Q&A – Serena Best

Materials World magazine
1 Sep 2017

Kathryn Allen talks to Serena Best CBE FREng FIMMM about her career and securing funding for the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials.   

Tell me about your background and career to date.

My first degree was in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Surrey, UK. In 1986, I moved to Queen Mary College, University of London for my PhD on the development of a bioactive ceramic – hydroxyapatite. Following this, and after a short time in industry with the Cookson Group, I returned to Queen Mary and Westfield College in 1991 to head the bioceramics activity for the Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Biomedical Materials under the Directorship of Professor Bill Bonfield. I stayed for around ten years, first as a research associate, then a lecturer and then a reader. During this time we developed a porous, substituted hydroxyapatite bone graft. I moved to the University of Cambridge, UK, in 2000 and shortly after, a spinout company called Apatech was formed, based on the bone graft research of the London team. In Cambridge, I continued working on bone replacement materials, but have more recently focused on collagen scaffolds for a range of different applications for soft tissue repair. 

Why did you choose to study biomaterials? 

Professor Bonfield came to give a talk at the University of Surrey while I was an undergraduate. I was so inspired by the research he described that I immediately arranged to meet with him to talk about the possibility of working with him in the field. Our initial chat led to my PhD  – and so began a very long and fruitful collaboration. 

What does your day-to-day work involve? 

As a Professor of Materials Science, I work very closely with my colleague Ruth Cameron and, together, we run a research group of about 30 students and postdoctoral researchers. We meet with the researchers to discuss ideas for research on scaffold production and characterisation for the various areas of tissue regeneration that we are tackling. However, in addition to teaching and supervising, I am Senior Vice President of IOM3, Chair of the Biomedical Engineering Panel and MedTech Community of Practice for the Royal Academy of Engineering. 

What has been your biggest career highlight? 

It has been extremely rewarding to know that a material originally developed in our laboratory is now used to help bone repair in patients worldwide. So much of the excellent biomedical materials research undertaken at universities never makes it into clinical application.  

Tell me about the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials. 

Professor Bonfield originally established the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials (CCMM) when he joined the University of Cambridge in 2000. When he retired, Ruth and I decided that we would run the activity together. So, starting in 2006, we began to establish new areas of research, collaborating with industry and other universities across the UK and around the world. 

What impact, if any, do you think Brexit will have on the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials?

We are fortunate to have been very well funded, over the years, by UK funding bodies, industry and charities, but also by EU grants. We hope very much to be able to maintain our funding links with our European colleagues, since this has led to a number of excellent collaborations. We hope that the post-Brexit research funding strategy will allow the UK to participate in similar collaborations in the future.   

You applied for an EPSRC Fellowship on a job share-style basis – could you explain how this works and why you decided to do this?

Ruth and I had been co-Directors of the CCMM since 2006. Throughout that time, we had both chosen to work part-time since we were bringing up our respective young families. The joint management of CCMM worked very smoothly since our complementary working week allowed us to manage research jointly and seamlessly, whether only one of us or both of us happened to be in the office. We contacted EPRSC to explain our rather special arrangements and it was agreed that we could submit a joint Fellowship application to reflect this method of working. 

How was your proposal received by the EPSRC?

The idea was received very warmly by EPSRC and, although we caused a few challenges with the online system, we were supported and advised through to the application submission. From then on, our proposal went through all of the normal peer review processes and we are very grateful that the Joint Professorial Fellowship was awarded. 

How did you find the process of applying for funding? 

The process took no longer than the normal timeframe and, after submitting our proposal in the summer of 2015, we had our interview in February 2016 and started the project in late spring of that year. The slowest part was probably our delay in putting pen to paper to start writing the application. 

What advice do you have for others looking to secure funding?

We found that it was very helpful to speak to the contacts at EPRSC. At the outset, we wanted to enquire whether our scheme would even be possible. We held telephone conversations and had a face-to-face meeting. This proved to be very helpful and important to ensure that the rather unusual ‘shape’ of our application was already understood, before it was received.

Do you think enough funding is being put into STEM industries? 

There is a significant amount of support for research in STEM areas, however with medical translation in particular, the time required to develop a new clinical product can be very long indeed. Our success with spinning out products has been the result of sustained levels of funding over many years. This, and the need for support in the latter stages of clinical translation are key factors in determining success in the field of tissue regeneration.

What are your plans at the end of the grant? 

Even at this relatively early stage of the project, both Ruth and I are brimming with new ideas and directions for the work. We hope to move towards clinical translation of some of the ideas that we had for the original project, but we also plan to expand our research and extend the work further through new grant proposals.