Author Archive

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 12 – Dr Emma Cahill

21 December 2020. Dr Emma Cahill is with the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience, School of Biological Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Neuroscience

In my research, I address the brain mechanisms underlying experience of drugs of abuse, appetitive rewards and also memories of fear. More recently, I have become interested in the relationship of fear and anxiety, and how the two maybe supported by neurochemically and anatomically distinct mechanisms.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I really enjoyed my first experience of working in a lab as an undergraduate Natural Sciences student. It opened my eyes about how actually ‘doing’ the science was way more interesting and engaging rather than just being told about it in lectures. I had thought I wanted to be a science teacher, because I loved learning about things, but then at University I saw that lecturers were getting to teach about things they were specifically interested in and about things that changed a lot as research develops, and to people who (mostly!) actually want to listen and learn, so I thought I wanted to do that instead.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

Be flexible and realistic. Don’t go into research for respect nor money, or because you don’t know what to do next. It is an extremely competitive line of work, all through the career path of a researcher. So you need to become an opportunist, develop a thick skin for rejection, learn how to motivate yourself and keep a level head and a balanced life. Never get put off by anything other people do or say (including my advice here!), you can only give it your best so just get on with it and don’t worry. Explore what interests you; read often and don’t be afraid to ask questions – you’ll get used to feeling awkward the sooner you start

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 10 – Dr Chris Smith

23 November 2020. Dr Chris Smith is with the Department of Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: RNA molecular biology

My lab focuses on the molecular mechanisms and consequences of alternative pre-mRNA splicing (AS). AS is a mechanism that allows individual genes to produce more than one mRNA – often encoding functionally distinct protein isoforms. The majority of human genes undergo AS and its misregulation can lead to diseases, such as myotonic dystrophy. In my group, we investigate the regulation of AS in vascular smooth muscle cells, which line blood vessels. These cells are not terminally differentiated and can alter their phenotype from a differentiated contractile phenotype to a more motile, proliferative phenotype. This phenotypic change is a result of a gene expression programme, part of which is a programme of regulated changes in AS. We are particularly interested in the molecular mechanisms that drive this AS programme, involving the action of various RNA binding proteins. We are also interested in the consequences of the AS programme, which affects numerous components of the actomyosin and cell adhesion machineries as well as other splicing and transcription factors.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I just carried on doing what interested me. At the end of my BSc in Biochemistry, it seemed clear that a career that would remain close to the molecular biosciences I’d been learning about would involve a PhD first. That hardly seemed like a decision. I’d enjoyed undergraduate lectures on the biochemistry of muscle contraction and I carried out PhD research on proteins that confer Ca2+ regulation to the actomyosin interaction. This work involved a lot of protein purification and characterization and I decided that I should next learn some molecular biology. This was a big decision point; undertaking postdoctoral research in the USA was the best course of action scientifically, but I didn’t really like the idea of going to live there. However, after arriving in Boston there was no looking back; it was the most fantastic place in which to live and do science. I worked for 6 years at Harvard Medical School and very nearly didn’t move back to the UK, but a job came up in Cambridge at the right time.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

Experiments don’t always work out how you expected the first time. So you need to be resilient and tenacious. But the pay-off is the buzz you get when an experiment tells you something that no one else has ever known before. Be open-minded about the research questions that interest you; go to research seminars that have no relation to your own interests – you’re more likely to get new ideas. Be open-minded about career possibilities. I feel incredibly privileged and lucky to have been able to pursue a career where I actually get paid for doing what I enjoy. But doing PhD and postdoctoral research is not a linear path to a career in academia – there are many interesting and rewarding research and research-related career opportunities in other sectors that build upon the skills developed as a university researcher. Find out about them!

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 12 – Nick Taylor

7 December 2020. Nick Taylor is with the Department of Plant Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Mathematical epidemiology (studying crop disease)

I’m currently working on a project about evolution pathogen resistance to disease treatments. Generally, we control crop disease using disease-resistant cultivars and fungicide (chemical) treatments. I use modelling to try to understand how the choice of disease control affects the rate at which pathogens evolve resistance to the choice of control.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I wasn’t really expecting to go into research when I was starting my undergraduate degree. However, once I got into 3rd and 4th years I elected to do research projects in place of yet more exams. I really enjoyed the projects and it made me realise how interesting and rewarding research can be. I really enjoy being able to apply the skills I developed in my undergraduate degree to new problems.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

If you get the chance to do a research project in your degree (or as a summer project), go for it. It will be the best way to establish whether you might enjoy that style of work. Also, it doesn’t necessarily commit you to a life of academia – you can always do a PhD and then move away from it. If you enjoy your subject then definitely consider it before getting trapped on the inevitable conveyor belt into London to do consultancy or finance!

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 9 – Dr Oliver Shorttle

16 November 2020. Dr Oliver Shorttle is with the Institute of Astronomy and the Department of Earth Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Being non-specialist.

With the help and collaboration of students and colleagues across the University and beyond, we are studying the processes that lead to habitable and inhabited planets. From the assembly of planets around young stars, to their evolution into temperate rocky worlds, we employ astrophysical and geochemical tools to understand planetary evolution.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I love attempting, and in many cases failing, to solve the innumerable puzzles presented by the natural world. The process of discovery is its own reward and I have always felt this about learning.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

Try and remember that research is a creative discipline.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 11 – Dr Chris Truscott

30 November 2020. Dr Chris Truscott is with the Department of Chemistry. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Powder X-ray Diffraction Technician

As part of Chemical Crystallography, we are interested in developing new insights and tools to study the structure of crystalline materials. At the moment, I particularly focus on two-dimensional layers of molecules on graphite. I use x-ray and neutron scattering techniques to study the structure and dynamics of these systems. Hopefully, this will allow us to design better two-dimensional molecular materials.

What made you decide to pursue research/teaching?

I have always been interested in discovering new things and this was a major driving force behind my choice of science at university. This prompted me to pursue a PhD in Chemistry. In my current position, I have a great mix of lab work and desk work as well as different challenges everyday.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

I will pass on the advice a potential PhD supervisor gave me: have patience! Research is full of dead-ends and false starts and whilst that can be pretty demoralising sometimes with a bit of patience (and hard work!) it will be very satisfying.

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