24, and researching a cure for cancer...

Sam, 24, is doing his PhD in cancer research at the Institute of Cancer Research and Imperial College London where his work is funded by Stand Up To Cancer. We get the inside info. 


Where are you from originally?

I grew up in a small village on the south coast called Emsworth. I moved to London about six years ago for university and haven’t left.

I’m currently in the final year of my PhD in cancer research working with both the Institute of Cancer Research (Department of Cancer Biology) and Imperial College London (Section of Computational Medicine), where I did my undergraduate in Biochemistry.

In my PhD I’m using artificial intelligence (AI) to try and improve the way in which we treat and diagnose cancer.

I got into programming quite early on, as I used to make online computer games back in school.

Going to university I decided to study Biochemistry as it’s an area we know so little about. Everything in biology is super complex and hard for people to understand, so my general plan was that we could one day get computers to understand biology a lot better than we can and then use computers to cure disease. This meant I always kept up programming and sat in on quite a few computer science lectures. 

I made the full transfer to data analysis and artificial intelligence in my PhD.
I now spend my days programming and developing neural networks, all with a focus on how we can diagnose and cure diseases a lot faster than we do already.

What's so great about working in tech?

There’s a huge amount of excitement in the field of AI at the moment. Having spent decades playing games, doing cool things with pictures, and toying around in simulated worlds it feels like the field is finding a deeper purpose and tackling several massive challenges facing humanity. This is especially apparent in healthcare, where everyone from the tech giants to PhD students like myself are attempting to use AI to accelerate everything from drug discovery to surgery.

I also love the speed I can work at. With access to thousands of computer cores, I can run most of my code in minutes. Everyone in tech has such a can-do attitude. People come up with crazy ideas and then make them happen.

What would you like to do in the future?

I’m coming to the end of my PhD and facing the decision of what next. I’ve recently created a neural network that does a pretty good job of diagnosing cancer tissue images; it demonstrates performance levels similar to trained pathologists. I’m applying for some funding to continue developing this technology.

A lot of the work in my lab is funded by Cancer Research UK. I always have in the back of my mind that the work is being supported by people doing a fantastic job of raising and donating money.

More specifically, I’ve worked on some really cool projects, looking at how living cells are affected by DNA damage. Chemotherapy causes DNA damage, but at the moment people generally just apply one drug at regular intervals. If we can find out when a cancer cell is most vulnerable to chemotherapy, perhaps we can use AI to design a custom made sequence of drugs for every patient that will put all of the cells in their most vulnerable place.

“I’ve worked on some really cool projects, looking at how living cells are affected by DNA damage.”

I’m also working on diagnosing histology images. Here, the idea is a lot simpler. Create AI that can do a faster, better job of diagnosing tumour tissue. This would in turn free up funding and pathologists to work on more advanced diagnostic procedures, meaning that patients get results back faster. 


Careers, University, HealthEmily Baulf