Author Archive

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 17 – Dr Stephanie Smith

1 February 2021. Dr Stephanie Smith is a Teaching Fellow with the Department of Chemistry. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Molecular modelling of organic molecules, teaching

As a departmental teaching fellow, my efforts are devoted to undergraduate teaching. I lecture on Aromatic and Enolate Chemistry (part IB chemistry B) and Aromatic Heterocycles and Medicinal Chemistry (part III chemistry), and am a senior demonstrator in the part II organic, part IB organic and part IB physical labs. I am a bye-fellow of Pembroke College where I am Director of Studies (DoS) for Chemistry and am also Chemistry DoS at Newnham. I supervise IA chemistry, IB chemistry A and B, and selected part II and part III chemistry courses.

What made you decide to pursue research/teaching?

I love teaching and helping students to understand and enjoy their studies and to reach their full academic potential. This is especially rewarding at Cambridge where everyone is so friendly, enthusiastic, keen to learn and a delight to teach. I also really enjoy learning and am always excited to learn about new areas of chemistry or to see areas that I thought I knew well from new perspectives.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

As the saying goes, “Follow your dreams, they know the way”. Don’t be put off by apparently insurmountable challenges (it may be easier than you think), by setbacks, or if you can’t see how to get there or can’t imagine yourself in a particular role. Take one step at a time, seek advice and support from others, play to your own strengths, and you may end up surprising yourself.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 13 – 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 16 – Emily Staricoff

25 January 2021. Emily Staricoff is doing a PhD with the Institute of Metabolic Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Clinical biochemistry, functional neuroscience

I am doing a PhD researching the neurocircuitry surrounding hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). People using insulin to treat diabetes have an increased risk of experiencing hypoglycaemia. Over time, they can gradually stop realising that their blood sugar is falling, until it becomes dangerously low, this is termed hypoglycaemia-associated autonomic failure (HAAF). We don’t know why people might lose awareness of having low blood sugar, but I hope my research will help solve some of this puzzle.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I decided to do a PhD because it represents a unique opportunity to delve deeply into a topic of interest. Being able to pursue your own research ideas is very rewarding. I was also keen to pursue research in an area where I could easily see the direct real-world, clinical impact it would have. It is a privilege to be part of such an influential department, surrounded by inspiring scientists. I really enjoy the variety that doing practical lab work brings to the day.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

Science is not an easy route, but it is certainly rewarding! Find a broad area of research that you are passionate about, and then read the websites of lots of different related departments to see what jumps out at you most. Always say “yes” to any experiences that you are offered, and don’t be afraid to try a few different types of research before you find the one that you want to pursue further. Perseverance is key, but nothing beats the excitement of new discoveries! Honesty and openness will get you far.

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 14 – Alice McDowell

4 January 2021. Alice McDowell is a second-year PhD student in the Department of Biochemistry. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Molecular biology and parasitology

I work on African trypanosomes, which are single-celled, eukaryotic parasites that cause sleeping sickness in humans, and diseases of livestock known as animal African trypanosomiasis. The diseases caused by trypanosomes are hard to treat because the parasites are constantly switching out the proteins expressed on their surfaces, making it difficult to design drugs to target them. However, some proteins are expressed consistently on the parasite cell surface, without extensive variation. I am studying one family on these invariant surface proteins, and I’m hoping to discover their role in the parasite, whether they are essential for parasite survival, and whether they are found consistently across trypanosomes from different places.

What made you decide to pursue research?

Before my PhD, I did NatSci in Cambridge, and my favourite part of the degree was my third-year research project (I worked on tobacco plants and their interactions with parasites and symbionts). I also did a summer project in the Biochemistry department, and I found it much calmer than term-time work! So, I knew that I enjoyed being in the lab, and having the freedom to schedule my experiments and timetable. I was also very keen to work on a project that seemed worthwhile, where I could work on something that was interesting not just scientifically, but also because advancements in the field can lead to real-life benefits for people.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

My advice would be to dive in and try to find out what a particular field is like. You can go to local conferences or find seminars on talks.cam (just email the organiser if it isn’t clear whether undergrads are allowed), and although you might not understand everything, this can give you a really good idea what people are getting up to day-to-day. It’s also a chance to meet academics who might be willing to host you for a summer project (or even a master’s or PhD).

The skills that are important in research are totally different from what you are examined on at undergrad, especially in the first and second years. It will matter much more that you are determined, organised and hard-working than that you can memorise a lot of material! That being said, PhD funding is often conditional on getting a 2:1 in your finals. If you have your heart set on research, remember that there are lots of routes in, and don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a PhD offer straight away. You can do a research masters, or apply for research assistant jobs. If you can do a placement or short term job in a lab before you apply for a PhD there, you will also get the chance to find out whether you get on with your colleagues, supervisor, and the type of work. A PhD is a big commitment, so it’s worth being sure that you can work with your supervisor (and that they have the same definition of “weekend” as you!).

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