Author Archive

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 6 – Dr Martin Welch

26 October 2020. Dr Welch is with the Department of Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Microbial physiology and metabolism

Our main aim is to understand better the physiology and metabolism of a nasty opportunistic human pathogen called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Most people have never heard of it, but it has the dubious accolade of having recently been designated by the WHO as a “critical priority pathogen” against which new antimicrobial interventions are urgently needed. Our role in all this? We try to identify “weak points” in the biology of the organism that can be targeted by antimicrobial agents. A particular focus of the lab is to look into how cells within a population of the bug communicate with one another (and yes, just like us, they do “chat” with one another using chemical signals, about things like war (on the host) and environmental affairs), and what they eat. It turns out that by blocking these areas of the bug’s physiology, it either dies or becomes much less harmful.

What made you decide to pursue research?

So what drew me into this area of research? I’d like to claim a childhood passion or suchlike, but the reality is that like any young boy, I preferred tree climbing (at an early age), and later, as a teenager, the opposite sex. In fact, it was largely the latter that determined my career path – one cannot underestimate the impact that domestic considerations have on career trajectories, and if you want a nice, balanced life, this is perfectly reasonable. Anyway, from my PhD onwards I became fascinated by how bugs sense and respond to the world around them. My career path has allowed me to live in other countries for extended periods, while, at the same time, also engaging in some really interesting Science.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

So, do I have any advice for anyone considering a career path in science? Yes. If you never want another dull moment again, get your brain in gear and get thinking. If your main goal in life is to see how “United” do in the match this weekend, you’re not cut out for a life in Science. A 9-5 “job” it is not…. you have to be genuinely enthused by the world around you, and have genuine curiosity (and ideally, also a well-stocked bookshelf – have you ever met an interesting person who does not read voraciously?). However, if you go to bed thinking about “how things work”, this may be the job for you. For me, the journey is as rewarding as the destination, and I never get up on a morning dreading the day ahead; quite the opposite – every day is an amazing day. What a privilege!

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 3 – Dr Matthew J Mason

28 September 2020. Dr Mason is at the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience (PDN). A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Comparative physiology: structure, function and evolution of ear in vertebrates.

I am engaged in a number of different research areas at the present time. One of them is looking at the otoconial masses within the inner ears of frogs, a study which evolved from a part 2 PDN project, worked on by one of my third-year undergraduates. The otoconial masses are dense aggregates of crystals which, in humans, help to detect the motion of the body and contribute to balance. In frogs, the relatively much larger otoconial masses may be used in the detection of low-frequency ground vibrations. If so, they would be analogous to the enormous middle ear ossicles found in the golden moles of southern Africa, which I have also worked on. This is because a large, dense structure in the ear can in effect act as an inertial seismometer, like we would use to detect earthquakes. The research I’m currently undertaking on this involves looking at the morphology of the otoliths in a wide range of frogs from around the world, based on 3D reconstructions from micro-CT scans. We are testing several hypotheses, including the notion that the otoconial masses would be larger in burrowing frog species than in others.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I was a veterinary student as an undergraduate, but the anatomical and physiological adaptations of unusual animals always fascinated me. This fascination grew in my years at university; I began to relish the idea of exploring this further and becoming an expert in some small area, finding out new things and being the one to tell the world about them. Diverting into a PhD was the way to achieve this, and having left my veterinary career path I never looked back. My PhD in Cambridge and later my postdoctoral years in California were spent almost exclusively on research, but having returned to Cambridge in 2001 I began to do much more teaching. Now, I very much enjoy the mixture of teaching and research which forms the two sides of the academic coin. Teaching gives you a wider context in which to place your inevitably narrow research area: it’s too easy to lose sight of that bigger picture! Conversely, it is very important to be able to tell science students about how research is actually conducted, in practice as well as in principle, illustrating this with examples from your own career and thus being better able to guide them. What I love about my job now is that I can start the morning giving a lecture on action potentials, immerse myself in some 3D reconstructions of armadillo ears, run a practical class on respiration, review a research paper on naked mole-rats and end the day discussing sap ascent in plants with my supervisees. And the next day will be completely different!

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

The most important thing is to choose your research area very carefully. Especially in academic research, carving out a career is difficult. The bottleneck is after the postdoctoral stage, when you are looking for an independent academic lectureship position. What I did not realise until I entered that world is how dominated it is by what kind of scientific research is currently trendy. If you’re not on the right bandwagon you will find it much more difficult to get research grants, and being able to access the big-money grants is effectively essential now for research careers since the universities desperately need the associated income. People outside the system still think it’s all about ‘publish or perish’. It isn’t – it’s about bringing in research funding, or perish. Very often that means that you need to be doing something with an immediate and demonstrable impact on society. Think very carefully before you take that PhD in an interesting but esoteric area of science which might not be attractive to funding bodies later in your career! This is terribly wrong and terribly short-sighted of course, but sadly this is where we are. My second piece of advice is to try to get as much teaching experience as you can: in your early years this may mean supervising or demonstrating in practical classes. You learn so much more from teaching a subject than you did when you took those undergraduate exams yourself. You’ll find that you become better at communicating (vital for writing papers and giving lectures – including job interviews), you’ll retain a better grasp on your subject as a whole and where your research fits into that, and you’ll gain ideas from cognate disciplines that you can then productively apply back into your own work. A single-minded focus on your own narrow research area can sometimes lead to tremendous discoveries, but more often it leads to intellectual sterility. Teaching keeps your mind open.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 5 – Georgeos Hardo

21 October 2020. Georgeos Hardo is with the Department of Engineering and the Department of Genetics. He is also involved with the Cambridge University Synthetic Biology Society, especially with their computational projects. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Systems biology

I’m interested in the effects of ageing, toxin anti-toxin (TA) systems and persistence in bacterial systems such as B. subtilis. Ageing is of interest because for a long time we thought that organisms which divide (supposedly) symmetrically, were immortal. We now know that this is not the case. There is evidence to suggest that persistence, (also known as multi-drug tolerance) has some role to play in the ageing process.

My research focuses specifically on TA systems and their role in these phenomena. I mainly use a combination of modelling/numerical simulation techniques (stochastic, deterministic, spacial and dynamical), synthetic biology tools (mostly cloning!), and high throughput time-lapse microscopy in microfluidic devices (such as mother machines) to study these systems.

What made you decide to pursue research?

As long as I can remember, I have always wanted to be a scientist. I fell in love with the act of doing science when I started doing undergraduate research. I liked having the freedom to learn whatever I wanted without the pressure of exams. Because my interests still span a broad range of disciplines, I decided to pursue this further in the form of a PhD. I have been really fortunate to end up in a lab which supports and encourages learning across both the applied and theoretical aspects of the research which I am interested in.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

Do not think that you are restricted to a specific scientific domain purely because of your previous undergraduate studies. As someone who came from a chemical engineering background, but was still interested in biological sciences, I was able to find and carve out a niche where I can usefully apply what knowledge I already had while being in an environment allowing me to learn and fill in the gaps required to do the research I’m interested in. One book which I would thoroughly recommend to any aspiring researcher is Letters to a Young Scientist by E. O. Wilson.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 2 – Prof Rachel Oliver

14 September 2020. Professor Oliver is at the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Light-emitting semiconductor materials

My research interests focus on the characterization and exploitation of nanoscale (very small!) structures in semiconductor materials, particularly gallium nitride (GaN). The broad aim of my work is to achieve improved performance in GaN-based electronic and optoelectronic devices and to develop and implement novel device concepts.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I’ve always been really interested in the properties of the materials around me, and what causes them. As a child, I used to drive my Mum mad with questions like “Why isn’t milk transparent?” and “Why does metal feel colder than stone on a snowy day?”. Doing a degree in Materials Science in Engineering, answered some of my questions, but also opened up loads of others, so carrying on to research Materials Science further struck me as an exciting prospect.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

It’s important to focus on the questions that really interest you! Research can be tough and frustrating at times, but if you really care about the questions you’re trying to answer it will help you stay the course.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 4 – Dr Marta Correia

12 October 2020. Dr Correia is at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Neuroimaging images.

My research work falls broadly in the field of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and its applications to Neuroscience. MRI is a non-invasive medical imaging technique which allows us to study both brain anatomy and function in-vivo. So we can for example study how the brain changes as a particular pathology progresses, or how different areas of the brain engage as we perform a particular motor or cognitive task. My work mainly focuses on the development of data analysis methods for quantification of MRI images. For example, one of my recent projects used two different MRI modalities and machine learning methods to develop diagnostic models for differentiating Parkinson’s disease from atypical forms of Parkinsonism. There is a pressing need for reliable biomarkers to differentiate these disorders, not only to aid diagnosis in early cases, but to monitor progression in trials and to support ante mortem studies of pathogenesis.

What made you decide to pursue research?

My brother started his PhD in Astrophysics when I was 14, and seeing how much joy he got out of his work was what first made me think about the possibility of a career in research. Later on, while at University, I had the opportunity to work on two different research projects, applying my skills in Physics and Engineering to problems in Medicine. I was fascinated by the interdisciplinary nature of the work, and thoroughly enjoyed learning about a new topic in a practical context, outside the formality of lecture halls. After graduation, I decided to do a PhD in Medical Physics to continue exploring the aspects of research I had so enjoyed as an undergraduate, and I have never looked back. I love the flexibility of the work, and the fact that I am continuously learning about new things.

What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?

Get as much research experience as you can as an undergraduate by doing research placements over the summer and a research project in your final year at University. Not only will it look good on your PhD applications, it will also increase your chances of finding the right research topic for you. Depending on your topic of study, there are also some PhD programs which offer a rotation year, where you undertake 2 or 3 research projects in different topics (sometimes even different departments) before you finally settle on a PhD project.

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