Deciding to study later in life has paid off for Alex Brand, who is now enjoying a successful second career as a University of Aberdeen research scientist.
The microbiologist has received two prestigious funding awards for early career and outstanding scientists – the Medical Research Council New Investigator Grant and the Royal Society University Research Fellowship.
The combined awards of £894,326 will enable Dr Brand - who completed her PhD five years ago - to set up her own research team and equip a new laboratory to further her studies into a fungus that can cause fatal infections in people with weakened immune systems.
Professor Neva Haites, Head of the University’s College of Life Sciences and Medicine, said: “This is an exceptional level of achievement by Dr Brand. The two awards show she is being recognised by two leading organisations as being in the highest calibre of new investigators with enormous potential for the future.”
Originally from Surrey, Dr Brand left school with secretarial qualifications, a few ‘A’ levels and a wish to “do something exciting”.
She moved to London, joined an advertising agency and worked her way from trainee to account manager taking care of blue chip clients including Pepsi, Andrex and De Beers.
Dr Brand left advertising in 1983 to travel the world with her oil industry husband, picking up diverse jobs along the way, ranging from running a poster agency in Qatar to announcing the sports news for Voice of Indonesia Radio in Jakarta.
Nine relocations and two children later, the family moved from Glasgow to a small-holding in Aberdeenshire in 1990, where Dr Brand became the ‘Shire’s only registered goats’ milk producer as well as a full time mother.
In 1995, when she was 40, Dr Brand decided she wanted to embark on a new career in science and, on completing an Access course, began a full time biochemistry degree at the University of Aberdeen.
She graduated with First Class Honours in 2000 and then completed a PhD in Microbiology under the supervision of Professor Neil Gow, graduating in 2004.
Dr Brand (53) is conducting research into Candida albicans, a fungus which normally lives amongst the bacteria in our gut but can sometimes escape to cause bloodstream infections.
This can be deadly for hospital patients whose immune system is suppressed by cancer treatments or drugs associated with organ-transplants.
Without a healthy immune system to mop up stray fungal cells, they can become lodged in the blood vessels of internal organs. Once attached, the fungus grows and penetrates into the tissue below to form fungal masses.
Dr Brand’s specific area of work is investigating how the cell tips of this fungus navigate and steer around their environment in order to grow and thrive.
She explained: “We don’t know what external signposts fungal tips follow but they could play an important role in tissue invasion. Because human biology is quite similar to that of fungi, it has proved difficult to develop new antifungal drugs that target C. albicans without also harming the patient.
“The research I am doing is exciting because it will help us to understand the disease process and suggest new targets for the treatment of C. albicans infections.”
Dr Brand, whose project has previously received funding from the BBRSC (Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council), is delighted to receive the two research awards. She added: “I have always had my eye on the next step.
“By combining my previous experience with a keen enthusiasm for science, I am proof that it is never too late to take on new career challenges.”