Continental life rich in opportunities for cancer researcher

Wild Geese: Dr Joseph Regan, research scientist with Bayer AG in Berlin

Berlin-based scientist Dr Joseph Regan first left Ireland in 1986 when he was five years old and his family moved to the quaintly named Come by Chance in Newfoundland. His father is a doctor and had been recruited to run the community hospital there. The family spent four years in Newfoundland before moving to the cathedral town of Chichester in the south of England and finally returning home in 1991.

“Of course, it was difficult to leave Ireland as a young child as I had some very close friends, but being so young also meant that the transition was quite easy,” Regan says. “For my two brothers and I, living in what was essentially the Canadian wilderness at that young age was a great experience and adventure.”

Regan subsequently studied biochemistry and biotechnology at DIT before completing an MSc in molecular medical biotechnology at the University of Ghent in 2006 followed by a PhD in cell biology at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) at the University of London. He now works as a research scientist with Bayer AG but is currently based at Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin where he is working on developing better treatment outcomes for colorectal cancer. He is also the author of numerous cancer research-related publications.

"I never really felt settled in Ireland after we returned and spent most of my summers as a teenager and undergraduate working in the US and Germany, " he says. "When I left Ireland in 2004, it felt pretty natural, although I didn't envision I'd still be living abroad 15 years later."


After seven years in London working on his PhD and then as a postdoctoral researcher at the ICR, where he worked in breast cancer research, Regan moved to Berlin in 2013 for a job as a research scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics and subsequently took up a position with Bayer.

Research position

Despite being an academic high achiever Regan had found it difficult to find a research position in Ireland when he graduated.

“I spent several months applying for jobs in Dublin but had little success, so when I was offered a position at the ICR – the UK’s top academic research institute and one of the top three cancer research centres in the world – I jumped at it,” he says. “My experience there gave me the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from some of the best and most dedicated scientists working to defeat cancer. This really fuelled my passion for scientific research.”

Regan spent about seven years in academia before deciding he’d like to move into a more “translational” research environment, which essentially means applying research to address a specific medical or clinical need. This meant moving into the pharmaceutical industry but in a research role rather than getting involved in manufacturing.

“There are a lot of international pharmaceutical companies in Ireland but their focus tends to be on manufacturing. Working for a pharmaceutical company abroad has allowed me to continue as a research scientist. I’m not sure that would have been possible to the same degree at home,” he says.

Regan enjoys living in Berlin because of its diverse, multicultural environment and the fact that it’s green, spacious and bike friendly, as he cycles everywhere. Also making it an appealing place to live, he says, are its thriving arts scene, vibrant nightlife and affordable housing and cost of living.

“Historically, the low rents have attracted artists and other creatives and this has made Berlin one of the world centres for art and culture. It also makes the city very attractive to entrepreneurs – many of them Irish – and has contributed to making Berlin Europe’s leading tech start-up capital.

“It’s an exciting space and I am very much enjoying acting as an adviser to a German-based Irish biotech start-up here.”

To unwind, Regan likes to travel, hike, run and play the guitar. A keen photographer, he has had his work published on the front page of the Beijing and China People’s Daily newspapers. In 2018, one of his science photos won the Nature Reviews Clinical Oncology cover image competition and he is having an exhibition of his “sci-art” in Berlin in May.

Language fluency

Asked whether language fluency is essential to work in Germany, Regan says it varies quite a bit.

“It wouldn’t be necessary with the tech start-ups or in that start-up environment generally, but if someone wanted to work for a more established or traditional business, there are some roles where it would be essential.”

Speaking about the business culture in Germany, Regan says it’s “pragmatic and thoughtful”. “People take time to consider the best options. They don’t tend to leap in.”

Coming from a science background, Regan is naturally tuned into the career opportunities for Stem graduates.

“Digital health, which involves the convergence of digital technologies and healthcare to make medicines and treatments more personalised and effective, is a massive growth area providing opportunities for many different disciplines both in Ireland and Germany,” he says.

“Here, in particular, there are opportunities in biotech, big pharma and clinical trials management.

“There are also industry-backed opportunities to be innovative and to do primary research and development. One of the new roles opening up is medical science liaison. This is where someone is employed by a pharma company to act as the liaison between it and key opinion leaders, such as leading academics and other stakeholders.”