Kitty Sherwood on using genomics to better understand cancer risk

Kitty works in the research group of Dr Ailith Ewing at the Institute of Genetics and Cancer.

She is also supervised by Professor Susan Farrington (Institute of Genetics and Cancer) and Professor Ian Tomlinson (University of Oxford), and was awarded a Poster Prize at the 2023 Edinburgh Next Generation of Genomics Symposium (ENGoGS).

Kitty Sherwood in a park by a fountain

Tell us about the project you presented at ENGoGS23 and how your work involves genomics and makes use of genomic technologies.

At the ENGOG symposium, I presented my project which used whole genome sequencing data to investigate how inherited DNA repair deficiencies impact upon germline mutation rates, and to see if the molecular characteristics of these mutations change. More generally, my work uses whole genome sequencing with the aim of identifying mutations which increase cancer risk, with a particular focus on colorectal, endometrial and ovarian cancers. I am also involved in a project using long read sequencing to dive deeper into how structural variants and epigenetic modifications influence cancer risk.

Please summarise your previous work and career so far.

I completed my undergraduate degree in Biology at the University of Bristol and I then went to the University of Birmingham to study a master’s degree in Bioinformatics. I then relocated to the University of Edinburgh in 2019 where I became a research assistant at the Institute of Genetics and Cancer. 2 years in, I started my PhD alongside being an RA which I hope to finish at the end of this year.

What inspired you to follow your career path?

I have never had a career plan but I enjoyed biology and maths at school. When I was applying to go to university, I was very indecisive about which subjects to take but, in the end, I settled on biology. I’m very glad I did, but I learnt relatively quickly that wet-lab work wasn’t for me. When I started learning about bioinformatics and how fast the field was growing, I thought that seemed like a really interesting and fast-paced area to get involved in and make a difference!

Kitty Sherwood by a lake

If you could have tea with anyone (alive or dead), who would it be? What would you talk about?

I found this very hard to answer as there are lots of people I’d love to meet and ask questions all about their life! But I think my choice would be Elizabeth Day – she is an author and has a podcast all about how making mistakes is important in order for us to learn from them.

What is the most unusual thing you have done during your career?

During my undergrad we were learning about stats and we needed some data to work with. So they got each of us to eat as many crackers as we could in 2 minutes (which was normally distributed in case you were wondering)!

Do you have any advice for people wanting to pursue a research career? What do you like best about your job? What do you like the least?

I would say the best thing to do is to put yourself in situations where you meet as many different people as possible. There are so many areas of research that you might not know even exist and talking to people about them is a great way to learn. I try and do this now at conferences and have met some really interesting people from it, and also people who are working on similar projects to me who I can collaborate with.

My favourite thing about my job is the variety of work I get to do – I can’t imagine doing the same repetitive task all day every day. I also like knowing that everyone in the field is contributing towards a common goal of understanding cancer predisposition – it’s like a huge jigsaw puzzle where each finding adds another piece.

The thing I like least about my job is not having many options for career progression if you don’t want to be a PI.

How do you spend your time outside of research? Is there anything else you would like to tell us about?

I try and get outside in nature as much as I can, usually followed by one of the many great pubs Edinburgh has to offer. I am a bookworm and love reading in the company of my cat. I also play trumpet in a swing band!

Kitty Sherwood in the meadows by cherry trees in blossum