SciSoc Spotlight Issue 30 – Dr Daniel Field

3 Dec 2021. Dr Daniel Field is with the Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Which organisation and faculty are you currently attached to?

I am a University Lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences, a fellow of Christ’s College, and the incoming Strickland Curator of Ornithology at the University Museum of Zoology

What is your sepcialisation?

My expertise focuses on the evolutionary origins of birds from non-avian dinosaurs, and their subsequent diversification that gave rise to living bird diversity

A short summary of your current research topic

I am interested in the earliest evidence of ‘modern’ birds in the fossil record, and how these fossils can help us understand how, where, and when modern birds originated, as well as what these fossils can tell us about how the biosphere persisted through the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I have been fascinated with wildlife since I was a young child, and gradually became curious about the evolutionary origins of present-day biodiversity. Birds and dinosaurs have always been a passion of mine, and the opportunity to link those interests by studying evolutionary biology and palaeontology made a career in research inevitable.

One piece of advice…

I think that learning to think creatively in order to identify and pursue key outstanding scientific questions is the most important thing an aspiring researcher can do. What are the fundamental but untested assumptions underpinning your area of research? Are there different ways that those assumptions can be tested? And if those assumptions fail to be substantiated, what are the implications for the field?

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 27 – Professor Chiara Marletto

25 Oct 2021. Professor Chiara Marletto is with Wolfson College (Oxford) and the Physics Department. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Which organisation and faculty are you currently attached to?

Wolfson College (Oxford) and Physics Department (Oxford). I am also a visiting fellow at the Centre for Quantum Technologies at the National University of Singapore.

What is your sepcialisation?

Quantum theory and Quantum Information.

A short summary of your current research topic

I am working, together with a team of brave collaborators, on developing a generalisation of the quantum theory of computation, which will help us understand quantum theory better (maybe even improve on it!) and at the same time will also deliver the theory of the next generation of programmable machines (also called ‘constructors’) superseding universal computers.

What made you decide to pursue research?

It is at the foundations of physics – it touches the deeper part of the ‘fabric of reality’.

One piece of advice…

In short: Seek intellectual delight in an uncompromising way. Look for problems that you find interesting; cultivate the joy of understanding and solving them.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 29 – Dr Amy Milton

5 Nov 2021. Dr Amy Milton is with the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Which organisation and faculty are you currently attached to?

Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge.

What is your sepcialisation?

I am a behavioural neuroscientist, with expertise in memory reconsolidation and modelling mental health disorders in animals.

A short summary of your current research topic

My research aims to understand the process of memory reconsolidation, which is the hypothesised process by which memories become updated under certain conditions. I am interested in reconsolidation from a basic and theoretical perspective, and also from a translational perspective. As maladaptive memories contribute to numerous mental health disorders (including PTSD and drug addiction), disrupting the reconsolidation of these memories may provide a way to improve patient outcomes in the long term, with a relatively short duration treatment.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I became fascinated by psychology and neuroscience as an undergraduate, and I was particularly interested in learning and memory, and compulsive behaviours. I suppose that these are really related research interests: how do we know how to behave in future situations (based on our past experiences), and why do we not always behave adaptively? As I read more into these topics, it became clear that there is so much left to learn about these psychological processes, and I wanted to be part of the research community finding those answers.

One piece of advice…

If I had to give a single piece of advice, I would say that aspiring researchers should cultivate their willingness to learn from every situation. Research often produces unexpected data, but this doesn’t mean that it’s bad data; you just need to figure out why what you are seeing is not what you expected. You can also learn a lot talking to people from other disciplines – even if what they’re telling you now is not immediately relevant to your research, you’d be surprised how often that can seed new ideas. There is always something new to learn.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 26 – Professor Eric Miska

20 Oct 2021. Professor Eric Miska is with the Department of Genetics and the Gurdon Institute. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Which organisation and faculty are you currently attached to?

I am the Herchel Smith Professor of Molecular Genetics affiliated with the Department of Genetics and the Deputy Director of the Gurdon Institute, both at the University of Cambridge. I am also an Associated Faculty Member at the Tree of Life Programme at the Wellcome Sanger Institute. I am a founder and Director of the University of Cambridge spin-out company STORM Therapeutics. Finally, I am a Fellow, Tutor and Director of Studies at St. John’s College, Cambridge.

What is your sepcialisation?

I am a molecular geneticist

A short summary of your current research topic

I am a molecular geneticist who has done pioneering work on RNA biology. I developed new technologies that led to genome-wide analyses of microRNAs, now a diagnostic tool. I discovered the piRNA pathway in C. elegans, which controls fertility and transposons in germlines of animals. I demonstrated that RNA pathways can lead to a multigenerational, truly epigenetic memory in C. elegans, a first in animals. I also developed C. elegans into a host pathogen model identifying a new class of RNA-modifying enzymes, Tutases, that restrict RNA viruses in animals. Finally, I developed revolutionary tools to determine RNA structure in living cells.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I have always enjoyed figuring out how things work. I remember being fascinated with structural colour and have never really recovered from discovering romanesco cauliflower. I like math. I don’t like having a boss.

One piece of advice…

Be sceptical of flashy research buildings. Truly ground-breaking research is more likely done in a “shed”.

SciSoc Spotlight Issue 28 – Professor Hasok Chang

28 Oct 2021. Professor Hasok Chang is with the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Which organisation and faculty are you currently attached to?

Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge

What is your sepcialisation?

History and philosophy of the physical sciences

A short summary of your current research topic

Currently I have two major projects. One is the early history of batteries, going back to Volta’s invention published in 1800. It was really easy to rig up batteries (Volta just used plates of two different types of metals, and pieces of paper soaked in salt water, piled up in alternating layers), but really difficult to understand how they worked. This is understandable given that these early scientists didn’t even have the concepts of electrons or ions as we know them, for about a hundred years after batteries were invented. Even today there are some intriguing questions remaining about these early batteries. My other project is more philosophical, trying to introduce pragmatism seriously into the philosophy of science. The general goal is to make sense of how it is that scientific knowledge grows, without pretending that we are approaching some absolute truth.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I have always wanted to study science because I loved learning about nature and wanted to understand everything. So research was a natural thing for me to go into. How I ended up with my particular field of work is more complicated. I started out wanting to become a theoretical physicist, but during my undergraduate study I realised that the reality of scientific training (problem sets and student practicals) didn’t excite me. I found that most of the questions that I wanted to pursue were considered “philosophical”, and luckily I discovered that there was a field called the philosophy of science.

One piece of advice…

Being able to have research as a career is a most wonderful privilege. Go into it only if you can find an area of work that you truly love, and enjoy every moment of it. Don’t become a researcher just because you are cleverer and better than others. The only other reason to devote yourself to research is to solve urgent practical problems facing humanity. But even then, you’ll find that you can’t keep up a life of research very well unless the problems you are tackling really fascinate you.

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