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Researchers from OCDEM recently attended the ‘Innovators in Diabetes’ programme – a Diabetes UK-supported scheme now in its 10th year. The programme aims to create a vibrant diabetes research network and facilitate knowledge exchange. Dr Kerry McLaughlin, postdoctoral researcher in OCDEM and programme alumni, tells us more about the day.

iDia alumni and faculty from the University of Oxford
iDia alumni and faculty from the University of Oxford Left to right: Dr Lisa Heather (DPAG), Dr Quan Zhang (OCDEM), Dr James Cantley (DPAG), Dr Kerry McLaughlin (OCDEM), Prof Anna Gloyn (OCDEM/WTCHG), Dr Nicola Beer (formerly OCDEM/ currently NNRCO), Dr Matt Simmonds (formerly OCDEM / Currently University of Lincoln)

The Diabetes UK-supported ‘Innovators in Diabetes’ (iDia) programme held its 10-year anniversary in November in Camden. Previous alumni from the programme attended alongside the faculty, Elizabeth Robertson (Director of Research at Diabetes UK) and her team from Diabetes UK, as well as industry sponsors.

Lunch on arrival offered a great opportunity for everyone to catch up with old friends and colleagues and meet members of the programme from different intakes. Richard Holt, Professor and Honorary Consultant in Diabetes and Endocrinology at the University of Southampton, then kicked off formal proceedings with a warm welcome to current and past members.

The first session included talks from iDia graduates about their career paths since iDia. Dr Nicola Beer, previously of OCDEM, University of Oxford, talked about her new role as Head of Department - Stem Cell Engineering at the Novo Nordisk Research Centre Oxford and her hopes for greater integration between industry and academia during early drug discovery. Nicola also highlighted the importance of great mentorship and friendship, a key facet of the iDia programme, in her personal career development. Professor Mike Trennell, University of Newcastle, spoke about making the most of great opportunities as they present themselves to help navigate the complexities of a research career; whilst Professor Katarina Kos, University of Exeter, likened her career path to a series of peaks to climb, with supportive colleagues and friends as her very own Base Camp.

Both the University of Oxford and University of Exeter have continued to have a strong showing at iDia, with new recruits from one or both institutions most years. Dr Sarah Richardson and Dr Angus Jones from Exeter talked about the impact of iDia in Exeter, detailing an impressive number of publications, successful grant applications and new collaborations attributed to iDia members over the last few years. Sarah and Angus also talked about how one of the aims of iDia – to bring basic scientists and clinicians closer together – had facilitated a much stronger relationship between these areas back in their own institute. Dr Lisa Heather, DPAG, then talked about the impact of iDia at Oxford. Lisa explained how the transferable skills and leadership training delivered at iDia had led to further success outside of the programme, and highlighted the importance of new collaborations stemming directly from iDia’s annual meetings.

We were then split into groups to prepare for the following day’s team presentations before coming together again to listen to the keynote lecture from Andrew Hattersley, Professor of Molecular Medicine at the University of Exeter. Andrew explained how the path to his now illustrious career was not always smooth and how the difficulties he’d encountered in his early career had motivated him as a leader. He encouraged us, as the new generation of leaders, to recognise the importance of good leadership and great team building, and to remember how the people around us are our best asset.

Later, we enjoyed a fantastic dinner, another hallmark of the iDia programme, while getting to know some new faces. A major topic of conversation was how we continue to break down the barriers in scientific and medical research, between basic scientists and clinicians, between academia and industry, and even across geographical distances. The importance of the iDia programme in bridging some of these divides was commended, but it was also acknowledged that we need to do more to integrate scientists and clinicians across the country outside of this network.

The following morning saw the team presentations, starting with a debate on whether the protection of intellectual freedom is stifling diabetes research. The debate culminated in a discussion of how we balance the needs of commercialisation versus open access of data, and acknowledged the importance of a greater understanding of the path to technology transfer so that scientific progress is not hindered.

Light relief was then provided by the team tasked with putting on a promotional sketch for iDia who brought us ‘The D Factor’! Scientists and clinicians from iDia pitched their ideas for the next big thing in diabetes research, before the judges (the faculty) and their celebrity guest (Andrew Hattersley) decided to put them in a group called ‘The Innovators’ to make best use of their combined skills and expertise. Finbarr O’Harte was a perfect fit for Louis Walsh while Anna Gloyn provided the glamour as Nicole Scherzinger, and of course, many of the contestants were desperate to impress Simon Cowell aka Richard Holt!

We've got the D factor!We've got the D factor!

The final presentations used a “Dragon’s Den” format for two teams to present their pitch on a business strategy for diabetes research over the next 10 years. Team Science was a major focus of both presentations, once again highlighting the importance of collaborative efforts to advance research. The importance of nurturing early career researchers and encouraging innovation were also emphasised.

Dr Elizabeth Robertson, Director of Research at Diabetes UK, closed the meeting with a message of Diabetes UK’s continuing commitment to both type 1 and type 2 diabetes research. She explained how diabetes researchers (including members of iDia), healthcare professionals and people living with diabetes were being brought together in the UK’s first Clinical Studies Groups for diabetes to ensure that the best and most important research is prioritised.

This 10 year anniversary really highlighted the great work that iDia has done in training, supporting and promoting the next generation of diabetes researchers. The spirit of friendship and camaraderie amongst members has been pivotal to its continued success and the incredible input over the years from the current and past faculty members, Professors Richard Holt, Finbarr O’Harte, John Wilding, Anna Gloyn, and Jonathan Richards cannot be understated.

Being part of iDia is an invaluable experience for early career scientists and clinicians who are committed to diabetes research – I highly recommend getting involved! 

The IDia programme is now open for applications for the 2018 session, with a closing date of 22 January 2018.