Belong, Believe Achieve: Olivia Hillson is making a difference in the laboratory
Biochemistry graduate Olivia hopes her work will one day save lives.
'Belong, Believe, Achieve' is a series of profiles showcasing inspiring students and staff at the University of East London (UEL). Each week, we bring you a new story about someone achieving great things in our amazing community.
When budding scientist Olivia Hillson is not contributing to the search to find a cure for cancer, she is helping find bone marrow matches in the laboratory of UK cancer charity Anthony Nolan.
Olivia is currently enrolled at the University of East London (UEL) doing a Master of Research (MRes) in Bioscience. She previously earned a Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Biotechnology and Biochemistry at UEL.
Olivia’s current research is in the area of ageing – or biogerontology – investigating ageing on a cellular level, studying the lifespan of cells.
Olivia said, “I’m researching cellular ageing using yeast cells rather than human cells, but there is evidence to show that the cellular processes in yeast are similar to those in a human lifespan. These processes are implicated in many diseases, including cancer.
“With cancer you have massive cell proliferation, so if you can reduce its lifespan and stop the cell proliferation you can potentially use this as a treatment option. This sort of research can potentially have massive implications for ageing-related medicine in the future.”
Outside her research and studies, Olivia volunteers her time (along with two other students from UEL) at the laboratories of Anthony Nolan.
Anthony Nolan is a UK charity that works to save the lives of people with blood cancer. The charity’s relationship with UEL began in 2016 when Bioscience Lecturer Dr Stefano Casalotti started a campaign to find a bone marrow match for his own daughter Lara, who had been diagnosed with blood cancer.
Lara found a match, and Dr Casalotti and UEL have maintained the relationship with Anthony Nolan. Dr Casalotti supports the UEL Student Marrow Society when it runs its yearly campaign to sign up students and staff to the donor register, and he has also negotiated for a few of the department’s top students to gain work experience in the charity’s laboratory.
Olivia’s interest in the topic was also inspired by a family connection – her aunt had a stem cell transplant.
She said, “Almost everyone I know has been affected by a close friend or relative having cancer, myself included, so I was excited about doing something to help. When Dr Casalotti advertised the opportunities to work in the Anthony Nolan labs at the end of my second year in 2016 I felt like it was a really good way for me to get involved and offer something back to an organisation which does so much.
"I applied over the summer and started at the beginning of 2017.”
The Anthony Nolan labs match people on the list awaiting bone marrow transplants with prospective donors on their database. Though the actual matching is done by computer, the inputting of the samples into the database is done by people and is carefully monitored.
Olivia said, “You can’t allow for the computer to make any errors because it’s so important. You can’t afford to have matches that are incorrect.
“I was involved with a lot of double checking while I was there. Unlike a computer, I could say when looking at the data that ‘that’s unlikely to have happened’ or ‘this looks a little strange’, and I could go back and ask them, ‘could there have been a mistake here?’ “
Oliva said she enjoys what she’s currently doing at UEL, and hopes to continue down the path she is on.
She said, “I would like to go on to do a PhD and I’m open to new opportunities, but at the moment my focus is academic research. I like the teaching that I do here. Potentially I’d really like to lecture.”