Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?
I’m a 3rd year PhD student based at the John Innes Centre and the University of East Anglia. These are both located on the Norwich Research Park in Norfolk, England. I’m working with Pseudomonas bacteria to try to better understand how they are able to infect their hosts. We are using Pseudomonas as a model organism as its a prominent plant and human pathogen with many similarities to other infectious organisms and so we can learn a lot from it. Some bacteria like Pseudomonas use a biological nanomachine the type III secretion system which looks and acts like a little syringe. They use this syringe-like system to infect their targets. My research involves looking at this system in more detail to better understand how it works.
What does a typical day or week look like for you?
Every week is very different as I am exploring this research problem from multiple angles. Some weeks I may be purifying and testing proteins related to the type III secretion system while other weeks I may be creating new genetic bacterial variants to test. Most often though, you will be able to find me surrounded by plants. I use Arabidopsis thaliana and tomato plants as model infection systems to reveal how this type III secretion system in Pseudomonas is really working in regards to virulence. Around these experiments, I will often be in meetings, science seminars, reading research papers or writing up my findings.
What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?
The thing I enjoy most about my PhD is getting exciting results. Often many experiments take a long time to plan and perform. They can be a lot of hard work, usually require multiple repeats and often never go right first time. This makes it so much more rewarding when the data you collect from your experiments show something exciting or unexpected. With each experiment, our understanding of the type III secretion system and its role in virulence grows ever so slightly. I find that really quite cool!
What’s been the most challenging part of it?
I find that the most challenging part about my PhD work is when experiments don’t go right. This complements the previous answer quite well. When experiments are working well, things can feel very rewarding and stimulating. When experiments keep failing despite your best efforts, that can be really hard to process. Its a natural part of science but it does lead to a roller-coaster journey where the PhD is filled with experimental highs and lows.
Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
Who knows what the future will bring? At this point, I’m keeping as many doors as I can open and I’m actively exploring plenty of opportunities when I can to get a flavour as to what life might be like down a particular route. I’m particularly interested in science communication so that could certainly be a possible route to explore whether that be working for someone else or as freelance. An industry research and development role also seems like a fantastic option where I can apply my skills and experience to produced more applied research. With academia I enjoy the flexibility of the research process along with the camaraderie that goes with it so perhaps a post-doc could also be on the cards. What I know for sure right now is that I enjoy science and so I plan to stick with it!
What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
My piece of advice would be to look past the institutes as a whole when it comes to looking for PhDs. League tables and reputation really aren’t that important when compared to the individual lab itself you’ll be applying for. Try to grab a chat with some of the people who work in that lab you are thinking of applying to. Do they enjoy it? Do they feel like the get adequate support? Are there any issues they find day to day? If you feel comfortable and supported in a lab with good mentors surrounding you, it will make a big difference when it comes to the PhD journey itself.
What makes your university a good place to study?
Norwich is a great place to study. They really pride themselves of producing a supportive working and learning environment with world-class facilities and teaching. The campus is wonderful, filled with plenty of nature. The medieval city of Norwich is one of the real hidden gems of the country I think. I love living here. There’s lots going on, plenty to see and do, and the people here are great.
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
In my free time, I often try to take advantage of the nature in and around Norfolk. Its so great to explore a new place in the countryside. During the week, things can be very hectic and busy so its nice to take time time out, slow things down and appreciate the natural world around me. We’ve got the Norfolk broads, a stunning coast line, forests and a good collection of nature reserves and parks so there’s plenty to explore.
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