ICAT offers a new way to combine science and medicine

Researcher profile: Dr Sarah Cormican is on track to become a clinician-scientist thanks to a new programme part-funded by the HRB that will see her specialise in renal medicine while doing a PhD on the effects of kidney disease on the immune system. She talks to Dr Claire O'Connell ...

Dr Sarah Cormican, NUI Galway

When Dr Sarah Cormican was in school, she enjoyed science and she also knew she wanted to work directly with people. She went on to study medicine at NUI Galway, and now that she has qualified as a doctor she is bringing the science back in. She is training to become a clinician scientist, a doctor who practises medicine and who also has a strong research career.

Sarah is on track to combine clinical medicine and science thanks to the new Wellcome-HRB Irish Clinical Academic Training (ICAT) programme.

‘It’s a seven-year scheme, and the idea is that people can do clinical and academic training at the same time’, explains Sarah, who started the ICAT fellowship in July 2017. 

‘It means we can complete our training in a specialty that we choose and we can also do a PhD in that area’.

Flavours of research  

Sarah is one of eight Fellows on this first year of the initiative, and she is already building firm friendships with her peers through a shared WhatsApp group and monthly face-to-face meetings.

‘Between us we cover a broad range of interests, from psychiatry and public health to infectious disease, endocrinology, dermatology and my own chosen area is renal medicine, which looks at kidneys’, she says.  

Sarah got her first taste of research as an undergraduate medical student when she completed an 8-week summer project with Professor Seán Dinneen in NUI Galway. She looked at a potentially new way of assessing the pressure points on the foot for people with diabetes, in order to figure out if they were likely to need specialised foot care. Her work earned her an award in that year’s HRB Watt Medal competition, and boosted Sarah’s interest in research.

Focus on kidneys

Following a highly successful medical degree, Sarah worked as an intern in Galway University Hospital, where she found she enjoyed working with the renal team to help patients with kidney problems.

‘After that I went to Beaumont for SHO training which included working into the Renal unit there and the opportunity to continue doing some research with Professor Peter Conlon alongside clinical work’, she says.   With such a track record, it is probably no surprise that Sarah wants to look at kidneys for her PhD research, which she will do on the immune system’s response to kidney disease and dialysis. ‘I want to look at the effects of kidney disease on white blood cells, specifically monocytes’, she explains. ‘Monocytes are important in first response to infections and also become important in inflammatory diseases, including atherosclerosis. They may also be important in inflammation and fibrosis in the kidney. The way monocytes work changes in people with kidney disease and I want to look at the biochemical pathways that are involved in these responses’.  

Through ICAT, Sarah has already had two months to carry out a ‘mini-project’ to test the feasibility of her thesis idea and to start recruiting patients. ‘I really enjoyed that, I enjoy the labwork’, she says.

Retreat for reflection

And ahead of starting her PhD next summer with Professor Matthew Griffin in REMEDI in NUI Galway, she got to road-test her ideas with experts at the recent ICAT Retreat in Dublin, which featured guest speakers such as immunologist Professor Luke O’Neill from Trinity College Dublin, obesity expert Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly from the University of Cambridge, stroke physician Professor David Williams from the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and consultant surgeon Associate Professor Aoife Lowery from NUI Galway. 

‘As Fellows, we got to present our PhD proposals at the retreat’, says Sarah. ‘We each heard about what everyone else is going and we got feedback from the ICAT directors and external experts who gave us really helpful talks and advice about balancing careers’. 

Balancing patient care and research  

Sarah’s Dad, microbiologist Professor Martin Cormican, has had a strong influence on her interest in using research to help patients, and she sees the ICAT programme as a way to combining her interest both in caring for patients with kidney problems and in deepening our scientific understanding of the field. 

With a busy schedule as she continues her training in renal medicine, Sarah has little time for a break, but when she gets the chance she likes to read and she enjoys road running. And she is looking forward to the road ahead.