A graduate from a North East university has gone from an office in London, to performing cutting-edge research at the prestigious Children’s Cancer Institute in Sydney.

Helen Forgham arrived at the University of Sunderland with only a handful of GCSE’s and a long-standing curiosity for the human body and how it worked. After being accepted onto the Applied Biomedical Science Programme she excelled, and is now looking forward to working alongside acclaimed Australian scientist Professor Michelle Haber.

“I am originally from Croydon, Surrey, and left school at 16 very disillusioned by the education I had received. I immediately began working as a life guard at a local sports centre and by the age of 19 had moved to central London and worked my way up to middle-management.”

The 40-year-old became disenchanted with her career path so decided to change focus and become a personal trainer. Although she enjoyed the profession and was successful, Helen found that this early experience with physiology had only piqued her curiosity.

“After meeting someone I decided on a move to the North East. At this point I knew that I wanted to expand on my knowledge of the body, and that personal training for me only scratched the surface; I wanted to understand the body at the very deepest level, in both health and disease.

“To begin with I was a little daunted about the prospect of going back into the education system, but as soon as I started I loved it. I was fortunate to meet so many likeminded people along the way; we challenged and helped each other and I’m happy to say that almost all are now in their dream jobs.”

It was during her final year of study at Sunderland that Helen first encountered Dr Jane Carr-Wilkinson, who has gone on to inspire and mentor her in the field of neuroblastoma research – a rare type of cancer that mostly affects young children, the majority being under the age of five.

Helen added: “She had been working within the children’s cancer field, specialising in neuroblastoma, for a number of years and after listening to her discuss her research I immediately signed up as one of her project students. The more I researched, the more fascinated I became by this very complex and changeable cancer, which sadly still has an unacceptably low survival rate.

“Working as a Research Assistant for Dr Carr-Wilkinson, a senior lecturer with an interest in Paediatric Oncology, allowed me the opportunity to gain a cutting-edge research experience in the field of cancer biology and stem cells.”

Dr Carr-Wilkinson said: “Helen was a very enthusiastic and motivated student – she had a keen interest in Life Sciences which was evident from an early stage. In the final year of the BSc in Biomedical Sciences Helen pursued a laboratory research project in the field of Cancer Biology.

“She was always a pleasure to work with in the laboratory, and was a good team player with a drive to succeed, as well as an independent thinker – all qualities which are important in research.”

Helen’s dream from the outset was to complete a PhD, and it was Dr Carr-Wilkinson who suggested contacting Professor Haber, and her colleague Professor Norris, at Sydney’s Children’s Cancer Institute, as they are both considered world-leaders in the neuroblastoma field.

After exchanging emails and conducting a telephone interview the University of Sunderland graduate was offered the position of Research Assistant in Australia, and the life changing experience of the past few years looks set to continue.

“My contract is for a year in the first instance, but subject to funding may continue indefinitely. My goal is still to complete a PhD and with this kind of experience I know I will be in the best possible position, when the opportunity arises.”

Find Out More About Jane Carr-Wilkinson

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