The Science of LIfe

by YPU Admin on June 24, 2013, Comments. Tags: biology, cells, Research, and science


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.

In depth

My degree

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.

My PhD

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.

Going Further

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. 


Whose Time is it Anyway?

by YPU Admin on June 20, 2013, Comments. Tags: Humanities, Law, Philosophy, Research, and Time


My name is Tanzil Chowdhury and I am a Ph.D researcher in the School of Law. My work lies in the field of Jurisprudence which, generally, is a fancy word describing philosophical questions about law.These, for example, can include basic questions, such as: what is a law (how is it different from the rules you have in the classroom)? What role does law have in our lives (to control us? protect us?)? Are law and justice the same thing? 

My research looks at a very specific aspect of law which is ‘time’ or temporality (the two mean roughly the same thing). A famous philosopher, St Augustine, once said: ‘What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks me, I do not know’. Whilst we often think of time as being what our watch or clock tells us (called objective time), we also have experiences of time, like the feeling we have of time passing slowly when sitting through a boring film or ‘time flying when we are having fun’ (called subjective time). Law, as a ‘thing’ that exists in society, also has its own temporality. But why should it matter what the law’s time is?

In Depth

Bear this in mind: that time and temporality is intrinsically linked to how we construct events.

To explain what this means, imagine this: your mother has been forced to sort out a conflict between you and your brother. According to your elder sibling, he says you hit him in the leg. You don’t necessarily disagree, only that this was not the entire story. You tell your mother that your punch was a response to years of pent up aggression at the hands of your brother’s bullying. Your mother, preoccupied with more pressing matters, looks to you both and hands down her judgement: ‘this is going to stop now! From now on, if either of you complains about the other, you shall both be grounded’.

Her justice is firm and swift; her construction of the event is directed toward guiding both your future actions.  Your focus, however, was rooted firmly in the past. Put simply, your mother and you have different temporalities (your mother is more concerned with the future, and you the past) and this directly effects how you construct the pattern of events. Lawyers, judges and law makers exercise construction in very much the same way. 

The main question, therefore, is to look at how laws construct their own time (what we might call ‘legal temporality’). The clearest way of determining this is looking at the way legal actors (such as judges and law makers) apply legal principles to facts when they are ruling on a case and how this directly affects the way they reconstruct events in those cases. Interestingly, we don’t all share the same ‘temporality’. For example, the law aims to guide future conduct but I may be preoccupied with an event in the past which affects my future conduct. Because humans and the law courts have‘competing temporalities’, it maybe that the legal system can never really work.

I hope that my work will contribute to understanding how the law is a unique phenomenon within society and allow others to criticise and discuss the law from an entirely new angle. It may hopefully help to inform how the law can be more sensitive to the temporalities of humans’ who use the courts, and also help us to understand why a person may have committed wrongdoings.

Going Further

For another explanation of my research check out my university webpage and for information about studying Law at the University of Manchester, the department's pages are a good resource.  

 If you would like to learn more about the jurisprudence, and the philosophy of law generally, Law Teacher and Princeton University's Wiki provide useful resources. The Legal Theory Blog also contains some great information. 

Sixth Form Law provides opportunities for you to explore the questions that legal philosophers ask, and Stanford University's Encyclopedia of Philosophy an interesting section on Justice as a VirtueThis website is generally good for anything related to philosophy.

Discussions about time and temporality vary in philosophy, sciences and the social sciences. A good starting point for understanding this is the video attached to an article on time in the Huffington Post, while Stanford's Philosophy encyclopedia again provides a detailed overview of the experience and perception of time

The Guardian's Law Student section is great reading for those studying, or interested in, law.

Bright Knowledge, from the Brightside Trust, has some excellent information on studying law and pursuing a career in law. 


Body Broken?

by YPU Admin on June 12, 2013, Comments. Tags: Biophysics, Computer modelling, Physics, Research, and science


Since before your birth you have interacted with the world via the physical form that is your body; but how much do you really know about it? Do you know how it works? What do your cells actually do? How do organs like your heart and brain function? What stops them from functioning, endangering or even ending your life? Can we prevent them from failing?

My name is Craig Testrow and I’m a Biophysicist; in other words, I solve biological problems by investigating the physics behind them, asking (and occasionally answering) questions like those above. My project is to build a computer model of the uterus, or womb, with the aim of preventing women from giving birth too soon, which can greatly harm their newborn baby.

In Depth...

I’m a physicist by training. At A-level I studied Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Further Maths. I then went on to do a physics degree at Manchester. But what business does a physicist have poking his nose into biology and medicine? Well, ultimately all biological and chemical systems are governed by the laws of physics. Let me give you an example; consider a heart cell. Such cells are the building blocks that make up the heart; if you understand those blocks, you can assemble them and understand the whole organ. This is where the physics comes in: we view the cell as a little electrical circuit.


An imbalance of charged calcium, sodium and potassium ions inside and outside of the cell creates a potential difference, forcing the ions to flow across its membrane in an attempt to balance the charge. This remarkably simple analogy of a cell to a circuit board works really well. We just apply all the familiar laws of circuits, like Ohm’s Law (V=IR) to our cells and find we can replicate the activity we witness in living systems on a computer. It is all the more amazing when you realise how incredibly complex the systems in our body actually are. But these complex systems are entirely dependent on simple, universal physical principles.

But why do we bother writing computer programs? Shouldn’t we spend our time with patients instead of fiddling around with all this code? Well, not if we want to help as many people as possible. Our computer models can perform thousands of simulations, with hundreds of variations in the time it takes to run a single traditional laboratory experiment; not to mention it’s cheaper and doesn’t require you to give up your organs so we can prod them with probes (well, not as often anyway). And on a purely numerical basis, a medical doctor might be able to treat 20 or 30 people a day; if successful, our research could be put into practice worldwide, directly helping thousands of people each day, millions every year.

There is a key point to be made here: people working outside of science and medicine often overlook the role of research in coming up with new knowledge and techniques, which are placed in the hands of doctors who go on to implement them. Cancers are treated on hospital wards, but they’re cured in the lab. That said, our work would be impossible without the efforts of experimental biologists providing us with raw data, and irrelevant without the dedication of medical staff on the front line; like links in a chain, we’re each dependent on the others for support.

Something I’ve learned while studying physics is that the well-trodden path is not necessarily the right one. Whichever subject interests you, be it science, medicine, or any other; take the time to ponder less conventional routes. If you are interested in medicine, consider a career in research; the scientist who cures cancer or eradicates HIV will secure their place in history.

Going Further

You might like to have a look at the following links if you are curious about physics, biophysics or medical research:

Undergraduate physics courses at Manchester. Includes lots of useful info, including views of current and previous students:

Postgraduate physics at Manchester, for when one degree just isn’t enough!

The Institute of Physics website

An introduction to biophysics and its importance as a field by the Biophysical Society

Topics covered in biophysics

Want to live forever? Dr. Aubrey de Grey of Cambridge thinks medical research will soon lead to immortality, by curing age-related diseases through regenerative biotechnology. Read more about the SENS Research Foundation. 


The Psychology of Pain

by YPU Admin on June 3, 2013, Comments. Tags: gesture, pain, psychology, and science


Hello! My name is Sam Rowbotham I am PhD student and Tutor in Psychology, spending half of my time on each of these. My PhD research focused on the hand-gestures we use when speaking and how these can help us to communicate about painful experiences (such as migraines, back pain etc), in the hope that this will improve communication between doctors and patients.

In Depth

How did I get here?

After completing my A-Levels (Psychology, English Literature, and History) in 2005, I came to the University of Manchester to study Psychology, graduating in 2008. At the end of my degree I decided to stay at Manchester to complete a one-year Masters in Research Methods (Psychology) so that I could develop my research skills further. Following this I applied for a joint PhD and Teaching post (also here at Manchester) which I began in September 2009. Because my PhD is part-time it should take me six years to complete (rather than the usual 3-4 years) but I am hoping to finish it a year early! Along the way I have strengthened my research skills by completing a number of temporary Research Assistant posts, including one in which we looked at why doctors and nurses give people antibiotics for coughs and colds (despite the fact that these medicines don’t work for these illnesses!). 

My research

During my undergraduate degree I became fascinated with the movements we make with our hands and arms when speaking – our co-speech gestures. These gestures do more than simply express how we feel – they carry information about the things we are talking about, such as the shape and size of objects. However, researchers hadn’t really considered how people use these gestures when talking about sensations such as pain – something we often find quite tricky to describe. This is where my PhD comes in – I look at how these gestures are used to describe pain and whether seeing gestures can improve people’s understanding of other people’s pain. To do this I video-record people talking about pain and then analyse the video data in detail, looking at how many gestures they use and what kind of information these gestures contain (e.g. about where pain is located and how it feels). I have also created short clips of these pain descriptions which I play to other people to see what information they can pick up from these gestures. A similar video can be seen on YouTube.

What impact will my PhD have?

So far my research has demonstrated that hand gestures contain lots of information about pain, a lot of which is not contained in the speech they occur with. If we can also show that ordinary people (i.e. not trained gesture analysts) can pick up this information (something I am studying now) then this is important for pain communication in medical settings. Hopefully, it will encourage doctors to be more attentive to gestures when talking to patients and therefore pick up more information about pain. This is particularly important as people often find it difficult to explain their pain to others: if we cannot explain pain, it can be difficult to get the right treatment.

My day-to-day routine

One of the things that I love most about my work life is that everyday is different. Because I teach alongside my PhD, some day I might be helping students to work through practical exercises in their statistics classes, teaching study skills to groups of 10-15 students, delivering nonverbal communication lectures to over 100 third year students, or marking essays and exams. When I am working on my PhD, my days change depending on whether I am collecting data (e.g. by interviewing participants or getting them to watch pain descriptions and answer questions), analysing data (e.g. looking in detail at video data on the computer), or writing up my findings for psychology journals. This means that although I am often very busy trying to juggle multiple things I am rarely bored – I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Going Further...

If you are thinking of studying Psychology at the University of Manchester then take a look at our website for more info, including comments and clips from present and past students. You can also check out our blog where you will find updates about what is going on in the department and the activities that staff and students have been involved in.

The British Psychological Society and the Brightside Trust also have lots of useful information about careers in Psychology. The British Psychological Society also has a great blog with regular posts about lots of aspects of Psychology.

If you are interested in finding out more about nonverbal communication there is a nice article here from The Psychologist magazine (published by the British Psychological Society). You can also find the slides for a recent presentation on my research here


Back to the Old Grind Stone

by YPU Admin on May 27, 2013, Comments. Tags: archaeology, history, pre-history, and tools


Imagine life before a word was ever written down, before the Romans marched to war and the Victorians marched on their promenades, before cars, running water, electricity, telephones, and computers, before the internet. People's lives were structured by the needs of the animals that they kept and the crops they grew. Like today, they made friends, had families, grew old and explained the world around them through their beliefs. Prehistoric Archaeology, the study of people before they wrote their thoughts down, aims to imagine what these lives were like.

My name is Ellon Souter and I am a first year PhD student in Archaeology at the University of Manchester. I have finished my Undergraduate and Masters degrees and am now doing my own research on how people used stone tools thousands of years ago in Cyprus. I am studying my PhD part-time, which means that I can work and earn money to support me in my studies. I work as Widening Participation Fellow, which allows me to design and run workshops in Archaeology for secondary students. I am also kept busy round the Department, assisting with teaching, running the Postgraduate Research Seminars and being involved with the Archaeology Society.

In Depth...

I grew up in Northern Scotland, surrounded by castles, hillforts, museums and monuments. I felt that wherever I went, I could see my past stretching back around me and I wanted more and more to know that past. I chose to do an Archaeology BSc at the University of Liverpool and then went on to a Masters at Cambridge. Over the years, Archaeology has taken me on some fantastic adventures, working with human skeletons in the basements of the British Museum, making prehistoric boats and houses in northern Scotland, excavating castles in Latvia, caves in Wales, the earliest houses in Cyprus and even had a go at Stonehenge!

The stone tools that I will be looking at for my PhD come from two sites in the village of Kissonerga, southwest Cyprus. They are next to each other and are thought to represent continuous occupation between 5500-1500B.C. The tools consist of beautifully polished axes, figurines and games. However, the majority of items are equivalent to our kitchen utensils, DIY equipment and other household tools (grinding, hammering stones). I believe that these are the most interesting items to look at as they are integral to everyday work hence inform us about daily life. I will be using a scientific technique called X-Ray Fluorescence to find out where the stones were collected. I hope that this will be useful in finding out how people moved around their environments and communicated with each other. I will be figuring out exactly how these stones were made and used by experimenting with working stone and recording my observations. I will investigate whether these technologies change through time, across the Island and between particular activity areas within my case studies. I hope to show how important these everyday items were and what they might have meant to the prehistoric inhabitants of Cyprus.

When I tell people I’m an Archaeologist, they often ask ‘What’s the best thing you’ve ever found?’ They expect me to tell them about gold and riches. To me, it is about that moment when you suddenly realise that the patch in the dirt you’ve been staring at all day is a flue for a prehistoric oven and our understanding of past technologies changes forever.

Going Further…

If you are interested in finding out more about Archaeology, here are a few links:

University of Manchester Archaeology: Manchester Archaeology is a small friendly department. This will give you an idea of what you could be studying if you came to Manchester.

UCAS: If you are thinking seriously about going to University and studying Archaeology, this site lists all Archaeology courses in the UK and will also give you information (e.g. entry requirements, course details, etc).

Whitworth Park Community Archaeology: An excavation run by the University of Manchester in June 2013 that thrives on community involvement. If you are local, go along and catch a glance into the past of your city.

YAC:  The Young Archaeologists Club runs a range of activities and operates in most areas of Britain.


BBC History

Archaeology at the BBC: a collection of programmes dating back to the 1950s, available to watch in full.

Time Team