Inspirational Woman: Dr Julia Morris | Cancer Drug Discovery Scientist, Mentor & Co-Director, Mentorship and Outreach, Black in Cancer

Meet Dr Julia Morris

Cancer Drug Discovery Scientist, Mentor & Co-Director, Mentorship and Outreach, Black in Cancer

Dr Julia Morris is a cancer drug discovery scientist, mentor and the Co-Director of Mentorship and Outreach for Black in Cancer. Julia is proud of her Jamaican heritage and holds fast to the Jamaican proverb taught to her by her Grandfather: “if yuh want good, yuh nose haffi run”. Translation: in order to be successful in reaching your goals, you must be willing to put in hard work.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

My name is Julia and I’m currently a Senior Bioscientist in the Drug Discovery Unit, Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute. I am responsible for designing, developing, and conducting experiments to evaluate the ability of new pre-clinical cancer drugs (designed by our in-house medicinal chemists) to kill cancer cells in a precise manner. Ultimately, we hope that these inhibitors will eventually help to treat cancer more effectively. Additionally, I volunteer for Black in Cancer as the Co-Director of Mentorship and Outreach. Black in Cancer is an organisation that operates in the UK and USA that was founded in 2020 by Sigourney Bell and Dr Henry Henderson III. Black in Cancer aims to bring aspiring and established Black cancer researchers, clinicians, patients, and professionals who work in oncology, together to network and bring light to excellent work and in cancer research and medicine. Before I started working, I studied Cellular and Molecular Medicine with Study in Industry at the University of Bristol (graduated 2015) and later gained my PhD in Molecular Biology and Biotechnology from the University of Sheffield in 2020.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, not meticulously. I developed an interest in science at a young age. My GCSE Science teacher was the first person with a PhD that I got a chance to sit down and talk to about what a PhD was. This really inspired me, and it contributed to my decision to pursue a PhD. These series of conversations helped me to plan my course to PhD which involved at least two science A Levels, an undergraduate degree in biochemistry or biomedical science and plenty of lab experience. Over the years my short-term and long-term career goals and aspirations have developed and grown and are continuing to do so as a I become more established in my career.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Yes, I found the transition between sixth form and university quite difficult, it took me a few years to fully adjust to the academic level required for my undergraduate degree. I’m thankful to my tutors and lecturers who took the time out to explain concepts I was struggling to grasp and help me write better essays! Secondly, applying for PhD applications was a steep learning curve but again I’m thankful to the people who helped me refine my CV and cover letters. Finally, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has been incredibly difficult time. Like many, I faced a great deal of uncertainty in my career, however, I’m thankful for where I am today.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

After many years of keeping my head down studying for exams, reading papers, and doing experiments in the lab, I’m now thankful for the opportunity to encourage the next generation of scientists and be the ‘evidence’ that someone who looks like me can have a career in scientific research. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to speak at schools in the UK and abroad, mentored students 1-2-1 and played a major part in the launch of the inaugural ‘Black in Cancer mentorship program’ and I’m proud.

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What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

I would not have made it through my studies and the start of my career without my excellent support system. My family have kept me grounded, reminded me of who I am during wobbly times and provided continuous and unrelenting support. It would be remiss of me not to specifically mention my grandparents (the four trailblazers) who emigrated from Jamaica in the 1960s. I am here because of their sacrifice.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Mentorship is so important, particularly for people who don’t know anyone who has walked the career path that they’re interested in pursuing. I really enjoy mentoring and would describe myself as a big advocate! I currently am mentoring a handful of students in various stages of their academic careers. I’m thankful for the opportunity to share about my career journey thus far and I get a lot out of our meetings, they’re so inspiring!

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

I’d have to go with increased opportunities to work flexibly including compressed hours (I love the 4-day work week initiative), hybrid-working and work-from-home opportunities.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

I would encourage my younger self not to be ashamed of her love of learning and desire to understand the nuts and bolts of human disease. I’d say, “you’ll be surprised where your curiosity will take you”!

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

In October, Black in Cancer is hosting its first conference in collaboration with Cancer Research UK. I’m looking forward to hearing some good science, participating in good discussions, and networking! Additionally, we are now accepting applications for the next cycle of the Black in Cancer Mentorship Program. I’m excited to meet our next cohort and to see them thrive.

This year marks 20 years since Cancer Research UK was formed. You can read more about the charity’s anniversary year here.

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