“I think for everyone in research, there’ll be a moment when you’ll find out something that nobody else on the planet knows... those are the times you live for, when you make that discovery and things begin to connect and make sense. It’s wonderful.”
On the face of it, Ian Hitchock’s journey has a satisfying, circular feel. Having joined the University of York as an undergraduate in the second half of the 90s, higher degrees followed, as did a ten-year stint in the United States, working for some of the world’s finest research institutions, before he returned to the UK, and to York, in 2014.
So far, so stellar, it might seem.
But these achievements didn't come easy. In fact, a career in academic research might not have happened at all but for a determination not to give up on the subject that fascinated him and the terrible loss of a much-admired school friend.
“In schools at the time, if you weren't getting top marks, you were failing, and that got to me a bit. I was good at sport, and the attitude then was that you could either be clever, or you were just good at sport. So although I became fascinated with the intricate workings of biology, the system had decided I was just good at sport.”
“I wasn’t very good at school,” says Ian. “I didn’t do badly in exams - but I didn’t do particularly well either.
“I found I’d struggle with subjects in which there are set answers. So maths was a struggle, I remember enjoying chemistry but wasn’t very good at it. The kind of subjects where you have to learn a set of rules; where there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer, I didn't seem to be able to do very well at those.”
School photo, c. 1995
Going to school in Bedford, Ian was an enthusiastic, if not always successful, student. Concentration didn’t come easily as he struggled against what was then-undiagnosed dyslexia.
The more fertile learning grounds were the subjects which allowed room for debate, and here, he found, were the embryonic signs of a researcher-in-waiting.
“I did well in subjects where the answer was a little more subjective, where you’d put your best suggestion forward and aspects of that suggestion might be right or wrong,” he said.
Biology, he found, seemed to bring out the best in his curious, keen-to-debate nature.
“I suppose I was pretty good at it. And my mum was a technician in a biology lab at a local school, so there’d often be occasions where she would take me along to work and I’d be able to spend time in the tech room with her. I seemed to be constantly around biology in my family and it became second nature - something that I understood.”
“When I got my A Level results, I told a friend I was going to find a cure for cancer. I know a lot of scientists say that, but what I’d seen happen to my friend - and the anger I felt - was my drive. I think I’m still driven by it.”
While at school, Ian had become friends with a fellow student in his year; an affable, popular student whom Ian had come to know through their mutual interest in sports.
“He was a lovely guy. Smart, pleasant and a talented sportsperson. He really was one of the most popular kids in the year, but he was never affected by it,” said Ian.
“One summer a rumour started to go around that he’d got cancer. He’d found a lump and it had to be removed. He couldn’t have been much more than 16 years old.”
The tumour was malignant and, despite its removal, the cancer progressed. In school the details never became common knowledge, but before long, Ian’s friend was dead.
“It knocked me for six - it knocked everyone for six,” says Ian. “I was just angry. I remember asking why would this happen to a fit, empathetic, 17-year-old? How could this happen, how could we not help him? Why were treatments not more effective? Why couldn't the treatment be kinder?” Although he didn’t realise it at the time, the experience began to transform Ian’s interest in biology, into a mission.
“When I got my A Level results, I told a friend I was going to find a cure for cancer,” says Ian, laughing at the recollection. “I know a lot of scientists say that, but what I’d seen happen to my friend - and the anger I felt - was my drive. I think I’m still driven by it.”
Although Ian’s ongoing academic struggles caused his A Level results to fall slightly short of the mark, the Department of Biology at York could see his determination, and an offer of a place was negotiated.
"York still gave me the chance, which I've always appreciated," he says.
Soon after starting his undergraduate studies, Ian began to feel a strong pull toward research. The Department of Biology’s tutorial system, meaning small groups of students could spend time in the lab with academic colleagues, worked well for him, finding the practical and fascinating aspects of laboratory work exhilarating.
A studentship with Norman Maitland followed in the summer of 1998, as did a successful pairing with then-postdoc Shona Lang.
“This was cancer research - and the leading edge of cancer research,” says Ian. “Norman’s team had a great way of working. Essentially, Norman would say “Here’s a protein, we don’t know what it does, you go and figure it out”, which I loved. And Shona was a really excellent postdoc, we created a strong bond and quite soon she was letting me do work which I found I could do well. I was generating data and it was an environment I felt really comfortable in.”
Now Ian began to think intensively about a career in research. He found a PhD opportunity with the British Heart Foundation, under the supervision of Professor Paul Genever and he believes it was this period which springboarded his career.
“Although Paul was a very experienced researcher, this particular role was new to him and it was a little outside his area of expertise,” says Ian. “He was a bone biologist at the time and this work was in haematology.
“It was great because I always felt we were learning things together,” he says. “We had a lot of fun. It felt to me more like a partnership and gave me the confidence to really stretch myself, and not be afraid to get out of my comfort zone.”
As his PhD progressed Ian and Paul began to publish noteworthy papers, and with Paul’s encouragement, Ian began to reach out to Ken Kaushansky, a leading haematologist at the University of California in San Diego, in the hope of developing a collaborative relationship.
An invitation to spend time in Dr Kaushansky’s lab was extended, initially for a matter of weeks, which Ian keenly accepted. It turned out to be another major step in his career: he would spend the next ten years working at the forefront of haematological research in the United States.
Working in the US introduced Ian to an entirely new work culture. The work was demanding, with long hours and infrequent holidays the norm, but he loved it, and he thrived in this competitive, and very productive, environment.
He also noticed that biomedical research centres in the US were often attached to hospitals, and working in close proximity to patients and relatives as they moved around his workplace, had a profound effect.
“We’d share the same coffee shops and canteens as the patients, you see people who were fighting cancer, or families that had just lost loved ones. You’d see it constantly and it drove me forward. I don’t think I’ve lost that drive.”
“I began to wonder if a link between experimental work and epidemiology work, two divergent but complementary areas, could be created.”
In 2014, after more than ten fulfilling years at the cutting edge of research in the US, Ian’s thoughts turned back to the UK. He’d had numerous offers of work but was interested in the University of York as it was about to launch a new Biomedical Science degree.
While he was away, the Haematological Malignancy Research Network, based at the Department of Health Sciences at the University of York, was established in a collaboration with hospitals around the Yorkshire and Humberside region, and had developed into a world-leading centre researching the epidemiology of blood cancers.
“But there still wasn’t much experimental haematology going on,” Ian recalls. “And I began to wonder if a link between the experimental work - the lab-based ‘bench’ science - and the epidemiology work, two divergent but complementary areas, could be created. In my interview I proposed that as a way forward.”
So, some eighteen years after joining the University of York as an aspiring undergraduate, he was back, building relationships and developing the idea of a tripartite research centre, uniquely fusing lab-based research, data-driven epidemiology and the vital clinical focus.
Momentum began to build as research grants followed, key colleagues joined, as did young research fellows.
“The best projects I’ve come across, or the best data I’ve been able to generate, comes from what an old boss of mine used to call ‘productive collisions’ - the chance conversations you have with someone you bump into in the corridor.”
“The experimental side started to get bigger and bigger and I was able to make the case that by joining these three areas up, we could get bigger still.”
The Centre for Blood Research has been created to bring epidemiology - the study of the frequency of disease occurrence within patient groups - and experimental haematology - the study of blood and blood forming tissue - together, along with clinical expertise. Something which has rarely been attempted.
“The best projects I’ve come across, or the best data I’ve been able to generate, comes from what an old boss of mine used to call ‘productive collisions’ - the chance conversations you have with someone you bump into in the corridor.
“I firmly believe the biggest and best discoveries don’t start in formal meetings or lab meetings, they start with totally unplanned conversations, in breakout rooms or by the coffee machine - and that only happens when you’re sharing space.”
“It would be an unusual space - epidemiologists tend to need office space whereas of course my field is very much lab based, so there's nothing else like it. Strangely, I almost don’t know what it would create, because no-one’s really done it.”
A primary aim of the new Centre for Blood Research is to ensure that patients are involved and engaged with the research;
“We’re trying to get a real patient angle to the centre,” says Ian. “We want patients to be involved with what we’re doing - I find their input inspiring, they’re as close to the experience as you can get and sometimes, as a scientist, it’s easy to think of a person’s experience of chemotherapy in a very matter-of-fact way. You tend not to ask about their personal struggle with treatment, about what the side effects might be, how they affect a person's life. You never think they might not even want the treatment at all.”
Now, 27 years after joining the University of York as an ever-hopeful, exam-scarred biology undergraduate, Ian, now Professor of Experimental Haematology and Director of the new Centre for Blood Research, is still driven by a sense of wonder and curiosity.
“I think for everyone in research, there’ll be a moment when you’ll find out something that nobody else on the planet knows. Often you’ll be alone and you have a few minutes when you are the only person that has that knowledge. Those are the times you live for, when you make that discovery and things begin to connect and make sense. It’s wonderful.”
But from time to time, Ian remembers the young, energetic teenager he knew back in his schooldays. The popular young man who was a kind, genuine and caring friend to everyone who knew him.
If they could meet again today, Ian thinks his school friend would ask hard questions. He’d want to know why something couldn’t have been done to save him, says Ian. He’d want to know why more still can’t be done, and why people are still dying, nearly thirty years after his life was taken from him.
So how would Ian answer those questions? For a moment, he struggles for a response, and closes his eyes as he answers:
“I’d tell him I’m trying my best.”