School of Life Sciences


PhD Spotlight: Fiona Scott

Fiona Scott

PhD in Drug Discovery

I’ve been working in the chemistry labs of the Sussex Drug Discovery Centre (SDDC) making and optimising drug-like molecules, called chemical tools or probes. Specifically I’ve been working on tools which aim to shut down the action of an enzyme called protein kinase N2 (PKN2). Kinases are signalling proteins in our bodies that tell our cells to do all sorts of important jobs. Unfortunately, some of them go rogue and send the wrong signals at the wrong time, such as telling a cancer cell to keep dividing. PKN2 is a kinase we don’t understand particularly well and is reportedly involved in several sub-types of cancer and potentially inflammation and heart disease as well.

There are over 50 market-approved drugs that target kinases for a plethora of diseases, mainly cancers, which has proved to be a fruitful area in drug discovery over the last 20 years. At present, however, we only understand what around 20% of the 518 kinases in our bodies do. We therefore need good quality probes to help define the role of kinases such as PKN2 in both healthy and disease biology to see if it is a viable drug target of the future.

One of my probes will hopefully be good enough to help those studying PKN2 figure out its role(s) in cells. The aim would then be to further optimise that probe molecule into a drug candidate for treating a disease, such as a type of cancer, that involves PKN2 in some way.

The thing I find most interesting about my work is that a lot of the molecules I’ve made don’t seem to have been made before. I love being on that cliff edge of human knowledge. My proudest achievement while working on my PhD is that I’ve answered the basic question of “Can you drug PKN2 without too many side effects?” – yes, you can. Now that I’m in the write-up stage of my project, it’s nice to see the story of my research come together.

Rather ironically, just before starting my PhD at Sussex, I had to delay starting my course after a diagnosis of thyroid cancer. Luckily this is a “good” cancer to have, if such a thing exists, and after a few months of surgery and radioiodine therapy I was well enough to continue with my move to Brighton.

“Do a cool thing in a cool place” is the benchmark I use for making decisions about my life. Brighton certainly is a cool place! Aside from the warmer climate and proximity to London, I was particularly impressed with the SDDC’s set-up. It seemed like a well-resourced learning environment to carry out my PhD.

The SDDC has been a lovely group of people to work alongside. The expertise and equipment I’ve had access to have certainly made some aspects of my project easier. However, the Centre has been through some leadership changes over the time I’ve been here and, as is the nature of research, people come and go as grants run their course. I’ve found this aspect of my time at Sussex uncertain and challenging but it has certainly taught me to be resilient!

I’m passionate about drug development and communicating science well so I’m hoping to pursue a medical writing career or something similar once I’ve finished my PhD. I knew at the start of this PhD that my tolerance for chemistry lab work was only going to last a few more years so I’m looking for a position that takes me away from the lab bench.

My advice to those who are about to embark on a similar PhD would be to establish a good support network around you, both inside and outside of the lab. A PhD takes a lot of resilience and self-motivation, more than I expected, and you’ll need those people for celebrating the highs and working through the lows. You should also find at least one other interest outside of your work (a hobby, a pastime, a side hustle) that gives your brain a break from the science now and again.

Find out more about Fiona’s PhD on her blog,, Instagram @thechemistryofaphd or Twitter @fi0n0

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By: Jessica Gowers
Last updated: Friday, 31 January 2020

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