SciSoc Spotlight Issue 21 – Dr Mairi Kilkenny

1 March 2021. Dr Mairi Kilkenny is with the Department of Biochemistry, School of Biological Sciences. A PDF version of this Issue is available here.

Research focus: Structural biology of human DNA replication

My particular area of interest is geared towards understanding, at the molecular level, how DNA replication works in human cells. It’s important, at a fundamental level, to understand how the cells in our body replicate DNA (the information storage molecule) prior to cell division. This is key to ensuring that each daughter cell has a complete and accurate copy of the genetic material. There are also more translational aspects to our research, relevant to human health. Cancer is a disease of uncontrolled cell growth and division, requiring high levels of some DNA replication proteins. We are currently investigating whether some of these DNA replication proteins would make effective targets for anti-cancer therapy. We have also recently discovered that some of our DNA replication proteins interact with SARS-CoV-2 viral proteins, which may help us to deepen our understanding of COVID disease progression and severity.

What made you decide to pursue research?

I didn’t really have a “eureka” moment – I enjoyed my undergraduate degree to the extent that I knew I wanted to give a PhD a go. My PhD was a stimulating, collaborative experience, so I thought well, I’d quite like to continue to a post-doc. I’ve moved research fields (and locations) a fair bit: from inorganic chemistry (undergrad/Masters, Cape Town), to bacterial biosynthetic pathways (PhD, Cambridge), to human DNA repair (post-doc, Institute of Cancer Research, London), to human DNA replication (senior research associate, back in Cambridge!). I really enjoy taking on a new research project, working in a collaborative team to put the pieces of the puzzle together to arrive (eventually!) at the big biological picture. And I still enjoy my research work, but I’m now balancing that with other roles: Assistant Director of Teaching in the Department of Biochemistry, and Tutor, DoS and Supervisor at St Catharine’s College. I enjoy the variety that these different roles bring, and it’s really fun teaching and supporting a wide range of students.

One piece of advice…

If you think a career in research could be for you, be persistent about seeking out extra curricular research experience – use your network (DoS, supervisors), apply for funded internships in academia/industry, email individual group leaders and simply ask if they have any summer internship opportunities available – email again if you don’t hear back (academics are often drowning in emails, so don’t be scared to drop a reminder email). Don’t be afraid to change field – the diverse experience can make you a better scientist. There is some fascinating work going at the interface between fields – chemistry, biochemistry, physics, mathematics and computer science. Join societies (like SciSoc!) – build a network. Don’t worry if you’re not sure WHAT you want to do – the Careers Service is a great place to start looking for all sorts of different/varied opportunities.

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