SciSoc Spotlight Issue 8 – Alexander P. Fellows9 November 2020. Alex Fellows is with the Department of Chemistry, School of Physical Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.
Research focus: Vibrational nanospectroscopy and microscopy of biosubstrate surfaces and molecular filmsI utilise spectroscopic techniques to selectively probe surfaces of biological or biologically relevant substrates. Specifically, the two main techniques I use are Atomic Force Microscopy Nano-IR Spectroscopy (AFM IR), which can correlate spectroscopic measurements to physical properties of the surface e.g. topography, stiffness, etc., and Sum-Frequency Generation spectroscopy (SFG), which is a non-linear optical process that achieves sub-monolayer resolution and is entirely surface specific. A recent project that I have been working on has used these techniques to analyse human red blood cells (RBCs) from patients with sickle cell disease (SCD), a disease that afflicts millions worldwide. There is currently no cure for SCD, only treatments that manage its symptoms. One particular, common symptom is vaso-occulsion crises where RBCs clump together and block small-aperture blood vessels, thus causing painful episodes. This is believed to arise from increased cell adhesion resulting from oxidative stress to the RBC lipid membrane. It is therefore the aim of this project to elucidate the causes of this increased adhesion with the ultimate goal of leading to potential treatments that can prevent such episodes from occurring.
What made you decide to pursue research?Science is a history lesson. Each year, we study more topics covering content that takes us closer and closer to the present day, but never quite reaching it. What fascinates me, however, is not learning about the past discoveries and breakthroughs of our academic forebears but surpassing this inspirational work and exploring the unknown. Some of the greatest achievements of our species have come from breaking the perceived boundaries and asking the plain and simple question of “Why?”. The world of research is very much about taking that extra step out of one’s comfort zone, into uncharted territory, but for that very reason, it is full of excitement and can be very rewarding. My decision to pursue research was due to this fascination of exploring the unknown and continuing along the path of mental stimulation that is impossible to replicate elsewhere.
What would be your advice to aspiring researchers?The fundamental question that you should ask yourself if you are considering doing a PhD is not “Am I cut out for it?” or “Will this help me with…?”, but rather “Why am I considering this?”. This can often lead to frustration in your project and doubt in your decision to do it. Therefore, in order for the relationship between you and your research to be fruitful, you need to be both patient and invested. For this, interest and excitement are the key. My advice would be to ask yourself why you would be continuing into research and if the answer is not related to satisfying or arousing your interest, you may find yourself spending years of your life only to find out that this path is not for you.
SciSoc Spotlight Issue 10 – Prof Chris Smith23 November 2020. Prof Chris Smith is the Professor of RNA Molecular Biology at the Department of Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.
Research focus: RNA molecular biologyMy 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 7 – Dr Jerome Neufeld2 November 2020. Dr Neufeld is with the Department of Earth Sciences and the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.
Research focus: Fluid dynamics of the Earth and other planetary bodiesI’ve always liked working on a diverse range of topics that use the skills I’ve developed. Currently, with my group I’m working in three broad areas: the dynamics of ice sheets and sea ice in the polar regions, the geological storage of CO2, and the early evolution of planetary bodies including how magma oceans freeze and how planetesimals generate their magnetic fields.
The global climate crisis presents an immediate scientific challenge in which there is no end of pressing, but also fascinating scientific questions. An outstanding current question is how ice sheets connect to the porous sediments on which they often rest, and importantly how changing that subglacial environment might lead to the loss of ice. I’m using the ideas we’ve developed for flow in porous rocks to understand the subglacial environment, in particular how water moves around beneath glaciers and lubricates their flow. These are similar ideas to how we understand the flow, and ultimately the trapping, of CO2 in porous rocks.
Carbon sequestration is a technological means of tackling part of our emissions that are responsible for climate change, and we’re trying to understand how the complicated structure of the porous rocks may influence how and where CO2 flows when it is injected, and more importantly, if and when it will be stably trapped. I’ve also been interested in how ice forms in the polar oceans, and more recently how ice forms in the turbulent surface waters of the oceans in areas called polynyas. It turns out these ideas are similar to how we think of magma crystallising within the Earth.
On a much larger planetary scale, we think many bodies began with a hot, surface magma ocean, and only after some time cooled and crystallised to make the planetary surfaces we observe today.
That process of cooling and crystallisation is fluid dynamically similar to what occurs annually in the polar oceans. On the moon, we’re exploring whether this process of cooling and crystallisation may have led to the pronounced difference in the crustal thickness of the near and far sides.