NCMM Alumni: Ian Mills
Ian Mills was one of the first group leaders recruited to NCMM. He joined the Centre as head of the Prostate Cancer Research Group in 2010. Ian rotated out of NCMM in 2016 after accepting a permanent position at Queens University, Belfast.
The Mills Group in 2014. Back row (L-R): Ian Mills, Ingrid Guldvik, Harri Itkonen, Nikolai Engedal, Alfonso Urbanucci. Front row (L-R): Verena Zuber, Per Seglen, Morten Luhr and Lisa Gerner. Photo: Jarle Nyttingnes
Despite leaving Norway, Ian continues to collaborate with many of his previous group members and colleagues. Here, he describes how he found the process building up his group and what he finds most rewarding about working in research.
Can you tell me about your career before joining NCMM, and how you came to apply for the GL position?
I initially studied Biochemistry at the University of Oxford and completed a PhD in membrane trafficking at the University of Liverpool in 2000. I then spent three years doing a postdoc in Cambridge working on clathrin-coated vesicle formation; looking at how vesicles form on the cell surface.
Towards the end of 2003, I started to feel that I should be doing something more biomedical and applied for a position advertised by a surgeon who had just been recruited to Cambridge University to work on prostate cancer. He was the PI of a large prostate cancer trial and had been given the resources to set up a new group. However, he had no PhD or research background so he needed someone to take care of this aspect. It was advertised as a five-year position and, as a slightly naïve 20-something, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for me. I recruited PhD students and postdocs, building the group up to be a 15-person strong team over the next seven years. I then reached the point where I wanted to become fully independent but realised this wasn’t going to be possible in that particular group. My partner is Swedish and so the Nordics were an area we had always had in mind as somewhere to live and work.
I had had a taste of what it was like to start something from scratch during my time in Cambridge, so the Group Leader opportunity at NCMM was very attractive. The core financial support for the initial first five years was enough from which to build a small group and establish some research projects. After I was ranked for the position, the challenge was then how to ensure that the people I was responsible for in Cambridge still completed their PhD and postdoc projects. Fortunately, NCMM allowed me to move back and forth for a few months and I ended up publishing and completing projects with the Cambridge group over the next few years whilst generating new research and outputs in Oslo.
What were your experiences of building up your research group at NCMM?
Erlend (Nagelhus, former NCMM group leader) was recruited around the same time as me and so was on my first PhD interview panel. This was incredibly useful because he knew the Norwegian system. The timing of these first interviews, April 2010, happened to coincide with the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud. I was in the UK at the time and it appeared that all flights were cancelled for the foreseeable future. Given the complexities of arranging these interviews in the first place, I felt it would be impossible to re-arrange them. I somehow managed to get the train from London and 36 hours later arrived in Oslo just in time, having come via Brussels, Dortmund, Copenhagen, and Gothenburg. So this was quite a challenging start…!
From my experience, I knew that the people I initially recruited needed to be self-motivated, independent-minded and willing to take on a whole range of tasks and challenges to help to establish the groups but also contribute to starting up NCMM. My first recruits were Ingrid Guldvik, Harri Itkonen, and Lisa Gerner. They, thankfully, were all very willing to help out with a bit of everything; something that is necessary when you’re starting a completely new group. I think I was also lucky that everyone I hired in those early years has now ended up working in the field that they wanted to. For example, Stefan Barfeld has gone into management consultancy, Lisa Gerner wanted to work in biotech and is now working at Vaccibody, Ingrid Guldvik is working to complete her PhD, and Harri Itkonen is now an independent PI at Helsinki University. The first postdoc I hired, Nikolai Engedal, won a Research Council of Norway Young Talent grant and is now working in the group of another of my previous postdocs, Alfonso (Urbanucci), at Oslo University Hospital. I always tried to work out what each person wanted to do and did my best to make sure they were given the right opportunities to meet these goals. In Nikolai’s case, for example, he needed near-full ownership of his project from the start and he needed to be steered towards opportunities to apply for independent funding quite early on.
I also managed to recruit the person who will always be the oldest member of my group, Per Seglen. I recruited Per out of retirement; for him retirement was never really an option. He had so much experience with autophagy, which Nikolai and some of the other sub-group members were working on. He was then awarded the King Olav V Prize for Cancer Research in 2017, which I think was the perfect recognition for all of his contributions over the years.
I was also able to oversee some slightly different approaches and to build things organically, for example, Paula (Lindner) and Morten (Luhr) were both initially supervised as master’s students within the autophagy group. Their projects then evolved into PhD projects. In Paula’s case, this ended up being a joint PhD with Aarhus University which was one of only a few such joint PhDs within the Nordic EMBL Partnership. Whilst this kind of approach (setting up a group and then a sub-groups within this group) perhaps wasn’t the original intention of the NCMM model, it worked extremely well for everyone. I found helping younger scientists to develop far more rewarding than some of the more traditional academic achievements, like publishing senior author papers or winning big grants although those happened too.
What did you most enjoy about your time as an NCMM group leader?
I think for me, simply having time. I moved from an intense situation where I was responsible for 15 people, with which came many pressures involving administrative duties, publications and presentations. When you start a new group in a new place you have some space to think more clearly about your research and where you want to go next. You can assess the data you already have and make more measured decisions.
I remember talking to some of the other early group leader recruits at one of the first Nordic EMBL meetings, hosted by MIMS, who also felt the same way. I remember Emmanuelle Charpentier describing how moving from Vienna to Umeå had given her the time and space to go through her data and how this had helped with her understand the biology was the foundation of CRISPR genome editing. One Nobel Prize in Chemistry later, we know now how important this was for her and her research. I don’t think I had equivalent data (!) and was perhaps in a slightly different situation but definitely found it helpful.
What did you find the most challenging aspect of being an NCMM group leader?
Starting at a new centre certainly came with some other challenges, but I’d encountered a similar situation before when I started the prostate cancer group in Cambridge in 2003. When I joined NCMM, the group leader offices weren’t quite ready so I camped out in George (Magklaras, Head of IT)’s office in the Biotechnology Centre. The NCMM Chief Administrative Officer hadn’t yet been recruited so there wasn’t so much support in terms of setting things up. However, Kjetil (Taskén) and his PA, Berit (Barkley) were very helpful and shortly after I started Kjetil was officially appointed Director and Elin Kaurstad became CAO.
In the long term, the situations I found challenging in terms of starting a group along with my own projects ultimately evolve into something far more rewarding. I did sometimes find it difficult to know who to speak to when I needed some advice or support. I tend to second guess as to when might be the best time to ask someone for their help, and often ended up muddling through and working things out by myself. I should have perhaps been more forthcoming about what I needed. The situation could have maybe been made easier by having support from a more senior academic mentor. This was I think a general challenge for all new group leaders and as further GLs were appointed acting as a sounding board for them, for example for Preben and Toni (Hurtado). Erlend was of course extremely helpful, but he wasn’t physically based at NCMM so I tended not to bump into him as much as I might have liked. I think he could have otherwise perhaps been able to play this kind of mentor-type role, as he was an extremely approachable and generous person.
On another note, the living costs and salary differences for PhD students in the UK compared to those in Norway were quite eye-opening; I remember a postdoc who joined from aboard frantically trying to find the ‘cheap’ places to eat and slowly realising that this wasn’t really possible in Oslo.
Do you feel that the ‘EMBL model’ (5+4 years contract, with a review, emphasis on international recruitment etc) was useful in terms of preparing you for rotating out to a permanent professor position?
The model compared with how academia generally works is unusual and, I think, extremely valuable. It provides enough resources to try things that might otherwise be deemed too risky. However, for group leaders to make the best use of these resources and to take these risks, they have to feel less pressure from other forces. Some people are recruited into this model but, from the moment they start, they are worried about all the targets they have to meet and all the work that they’ve got to do. They can then end up using this great resource to just do more of the same things that they were doing before because it’s safer. I think the only way to encourage people to take these risks is to make sure they are introduced to the Norwegian research community at the very start. They then might have more of an opportunity to have horizon-expanding discussions that might otherwise only happen for those who happen to be less risk-averse.
In terms of the 5+4 years, however, it didn’t quite work out for me as originally planned due to my personal circumstances. My father died in October 2013 and this made me reflect. NCMM was extremely supportive but for various reasons, I realised that I needed to be back in the UK. I still decided to go through the evaluation process as I felt this to be very important for me, for the group and the Centre to underscore all that had been achieved and that was a success. Around the same time this all happened, an opportunity came up in Belfast that meant myself and my partner would both have academic positions in the same place, which was extremely rare. At the time this felt like the right decision for me. It was, naturally, difficult for my group. In groups the size that mine was, people naturally become closer to one another. Whilst they were very independent and committed, it was a bit of a bombshell when I told them I would be leaving. However, I was able to reassure them that my plans for them had not changed and they would still be very supported; something that Kjetil helped to communicate too. They have all gone on to be very successful so I don’t think my decision impacted on them too much.
Do you have any advice that could help group leaders starting at NCMM, for example, could something be improved in terms of embedding new group leaders within the centre?
I think an introduction to the wider Norwegian and Nordic research community right at the beginning of their contract would help hugely. This would allow them to start building up the right connections. I also think it would reassure new group leaders coming abroad if they could talk to other young academics in Norway, especially those who have transitioned from being postdocs to faculty-type positions. They would have some valuable information to share about how they found the system and process.
In some ways, I do think that one big challenge with the Nordic EMBL model is that it’s a very well-resourced bubble. That may sounds odd to say but it can create a challenge in developing beyond the bubble or knowing how that might look. The younger group leaders joining from abroad could perhaps benefit and feel reassured by being told more about what the wider agenda is for biomedical research in Norway. It could also be communicated that the Norwegian government is very committed to boosting research investment; knowledge that might make a younger group leader feel more secure.
Another thing that might have helped me further was to have the time to dedicate myself to learning Norwegian. NCMM was a very international environment where most spoke excellent English, so it was very difficult to pick the language up naturally. You need to know some very generous Norwegians who will tolerate your attempts to try and speak broken Norwegian with them. If I had had the opportunity to set aside some time at the start of my contract to focus on this, then I certainly would have done so.
What advice would you give to younger researchers who want to become a group leader?
I think those who want to become a truly independent PI need to realise that they will have to make a lot of sacrifices to build and develop other people. This is often the opposite of what young researchers assume being a PI looks like. When I’m recruiting and someone tells me that they want their own group I try to dig a bit deeper into what they mean.
My advice is to ask yourself how much of your own time and personal interests are you willing to give up in order to build a group that is both successful and that has lots of different strengths and personalities. You need to give them everything you can to make sure that they can achieve what they want to achieve. Being a PI involves a lot of people management and psychology and there will always be personalities that not every group leader will be able to manage. You then need the confidence and resources to be able to handle those people and situations; which is why you need easily accessible mentoring and support from more senior colleagues.
NCMM recruited three young group leaders in 2009-10 and sadly, one of them, Prof. Erlend Nagelhus, died very unexpectedly in January 2020. Do you have any memories of him that you would like to share?
I remember that Erlend smiled a lot. He was an extremely enthusiastic advocate for Norway and all that it has to offer; I think he was the embodiment of what it is to be Norwegian. He had an extremely positive personality and he also loved his research. He was certainly very driven but also approachable and helpful. I valued him hugely as a colleague, particularly for his knowledge of the Norwegian system and his advice when it came to asking things about certain points of the group leader grant cycle, for example.
I mentioned previously about having more mentor-type of colleagues, and Erlend could have been that person. He was a highly successful academic, but one that was generous with his time and who had a warm personality. It’s quite hard to find these kinds of people but I have been lucky enough to interact with some exceptions on occasion.
How do you feel the ethos behind academia in Norway compares to that in the UK? For example, do you think research in either country is particularly influenced by economics, as opposed to being driven by the generation of knowledge to the benefit of society?
The politics around academic research have certainly changed a lot in recent years, particularly since the credit crunch in 2008 and again since academic research has suffered further funding cuts. In the biomedical sector, research that appears to be the most valued is usually that which is also aligned with the creation of a product or technology. Not so much value is placed on the slower, less linear, but equally important work of building knowledge. In Norway, the drive to work with industry for profit doesn’t seem to happen quite so much. There certainly are moves to partner with industry and to build technology, but that is more to ensure that public money is being invested in the right way. I feel this ethos isn’t found so much in the UK; if research isn’t bringing money back into the initial investment then it’s not seen as being sustainable.
I think Norway is also more supportive of true knowledge creation and academics here don’t seem to feel that they need to pretend to be businessmen. This reflects the philosophical differences between the two societies. The UK has become an individualistic society that is very polarised. Norway feels almost the opposite of this; it’s a country that has had to be as united as possible. This philosophy and sense of togetherness appears to be deeply woven into Norwegian society. This is extremely valuable and I think it’s an important part of what makes a country worth living in.
Finally, can you tell us a bit more about your current position(s) and what you are working on now? Are you still collaborating with any NCMM researchers/researchers based in Oslo?
I am still working on prostate cancer, but now more at the level of proteins. I focus more on how cells evolve and respond to different stresses, like hypoxia and chemotherapy treatment. I’m still collaborating with many of the same people too. I try to make sure that whenever I move somewhere new, I don’t lose any connections or projects. To give some examples, just this month (October 2020) a paper I had been working on with Ingrid was published, and another paper I worked on with Harri is now up on PubMed. In terms of my postdocs, I am collaborating with Alfonso on several projects and I was also a collaborator on a Norwegian Research Council application that Nikolai submitted earlier in 2020. I was also recently on call to write a job reference for Lisa. The challenge, of course, though is to keep everything in play. Currently, I have two different groups, one in Belfast and one in Oxford. My Belfast group is much smaller and I also act as a mentor to junior faculty members who are just starting out and trying to secure their own funding. I now tend to publish a lot of papers as collaborative multi-author publications, rather than as a senior author. As part of my role in Oxford, I am also deputy head of the surgical sciences department which brings some additional challenges as I’m not a clinician. What really motivates me is collaborative and team-driven science, which is not traditionally rewarded in academia, even though I believe it is far more effective and impactful. I believe mentoring and supporting people so that they can rapidly develop and evolve leaves a far stronger legacy for academia.