biochemistry and Toxicology. At the time, I was very interested in doing forensic science and I was lucky to have worked for the Forensic Science Service in Birmingham in the R&D department.

This helped me realise that I really enjoyed  research, doing different things every day, getting new results and figuring out what they meant.  After I finished my undergraduate degree I applied to do a PhD. I had a brief wobble in the middle where I started a PhD in toxicology, as after 16 months they closed my department. I eventually achieved my PhD at Imperial College looking at airways disease and specifically the immunology of asthma.

What are your main areas of research?

Immunology of the lungs, specifically how it goes wrong in asthma and COPD. Also the role it plays in the exacerbations of these diseases, caused by viruses, bacteria and infections. I’m specifically interested in the host pathogen interaction.

Luckily, during my PhD, I was at the National Heart and Lung Institute which was and still is a world-leading centre for respiratory research.

Who and what inspired you to embark on a health research related career?

This will really date me, but I originally loved forensics because I watched Quincy, M.E., a pre-CSI show with a forensic pathologist lead. I always wanted to do applied science, science that was going to do achieve something so I chose forensic science; I was going to solve crimes.

When you see how much we don’t know, even the most basic science offers insight into what is really going on, especially in terms of lungs. For example, we used to think that the lungs were sterile but we now know that nothing that interacts with the outside world is sterile.

We now know so much more than we did only 10 years ago, but even then, the asthma and COPD drugs only controlled the symptoms of the diseases, not cured them. We need to change this by either treating or preventing these diseases in the first place as the position hasn’t changed since the start of my career.

What is your response to being nominated?

Surprised, but happy! Mentoring is such a part and parcel of what we do it is very gratifying to be recognised for something that is usually taken for granted.

What have been the highs and lows of your career?

The lows include the constant tension of not having any funding; I’ve moved institutions twice now. After my PhD my first post-doc was in the US, which lasted for two years before the funding ran out. I came back to England and spent a difficult six months being unemployed.

When I got funding in Southampton but not Leicester, I transferred down south. My daughter was five months old and for the first few months I only went back at weekends, it took six months for her to trust me again. So, I’m used to being rejected, she sort of trusts me now and she’s 13!

The highs? Getting your work published and receiving a grant feels brilliant! Knowing that your job is safe and that your ideas and science are worthy of funding. I also really enjoy watching my students graduate, especially knowing how much hard work has gone in for them to get to that point.

The beauty of research is often that you are the first person to know something and I think that’s really quite cool!

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud that I have applied for grants, done the work and I’ve published something at the end of it. Sometimes as a scientist you can get stuck in a cycle of just trying to do one more experiment, but at the end you have to stop and produce something that people think is worthwhile. 

As a lab scientist, you can be a really good scientist, but get too focused on the techniques, to be really successful, you have to be able to manage a whole project. I am really pleased that I got involved with doing real clinical research, which was a substantial learning curve but meant that I had far more skills than I ever thought I would get sitting in a lab.

What do you do when you’re not working at Southampton?

I’m a member of a few learned societies and currently the meeting secretary for the British Association of Lung Research which is very interesting. It’s given me a broader focus of what is happening nationally rather than just our institution.

What advice would you give someone looking for a career in health related research?

Ask yourself “why do you want to do a PhD?” as it needs to sustain you for four years and possibly seven years in a clinical environment.

Sustaining an interest in a single area for seven years means commitment and your own reason for doing so. Everyone’s reason is different, but you need to be confident that it will sustain you. It helps if you have your own question in mind and go into research thinking “I want to know this”.

The other thing I always ask is “what do you want to do next?” If you have a career ambition you need to know how to get there. There’s no point doing a PhD and falling into a post-doc, especially if it won’t help you attain your next goal. If you want a career in science you need to have a plan of how to achieve it.

Some days things won’t work! Science is at least 99% failure! You need to have some failed experiments to show you what you need to do next.

Make the most of your opportunities! PhD students often have access to loads of opportunities and courses. Whether you want to teach, do scientific outreach or have a more clinical focus (especially as we work at a hospital), make sure you use these chances to your benefit.

Are there research opportunities for early career researchers in any future projects?

It’s all dependent on the funding situation but we currently have one in new biological therapies for asthma and COPD are antibodies. Nobody really knows how they work or where they act in the lungs and we currently have a project that looks at where these new therapies act. We will be looking at what cells bind to these treatments and where these cells can be found in lung tissue using microCT and HRCT.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Find a mentor who’s a slightly more senior to you and that you are happy to talk to! You’ll get a different perspective on events and help you sustain your studies. The University has a formal mentoring scheme if you need it, and you don’t need the same mentor for your whole period of study. It’s easy to get tunnel vision during a PhD and sometimes you need help to keep your head clear.

Finally, don’t be afraid to try things and always have a side project. Main projects have an annoying habit of letting you down!