Meet Dr. Sophie Acton, working in stromal immunology and anti-tumour immunity!

What is your scientific background? 

I studied Biology/Chemistry/Maths/Further Maths at school, then studied Pharmacology at the University of Bath as an undergraduate. I worked for a year in industry but realised I liked the freedom of academia, and was motivated more by basic science than by translational projects. I did my PhD at the Cancer Research UK London Research Institute (now part of the Francis Crick Institute).

Sophie Acton

Why did you choose to become a scientist?  

I’ve thought about this a lot, and I’m really not sure when. I followed what I loved doing and it led me here. In fact, I didn’t really like biology at school, I found it very dull, there are just a lot of facts you need to learn and understand before you can really ask a real question and start doing science, not just learning about someone else’s work. I was much more interested in art and maths. I love searching for patterns, joining things together, and finding a way to make sense of everything we don’t yet understand.

Which topic are you working on at the moment? Why did you choose this topic and how do you think you’ll make a difference?

I’m most excited about how cells move, how they interact with each other to make the tissues and organs that make up each of us. It’s utterly amazing. I work on all of these things in my lab which works to understand how immune responses work.

Immune responses are started in our lymph nodes which is the meeting point for many different types of immune cells. Lymph nodes swell during this process to make room for all the additional cells needed, but after the infection is cleared returns to normal size. This is a highly regulated coordinated process that we are only really starting to understand. It involves communication between immune cells and structural cells like fibroblasts and endothelial cells which form blood vessels.

Understanding immunity at the level of the whole tissue is a relatively new way to approach this question. Our data leads to pathways we could manipulate to either enhance immune responses or to slow them down. The same cell types are also meeting and communicating in the environment around cancerous tumours, so we also look to translate our work to figure out new ways to help the immune system recognise and eliminate cancer cells.

This is one of the most exciting and fast-moving areas of cancer research and within the next 10-15 years. I think we’ll be seeing a lot of immunotherapies being used to successfully treat cancer patients.

A picture taken during an experiment looking at the behavior of dendritic cells (antigen-presenting leukocytes) with cancer cells (melanoma) in 3D culture/ Acton Lab

What are the hardest parts related to this work?

I love my work and I love my home life, but both could easily be a full-time job. Most days the balance figures itself out, but there are days when it doesn’t. Today, for example, I raced around all morning at work, forgot to eat breakfast, didn’t have time for lunch, just to get home to attend my daughter’s violin lesson at school. I make it with 2 minutes to spare only to be told that the letter sent home was wrong and her lesson was 30 mins earlier than I thought. So I missed the class, and instead got to see the disappointment in my wonderful little girl’s face. She asks for so little, is one of those kids whose parents never volunteer for the school trip or setting up the Summer fair, she’s in after school club every day of the week… These small things mean a lot to her when we can make it work, and today she was waiting and I never arrived. Days like today hurt.

I have run critical final experiments into the night when my daughter was just 10 days old. I have written my career development fellowship applications in cafes, religiously rocking the pram back and forth trying to ensure I could get an idea written down before my baby wakes up and my thoughts scatter. I have found ways to be productive with one hand, laptop one side, breastfeeding a newborn on the other. I have attended interviews on minimal sleep, balancing my worry over my son’s reflux and lack of weight gain with the pressure of facing the committee. I have been torn between split personalities, and at times struggled to find myself whilst overwhelmed with motherhood. An academic career is highly competitive under the best circumstances. To survive and thrive despite the distraction of small children is no small feat, and I am extremely proud to still be here. However, when you do manage to pull everything together, there is no prize, only expectation of continued success. I have resented this and resented my colleagues who faced the same professional hurdles free to indulge in their work without their hands tied as mine have been. But despite this, I have never considered another career…

Sophie with her son/ Sophie Acton

Did you ever doubt your abilities as a scientist? Why? How did you handle these situations/feelings?

I have to say that ‘imposter syndrome’ is something I don’t often struggle with. Since I was very young I have always believed in myself, felt like I could do anything I set my mind to, and do not seek approval from others. This makes me very stubborn, and sometimes perhaps difficult to work with I suppose.

What (or who) motivated you in difficult times?

There are many difficult times, but so many great times too. My motivation comes from the buzz I get from when things go well. Moments sitting at the microscope seeing a result for the first time, and just knowing that you were right, that you are the first person to ever see this phenotype, and just fizzing with excitement to show someone the data. Now I have a team, I also really love those moments when someone comes running into the lab or to find me in the office to show me new data that they’re really excited about.

Is there any scientific topic (outside of your field of research) that you think should have more scientific attention? Which one?

If I had 9 lives, I’d live one of them as a materials scientist or chemical engineer. I feel very strongly that we need to reinvent the way we use and reuse materials, the way we generate energy and find ways to be more efficient. I’d be very proud if either of my kids went in these directions, I tell my daughter all the time that she might invent something one day to save the world.

During your career, have you been specifically mentored or supported by someone?

I think I’ve been very lucky with mentors. Along the way through PhD and postdoc positions I have been supported by great scientists. They have trained me, moulded me, (taught me how to spell – no one can be good at everything), and continued to care about my career progression long after I left their labs. Their advice and support have been so important, it cannot be underestimated.

The Acton Lab/ Sophie Acton

What is the funniest or most memorable thing that has happened to you while working in science?

In my first few weeks of my PhD, my supervisor came into the lab to talk about some data. I managed to fall off my chair, one of those lab chairs on casters, right in the middle of a sentence. I was so embarrassed, I still don’t understand how I managed to do it, and we still laugh about it 12 years later.

Do you come from an academic family?

Not really, neither of my parents went to university, they trained in business and in teaching. So very different really.

How does your family regard your career choice? 

Its still a little mysterious to them I think. I’m not really driven by earning money, so in that way, an academic career is not the same as many other career paths. That being said, I earn a comfortable salary now and have no complaints!

Sophie with her daughter

Besides your scientific interests, what are your personal interests? 

I love to read, but I’m an addict with many things I like, so if I read a book, I cannot stop until I have devoured it. I also like to walk. I often walk to work which is around 3 miles… I find it helps me to clear my mind and to really think clearly.

In your opinion, which changes, if any, are needed in the scientific system to be more attractive to female scientists and possible future scientists?

I`d like us to encourage everyone, mums and dads especially, to work flexibly and to find ways to be productive in a shorter working week. And I think there’s still a lot of work to do to change the stereotypes of scientists in our media and popular culture. We’re actually reasonably normal people!


You can contact Sophie at and follow her on Twitter! Also visit the website of her lab!