Tell us a bit about yourself – what stage of your PhD are you in and what’s your project about?
Hi! My name is Julia and I am in my final year (ahh!) of my PhD studying neuroscience at UCL. I have actually been at UCL for just over 7 years as I did my undergraduate degree in neuroscience there as well. I just can’t get enough! I entered my PhD programme in 2016 and I was fortunate to have a year to navigate which project I wanted to do. I participated in the three 3-month rotation projects within my department so I could try my hand at different techniques, explore a multitude of research fields and get to know my future colleagues. From these small projects, I chose one to continue on with which saw me end up researching Alzheimer’s disease; a condition very close to my heart. My family has been really affected by Alzheimer’s disease, with my Nan passing away with the condition 2 days after I turned 21. Growing up with many of the older generation on my mum’s side of the family ending their lives with this disease drove me to pursue a neuroscience degree followed by a PhD in neurodegenerative research to try to contribute towards ending Alzheimer’s. My project is trying to further differentiate Alzheimer’s disease into sub-categories based on different clinical subtypes. Within Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses, there are patients with very distinct symptoms and disease trajectories, so trying to learn about these differences on a molecular level could tell us more about how this disease arises and aid the generation of successful therapeutics. I am studying one of the two pathologies found in every patient with Alzheimer’s called tau pathology, and I am trying to see if we can find any differences in this pathology in patient brains who had very difference presentations of the disease. I am in my last month of experimental work now and my project is all coming together – it is very exciting!
What does a typical day or week look like for you?
At the minute, a typical week for me revolves around the lab. I am naturally a morning person so I like to get up first thing and have a bit of time for me before the day starts. This could involve going to the gym or working on some of my science communication projects. I normally arrive in the office around 9am equipped with a LARGE oat latte and the first thing I do is get out my list book. I have written a ‘to-do’ list every day since I started my PhD project in September 2017 and I am currently on week 125. I like to write down everything I would like to achieve that day before I set foot in the lab so I am super focused from the get go! I then spend the majority of the rest of my day at the bench. The work I mainly do is cell culture work, which involves working in a vented hood to keep everything sterile for the live cells. I also do some biochemistry as well as histology analysis so I am definitely kept busy! I also have a lot of presentations and reports to prep, which means fitting in a few hours at my desk amongst the lab work. On top of PhD work, I sit on several committees, teach neuroscience to amazing high school student’s across London and I am the post-graduate representative for my department. There is never a moment of peace but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
What’s one thing that you’ve enjoyed the most during your PhD?
The one thing I have really enjoyed about doing a PhD is developing the ability to put forward my opinion as a scientist. When I started out on my programme, I was afraid to speak up if I disagreed with someones thoughts on certain research because I felt like I wasn’t experienced enough to have a voice at that table. But now, I feel really relaxed having an open discussion about my area of research with some of the most senior scientists in the field. And these conversations have inspired some of the most fascinating new ideas. Discussing work with experts to slowly becoming one of those experts and have people come to you for advice is such a rewarding experience!
What’s been the most challenging part of it?
During my 3 and a half years doing a PhD, I have found it difficult to always keep the end goal in mind when things are not working in the here-and-now. I am a bit of a perfectionist and when the science doesn’t play, I can take that very personally and blame myself. Doing this constantly can lead you to believe you are not good enough, which can be crushing to your motivation and drive. I have had some amazing colleagues and friends pull me out of this negative headspace and remind me I am worthy of being a PhD candidate. Dealing with imposter syndrome is part and parcel of being in academia. But trust me, if you have been accepted to do a PhD, you are SO capable!
Where do you see yourself 5 years after completing your PhD?
This question is one I always find hard to answer because I have been in school for so long that it is hard to imagine not being a student! But in five years, I would love to be doing science communication. Through my PhD, I have found a real passion for translating tough science into everyday conversation, and I started a social media platform to be able to chat about science on a regular basis. I feel like science communication combines my love of science and passion for performing, so making this my career would be the ideal situation!
What’s one piece of advice that you’d offer students that are thinking of doing a PhD?
My advice would be you have to have a real passion for some aspect of your PhD. Whether that is your subject area, the lab work you do or teaching and communicating, you need to really love something. Because times will arise where not much goes right and you really do not like your project, but if you have that one thing which you absolutely love, you will get through!
What makes your university a good place to study?
UCL is an absolutely fantastic institute! Not only is it recognised as a leading research university around the globe, but it is such a diverse institution that any one can find a home there. UCL is situated in the centre of London, throwing you right into the mix of one of the busiest cities in the world and all the amazing opportunities that come with that. Plus, UCL has hundreds of societies from sports to performing to science clubs to art, you can really do anything you want there!
What do you enjoy doing in your free time?
At the minute, the majority of my free time is taken up with science communication work, which is usually drawing graphics, writing blogs and filming YouTube videos. I also love to exercise and spend time with my friends and family to unwind and forget all about studying. Taking your mind off your work is so important so regular chill time is a must!
Want to know more about Julia?
Follow her PhD adventures and science communication endeavours over on her Instagram, check out her YouTube channel and also her website using the links below: