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Professor Colin Farquharson on skeletal biology

The journey from being a first generation university student to scientist and Director of Postgraduate Research.

Professor Farquharson standing in front of colourful glass window at the Vet School.

Professor Colin Farquharson is Personal Chair of Skeletal Biology at the Roslin Institute and Director of Postgraduate Research within the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. His research focuses on understanding the growth, development and mineralisation of bones and cartilage. In this interview, he talks to MSc Science Communication student Yee Theng Soo about his research and career in academia.

Could you briefly introduce your background and work?

I have been in the Roslin Institute since 1992, almost 30 years now. I moved to Edinburgh after doing my PhD and some post-doctoral work in the University of Aberdeen.

My research focuses on skeletal biology. I am interested to find out how bone cells work during development and how their function is disrupted in important diseases such as osteoarthritis and osteoporosis.

I am also Director of Postgraduate Research, where I help coordinate and advise supervisors and students who are carrying out doctoral work.

It is quite interesting how I got my permanent job. I started as a postdoctoral fellow at Roslin and a few years later Dolly the Sheep was created. That generated a lot of income for the Institute and from that they were able to support several postdocs as Career Track Fellows. I was chosen and after a few years I was given a permanent job. I was at the right place at the right time. If Dolly hadn’t come along, I might have moved on to another career path.

Why did you want to become a scientist?

I did not plan on becoming a scientist, it happened by luck and accident. Back in school, I enjoyed studying science, especially biology. I did not come from an academic family and my elder brother was the first to attend university, so I thought I would also give it a go. I managed to get into university and studied biology.

After graduation, I got a job as research assistant. With encouragement from my boss, I pursued a PhD part time while still working. I enjoyed studying science, doing lab work, presenting data and writing manuscripts. I published six papers from my PhD work, moved on to a postdoc and that eventually led to my career in science.

What makes skeletal biology interesting to you?

Bone is a dynamic tissue and having a healthy skeleton is important to have a healthy life. What is not known to some people is that 10 per cent of your skeleton gets remodelled every year, so every 10 years you have a complete new skeleton to replace minor damages from wear and tear.

I think no matter what subject you choose, you will find it interesting once you dig deeper and get into it. I have met many good colleagues and made some very good friends in this field. Gratifyingly, many of my PhD students and postdocs are still working in bone research, and their careers are blossoming, which is very pleasing.

What do you hope to achieve with your work?

My research helps us understand how bone cells function, for example, how they work and what regulates them. This fundamental knowledge is useful in the development of therapeutic approaches for bone diseases such as osteomalacia and osteoporosis.

Most research makes a small incremental increase in knowledge individually, but together they build a body of knowledge that gives us better understanding of normal physiology and disease progression.

Could you tell me about your role as Director of Postgraduate Research?

I really enjoy this role. One of the greatest thrills is seeing students develop into whatever they want to be in life. Many of them stay in science after graduation, some don’t, but it is lovely to see students reach their potential. There are also downsides to it. Throughout their studies, students may have various issues hindering their progress, so colleagues and I work as a team and try to help them in whatever way we can.

How do you balance between your various roles?

I think being organised is an important trait to have when you need to juggle various roles. Prioritisation is important as well. Some tasks require immediate attention, while others can wait. Most of the senior members of staff have other commitments besides research, such as teaching. It is common to have a mixture of responsibilities, so organisation and prioritisation definitely help.

What is your favourite part of your job?

I particularly enjoy seeing my group members produce robust data that can advance our understanding in skeletal biology. I still enjoy publishing papers even after having published over 160 research papers throughout my career. Research without publishing is rather pointless as it is essential to share new knowledge and findings with other like-minded scientists.

I get a bigger kick seeing my own students graduate and go on to a career in science. I have made good friends with some of my PhD students and keep in touch and collaborate with them after they leave. I have even been to two of their weddings and it is great to see them blossom.

Any advice for aspiring scientists?

Don’t get disillusioned. I understand that it is not easy looking for the first postdoctoral position or first permanent position, especially so these days. It can get quite challenging and competitive. However, persevere and don’t give up.

The advice also applies to people with a job. Most scientists get funding through external grants, and getting a grant is extremely difficult. It is so competitive. You have to keep going and persevere.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a scientist?

I am not sure, but I have recently gained an interest in modern history. I like reading about historical events and modern politics. I buy many history books, I read some of them and I don’t read others, but I like the idea of buying history books. If I had studied history at university that would have taken me to an entirely different career path.

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