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Researcher focus: Carl May

07 December 2022

Carl May is a postdoctoral research associate at Bristol Renal. Carl completed a BSc Hons in Molecular Genetics with French then an MSc in Biomedical Imaging at the University of Sussex. He then moved to Bristol to embark on a Kidney Research UK PhD studentship on the role of cells called podocytes in different forms of nephrotic syndrome. He is the recent recipient of an innovation grant which he will use to investigate a new therapy for nephrotic syndrome with an unknown cause (INS).

We caught up with Carl for a quick Q&A at our annual Driving Discoveries event. Here's what he had to say.

Carl May
Researcher Carl May

Carl, you’ve clearly got lots of experience in kidney disease research. What attracted you to this area of science?  

I had completed a BSc in molecular genetics, before changing tack a little and doing an MSc in biomedical imaging. I really missed the genetics! I saw that Moin Saleem, and Gavin Welsh were advertising for a Kidney Research UK PhD studentship. They wanted someone to study kidney cells that had been isolated from a patient, to learn about how the genetics affected the behaviour of cells. Initially, I didn’t really think about this as a kidney project. But the more time I spent in the lab and the more kidney meetings I went to, the more passionate I became about kidneys.  

You’ve mentioned Kidney Research UK already, but can you tell us a bit more about how we’ve worked together and the difference that a medical charity like Kidney Research UK can make to scientists? 

I have been funded by three different medical charities and there are no funders quite like Kidney Research UK. The charity offers a lifetime fellowship to its PhD students and continues to care holistically for the scientists they invest in.

I couldn’t tell you the number of times I have attended workshops or meetings funded by Kidney Research UK, all while not being funded by them. This warmth and pastoral care of the charity is exemplified by chief executive Sandra Currie and is clearly shared throughout the organisation. During lockdown, I received career guidance, support and a sympathetic ear. This simply doesn’t happen with other medical charities. Kidney Research UK cares for the scientists it funds. We feel appreciated. 

Thinking about your current research, can you explain what you’re working on please? Why is your work so important to the kidney disease community? 

I am looking at ways to deliver drugs directly to the podocyte within the kidney. This should make treatments more effective and have fewer side effects. Through my work I hope to ease the disease burden that many patients can face by making treatments more tolerable and longer lasting. I am focused on idiopathic nephrotic syndrome but hopefully and systems I develop could equally apply to many other conditions. 

Driving Discoveries is a great opportunity to share research and ideas, and we were delighted to see so much interaction. What were your highlights in terms of the new science presented? And was there any other aspect of this event that particularly supports your work? 

It was great to have a session on the commercialisation of our work and how we can patent our findings. We have to break the constant cycle of papers, grants, papers grants. 

Good ideas are worth investigating. Sometimes our hypotheses are wrong or there are technical problems when putting our ideas into practice. Although journals maintain that they are happy to publish ‘negative’ data it can be difficult to get the paper through the review process. It was nice to hear about how Professor Moin Saleem took an idea, tested it in the lab and then co-founded Purespring. At Bristol Renal, where Moin is our head of section, we work closely with Purespring and collaborate when trying to solve the same problems. 

What do you think are the challenges for researchers working in kidney disease? Is there a way that we can work together to resolve this? 

Job insecurity is a big deal for postdoctoral researchers. I have seen many talented scientists leave the field to secure permanent contracts in industry. Some have even left science altogether. It is frustrating enough when experiments don’t work, but even more problematic when your career progression depends on publishing results. Publications seem to be the sole metric that we are judged by, which can be soul destroying. 

Additionally, it can be difficult for early career researchers to find the time to develop their own ideas. We work on research projects for our principal investigators and have to find time around this to get pilot data for our own independent research programmes. Obtaining a fellowship is my dream, I just need to strike a good balance between getting my day job done well whilst managing to get data to back up my own research proposal.

We’d like to thank Carl for talking to us about his experiences. You can find out more about how we support vital research into kidney disease.

Elaine Davies, Director of research operations, commented "We are proud to sponsor researchers like Carl to deliver much needed new treatment options to patients living with kidney disease, but we also aim to go further. By offering practical support on career development, innovation and commercialisation to researchers, alongside networking opportunities, beyond our grants programme we are committed to strengthening the kidney research community in the UK." 

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