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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. 


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


Radioactive Research

by YPU Admin on April 15, 2013, Comments. Tags: science


Being a bit of a film and TV geek, I’ve always been fascinated by how nuclear science – be it in the form of bombs or radioactive waste – has been portrayed on the silver screen. I’ll never forget one of the first times I sat in front of the television to watch The Simpsons, with those images of Homer messing with glowing crystals and Lenny declaring ‘3 days without an accident’ beaming out at me. In a strange way, that cartoon is one of the many reasons why I decided to go into nuclear research. Thankfully, the nuclear energy industry is not run by Montgomery Burns and is one in which I am excited to be a part of.

My name is Gunther and I am currently working towards a PhD at the University of Manchester. My research focuses upon the UK’s nuclear waste inventory.


Nuclear waste is a hot topic in this country at the moment because the Government, along with the nuclear authorities, are trying to determine where we can store it without damaging the environment. You may have heard in the news recently that Cumbria County Council doesn’t want this waste stored in an underground facility, leaving the Government with few too little options now.

This waste generally contains all of the radioactive rubbish that comes out of a nuclear reactor after the fuel has been burnt up to produce electricity. Whereas some of this waste, known as High Level Waste (HLW), is highly radioactive and still generating heat, the waste I am looking at is radioactive but doesn’t give off heat; known as Intermediate Level Waste (ILW).

In Depth

Currently, we store this waste in above-ground storage facilities. The big problem we have at the moment though is where these facilities are placed around the UK, with some being built near coastlines. Subsequently, the containers are exposed to a varying amount of marine aerosol, which contains aggressive chloride salt, produced by breaking waves and water particles being thrown up into the air. As nuclear waste is held in stainless steel containers, it can corrode/rust when exposed to this marine aerosol. To help you think about what’s going on, imagine parking your car along the shoreline for a number of years. You’d probably come back to see your once shiny vehicle transformed into a palace of rust, due to the massive presence of oxygen and water along the coast. This simple process has big implications in the nuclear industry: when these containers rust badly, they may fail and become too dangerous to handle.

However, what if these harmful salts aren’t the only chemicals in the atmosphere? That is the question which forms the centre of my research. For many years it has been thought that marine waters – and aerosol - simply contained different salts. Recently, however, researchers have found that there are millions of organic species floating around in the air as well. These compounds are produced by those most unglamorous of organisms, which float around in the sea: Algae. Some of these algal species play a massive role in environmental processes and can lead to some crazy effects, including the production of vast amounts of sea foam in places like Australia. The coastline north of Sydney produces so much of this foam it’s been named the ‘Cappuccino Coast’.

My research is asking the question: what would happen if this organic gloop was placed on these nuclear waste containers? Would they protect the steel surface from all of those nasty salts, which simply want to eat away at the nuclear waste? Or would they help transport the salt to the surface quicker, thereby speeding up the corrosion process?

Going Further

Being halfway through my research these are still questions which yet remain to be answered fully but that is what is so intriguing about science. To steal a phrase from Captain Kirk from Star Trek, scientific research is so exciting because you will ‘boldly go where no man [or woman] has gone before’.

You can find out more about studying Materials Science at the University of Manchester on their website and that of the Dalton Nuclear Institute.

I am also one half of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Nuclear, a podcast and blog discussing opinions on nuclear-related topics. 


What is Nanoscience?

by Admin on March 28, 2013, Comments. Tags: science


My name is Edward Lewis and I’m a PhD student at the University of Manchester.  Doing a PhD takes 3 or 4 years and during that time you dedicate yourself to studying one topic in great depth with the hope of discovering something completely new.  My area of study is Nanoscience.  “Nano” refers to objects of a certain size.  A nanometre (nm) is 1 millionth of a millimetre, that’s a really small distance: a human hair is 80,000nm wide! Nanoscience is all about studying things that are nano sized. Materials that are only a few nm long have all sorts of weird, surprising, and useful properties.

My work is about making and looking at nanomaterials. There are two types of nanomaterial that I’m interested in: the first are tiny spherical particles called quantum dots and the second are super thin sheets of carbon, only a single atom thick, called graphene.  Looking at really small things is surprisingly hard: we need to use massive, complicated and very expensive machines to do this. These bits of equipment are called transmission electron microscopes.

One of the reasons that I’m interested in making and seeing nanomaterials is that they could help us make better more efficient solar panels. Generating clean renewable energy is a big concern in the modern world and I think nanoscience has a big part to play in solving problems like climate change.

In depth

At school I always enjoyed science and I went on the spend 4 years at Oxford studying for a Chemistry degree. Since coming to Manchester to do a PhD I’ve not used a whole lot of the Chemistry I was taught in my degree but have had the exciting experience of learning a lot about new areas of science and working with people from completely different subjects to me. Modern scientific research is very collaborative. Some people imagine scientists as antisocial men who toil alone in the lab until, eventually, they make some amazing discovery. However, in reality, team work is a vital part of almost every scientist’s work.  The skills and knowledge needed to do cutting edge research are just too vast for any one person to have them all.  Nanoscience sits somewhere on the boundary between the traditional scientific disciplines; there are nanoscientists who work in Biology, Medicine, Chemistry, Physics, Materials Science, and Electronic Engineering.  On a day to day basis I spend a lot of time running between the 3 different labs I work in. I work in a chemistry lab making quantum dots, with physicists on graphene, and go to the materials science building to do electron microscopy.

One of the weird things about nanomaterials is that their properties are size dependent. This isn’t the case for normal materials: if you had two lumps of the same steel, one bigger that the other, they would still have the same properties (melting point, resistivity, strength etc.). However, if you have two nanoparticles, one 3nm across the other 5nm across, they will have very different properties.

For example: we can make quantum dots almost any colour simply by changing their size. 

Similarly, solar panels turn sunlight into electricity, they work because when particles of light (photons) hit the solar panel they make electrons jump up to a higher energy. Normally one particle of light can move one electron, however, in quantum dots one particle of light can move more than one electron.  These two weird properties of nano sized materials, the ability to choose their colour by changing their size and the possibility of getting more than one electron from one photon, mean that we should be able to make super-efficient solar panels in the future.

I really enjoy my PhD research. One of the best things about doing a PhD is that you are your own boss: you get make a lot of the important decisions about your work. Being able to dedicate 4 years to a single project is also very cool; by the end of your PhD there is a good chance you will be one of the world experts in the small area of science that you have been studying, hopefully you will have discovered something that no one before you knew.  I like the fact that everyday I’m learning something new and that I get the opportunity to work with interesting intelligent people from all around the world.

Going further...

If you’d like to find out more about nanoscience, Steven Fry has made a video about this exciting area of science.

One of the nanomaterials I work with is graphene; it won two Manchester scientists the Nobel Prize. This BBC news report tells you a little about it. You can see one of the electron microscopes I use in this video clip.

I’ve talked a bit about quantum dots and how they might be useful for making solar panels. Some scientists think they could also be useful in treating cancer. In this clip you can see how, as I mentioned, different sized particles have very different colours.

For further information about studying Materials Science at The University of Manchester, the department webpage provides a lot of useful information.