The Science of LIfe
My name is Becky Williams and I am a PhD student in the Faculty of Life Sciences here at the University of Manchester. My PhD is in the field of Developmental Biology, which is the study of how the cells in the early embryo are able to become all the different cells in the body. For my PhD, I am interested in understanding how mechanisms used by cells during early development to grow and divide can be re-activated in cancer, causing tumours to grow and divide. In my lab, we are most interested in researching breast cancer, so my project is focused on this disease.
My undergraduate degree was Developmental Biology with a Year in Industry. I did my degree at the University of Manchester because I was blown away by the ambition and enthusiasm of the Faculty of Life Sciences when I visited on an open day. I love the city, and I think it is a great place to be as a student because everything is relatively cheap, and there is a lot to do. However, it is very important to own an umbrella if you live here!
The highlight of my degree was my year in industry at AstraZeneca, where I met some amazing people and really found a passion for studying the life sciences. My industrial project had some unexpected results, which I puzzled over for weeks. With the help of my supervisors, I eventually managed to explain my findings, and we even had enough data to publish a scientific, peer-reviewed paper on what we had found. It was the puzzle that I found addictive, and it is the puzzle that made me passionate about my subject.
I am now doing a PhD in Developmental Biology. A PhD is an extended (3-4 year) programme where you research something in depth. In particular, I am focussing on methods that help cells grow and divide during early development, and how these can cause cancer if they are re-activated in adults. I choose this project based both on my time at AstraZeneca, and on my undergraduate degree programme. I knew from my degree that I love learning about how animals and people develop from just a few cells in the embryo, and I knew from AstraZeneca that I love to puzzle over how cells work. My PhD project brings these two elements together, and I spend my days puzzling over how things used in development can go wrong in breast cancer.
A typical day
It sounds like a cliché, but there really is no typical day for me- I choose my own hours, and set my own schedule. The pressure to get good results means that I typically work long hours, and occasionally have to come in at the weekend to finish an experiment. Most days involve some form of computer work (emails, checking microscope images, making graphs of results, writing my online lab book) and some time in the lab doing experiments. I also spend a lot of time doing public engagement and widening participation with school and sixth form students, so some days are completely different again. These days are some of my favourites, as I love creating workshops about science, and working with inspiring young people. I even got to meet Prof. Brian Cox!
Why I did a PhD
A PhD seemed a natural progression for me having finished my undergraduate degree, as I loved science and scientific research. I am really proud to be part of the fight against cancer, and I work with some incredible people. A PhD is a rollercoaster ride, and the good days are AMAZING- a good result can have me skipping all the way home! Naturally, this means that the bad days can be very gloomy, and having supportive people around you helps you pick yourself up and dust yourself down. My bad days usually arise when an experiment hasn’t worked for the umpteenth time, or I have messed an experiment up, which happens much more often than I would like!
How I got my PhD and future plans
My time at AstraZeneca and my final year laboratory undergraduate project helped my to get my PhD, as they demonstrated that I had the skills to work in a lab. I was really lucky to be offered a PhD part funded by Your Manchester Fund, which means that University of Manchester alumni donate money to fund my PhD. I am not sure where my career will take me- I love doing my PhD, and would enjoy any career in science. This could include an academic career, a career in scientific industry, or a career in teaching. As long as I am still in the world of science, I will be happy.
To find out more about me, visit my blog.
To discover more about Developmental Biology research at the University of Manchester you can visit their webpages. The Faculty's webpages also have information about studying Life Sciences at Manchester.
The British Society for Developmental Biology has some excellent resources for schools and students.
You can find out more about doing a year in industry at
AstraZeneca by looking at their Student Workers and Interns placements.
Bright Knowledge, from The Brightside Trust, has information and guidance on studying Biology and pursuing a career in Biological Sciences.