Starter Grant for Clinical Lecturers awardee

University of Manchester

Can oxygen-enhanced MRI produce biomarkers of tissue hypoxia and prognosis in clear cell renal cancer?

Professor James O’Connor was awarded a Starter Grant for Clinical Lecturers in 2010. Here he explains his experiences with the Academy's Mentoring programme.


I am a clinical radiologist. My group develops new imaging methods to evaluate cancer biology and monitor patients with cancer. Many imaging methods struggle to be implemented into clinical decision making, so I have pioneered the process by which cancer imaging tests should be validated to become useful tools.

Not everyone wants to be a world leader in their field. But if you do, it is vital to have a great network of colleagues to help you succeed. A clinical academic at the start of his or her career has innumerable paths to choose between. A mentor can help you to choose the right one. The Academy of Medical Sciences’ Mentoring programme has provided me with just such a mentor who is a key part of my support network.

I am a Cancer Research UK Clinician Scientist Fellow at the University of Manchester and I was paired with my mentor during my time as a NIHR Clinical Lecturer. At that point in my career I had some big decisions to make and important fellowships to apply for in the near future.  I knew that building a relationship with someone who was external to my normal professional network would be invaluable when the time came to take the next step in my career.

After I was awarded a Starter Grant for Clinical Lecturers from the Academy at the end of 2010, I found out about the Mentoring programme from the Academy’s staff and decided to get involved. I had an initial discussion with staff and had a look through the list of Academy Fellows online. My mentor’s medical specialty and research interests weren’t terribly important to me. I just wanted someone who could act as a sounding board as I advance my career and transition to independence.

The pairing process didn’t start off the way I would have liked, but in the end it turned out for the best and I couldn’t be happier with my mentor. I initially decided on a particular Academy Fellow with a great reputation and just the sort of career I wanted to have in the future. The staff at the Academy got in touch with him to ask if he would be my mentor. Unfortunately he never responded! Maybe that was his way of saying he was too busy. I was, admittedly, a little upset. After a good chat with Academy staff, I thought a bit more about what I wanted in a mentor and we came up with another potential match.

This time we got an immediate response. My mentor is genuinely interested in my career development and sees it as a part of his job to inspire the next generation of clinical academics. He also challenges me when I need to be challenged and strikes a balance between being critical and supportive.

With my Starter Grant, I performed a first in human biological validation study of a novel hypoxia MRI method in patients with renal cancer. This study was completed in 2016 and was published in the leading imaging journal ‘Radiology’ earlier this year, providing me with a senior author paper and two international conference presentations. But I applied for a CRUK Clinician Scientist Fellowship and got rejected. 

My mentor helped to build my confidence back up. He helped me to decide that I was indeed making the right choice in applying for the fellowship and helped me reassess my application. The second time I was successful, obtaining a CRUK Clinician Scientist Fellowship in 2013 (£660,000), followed by a CRUK Advanced Clinician Scientist Fellowship in 2017 (£1.45m)

Keeping in touch with the wider world of academic medicine through my mentor has been especially interesting and valuable. Having a mentor outside of my specialty area has allowed me to gain a different perspective on my work and clinical academic careers in general. Mentoring is also a great way to hear about the wider work that the Academy is doing.

That is why the Academy’s Mentoring programme is so useful. Local mentoring schemes are great for junior trainees as they offer more structure and connection to the University at a critical time, but when you reach the Clinical Lecturer or Clinician Scientist stage you need the perspective that a mentor outside of your professional network can bring. I would encourage anyone who is eligible to take part in the programme. Just give the Academy’s mentoring team a call or email


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