JING Alumni interview: Kienan Savage, Belfast ECMC

13 Mar 2024
In the first in our planned series of interviews with members of the JING alumni we caught up with Professor Kienan Savage, co-Lead at Belfast ECMC. He talked to us about his career and experience of being involved in the ECMC Junior Investigator Network Group (JING)
Can you give us a brief summary of your career so far?
I originally set out to study medicine and at the time, the majority of medical degree programmes in Australia, and particularly in my home state of Queensland, were post-graduate courses. So I originally studied Biomedical Science at Griffith University in Australia. During this degree I found I loved the science and was intrigued by cancer biology and so I did a one year research project at the end of my degree. I was still committed to studying medicine and so followed this with a post-graduate MBBS/PhD at the University of Queensland and The Queensland Institute of Medical Research in Australia, with my PhD focused on understanding the DNA damage response/repair role of BRCA1. Following my MBBS/PhD training I joined the BRCA1 research group at Queen’s University Belfast for a post-doctoral fellowship, after which I was awarded a career development fellowship from Cancer Focus Northern Ireland and shortly after a lectureship at Queen’s where I formed the DNA damage response group at Queen’s in 2012. Since then my work has focused on understanding the cellular DNA damage response/repair systems with a particular emphasis on how defects in these pathways, such as BRCA1 mutations, contribute to cancer development, progression and response to treatment. My group was also involved in the identification of the DNA damage induced activation of the cGAS/STING pathway and its role in innate immune activation, with our recent work focused on harnessing this knowledge to enhance responses to immunotherapies. We have been fortunate enough to translate our work through a number of ECMC supported early phase trials and through the Belfast ECMC, of which I am now the Scientific Lead, I support the translation of our world leading cancer discovery science to early phase trials.  
You attended the pilot JING: Training the Next Generation event in 2013, what was your highlight of the day?
At the time I hadn’t been involved in early phase cancer trials so the first JING event was a real eye opener. I think the highlight was having world leading cancer trialists as faculty discussing our work frankly and honestly with a real interest in helping us develop this work into a truly impactful trial. 
You were also on the JING steering committee, what did you gain from that experience?
This was the first committee steering group I had been on and I learnt a lot about developing and organising a meeting/training event. It was also a great opportunity to meet and interact with different groups of people interested in cancer research, from patients and others affected by cancer; basic and translational scientists; to clinicians involved in all aspects of cancer care (surgeons, oncologists, pathologists etc.) and from all levels of speciality training. This opportunity allowed me to form a number of friendships and collaborations, with colleagues that I still work with today. 
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received in your career so far?
This is a tough one as I’ve had so much excellent advice throughout my career. I think for me the best advice I’ve had was to “work with as many people whom you admire as possible”. Taking this advice, I have ended up working with some amazing scientists and clinicians learning so much along the way and ending up doing things I never dreamt of doing at the beginning of my career. 
What advice would you give to the 2024 JING Cohort?
In line with the advice I received above, I would advise the 2024 JING cohort to never be afraid to talk to/contact anyone in the field, no matter how “senior” or busy you think they are. It can open so many doors both for your own research, but also for them and who knows what you might end up doing together…