Hi! My name is Zara Smith and I’m a 2nd year PhD
student at the University of Manchester. I’m funded by EPSRC (Engineering and
Physical Sciences Research Council) and am currently based on the North Campus
of the university. I am part of the Biomaterials research group headed by Prof.
I finished high school in 2011, with A levels in Biology,
Chemistry and English Literature. Though
my decision to study Biology was a quick one and rather rushed, I REALLY
enjoyed studying for my undergraduate degree at the University of Hull, and
loved it enough to continue onto a Master’s degree in Nanotechnology and
Regenerative Medicine at UCL. I took a year out following this and worked as a
Trainee Assistant Analytical Chemist for TATA Steel in their environmental
monitoring department, before deciding on my PhD project. My work at Manchester
focuses on repairing tissues in the body that naturally would not heal by
themselves. I work specifically with the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL), a major
knee ligament, which accounts for the majority of sports injuries and has a
high rate of reintervention post-surgery.
So far my PhD has been great! I’ve travelled to a European
conference in Switzerland to present my work and been to another here in
Manchester, where I have met academics from all over the world. Hopefully there
will be many more opportunities to share my research with the academic
I first became interested in the field of Biomaterials when
I was doing my undergraduate degree, specifically the tiny biological
interactions that happen at a surface and how we can use those interactions to
guide a desired biological response. I have always been interested in creating
biomedical devices and helping to create something which would improve the life
of an individual and the medical field in that area, seemed almost like a
calling! After graduating from my Biology degree, I immediately began my
Masters. I completed a research project on the nano-delivery of growth factors
to a model central nervous system, which only served to fuel my interest in the
bio-responses of cells to materials on the micro and nano scale.
After the completion of my Master’s degree, though knowing I
wanted to do a PhD, I decided it was time to take a year out, gather some
industrial experience and take the time to find a project that aligned with my
interests. During this year, I was selected for an assistant position at TATA Steel
where I performed both regular sampling analysis and novel research in
analytical chemistry. I chose the ACL project at Manchester as it sounded
fascinating and combined all the areas I find interesting; fast forward a year
and I still absolutely love it! The project itself focuses on producing
materials that will encourage cells taken from the ACL to produce a protein
scaffold that matches as closely as possible the protein scaffold present in
the native ACL. This means that the cells will start laying down the protein
building blocks that are integral to building a native ACL, replacing the one
that has already been irreparably damaged. We are aiming to achieve this
through manipulating the cells at the surface of the materials with both
physical cues and proteins.
(A picture of ACL cells from a light microscope!)
For the most part, my days usually consist of lab work,
planning experiments, data analysis and reading and writing.
Due to the nature of the field, our group is highly
interdisciplinary. We have members from all kinds of disciplinary backgrounds spanning
biological sciences, chemistry and all types of engineering. This in itself
makes for a very interesting working environment where minds from very
different backgrounds can come together and work to build materials/technologies.
If you are interested in perusing Materials sciences, the University
of Manchester School of Materials webpage is here > http://www.materials.manchester.ac.uk/
Interested in the Biomaterials work in my group? Find out
more here > http://personalpages.manchester.ac.uk/staff/j.gough/ and here > http://www.materials.manchester.ac.uk/our-research/research-groupings/biomaterials/
We also have a school blog which details life as a materials
student and interviews a range of students and lecturers > http://www.mub.eps.manchester.ac.uk/uommaterialsblog/
If you are interested in the societies associated with
biomaterials research, take a look here > https://www.uksb.org.uk/
My name is Adam and I am a
first-year Neuroscience PhD student, studying how our bodies measure the
passage of time. In fact, nearly every cell in our body contains a clock.
However, it is the brain that keeps our cells in sync with the environment.
Think of the body like an orchestra; each musician (cell) has the ability to
create music (measure time), however without the conductor (brain), the
musicians will play out of time with each other.
An important feature of our
natural environment is the 24-hour changes in solar conditions, which we can divide
into day and night. The brain receives natural light information through the
eyes that tells it how much light is available at different times of the day. Then,
it adjusts its internal clock to the correct time of day and coordinates the
rest of the body. The resulting ‘circadian’ rhythms in our behaviour and physiology,
for example sleep/wake and body temperature patterns, last approximately (circa) a day (dian). Without a circadian system, we would be unable to partition
our phasic biology to the day and night.
In 1972, scientists found the
location of the ‘master’ circadian clock in an area of the hypothalamus, called
the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN). Many SCN cells contain a network of genes,
including the Period and Cryptochrome, that function like the
cogs of a wristwatch; the time between switching them on and off is equal to
around 24 hours. This genetic rhythm is detected in many different organs and
tissues however in the SCN it is self-sustained and reset by light. We can detect
these genes to identify other brain areas that may function as a self-sustained
clock. As a result, our understanding of the circadian system has progressed towards
a multi-clock model in which different brain regions combine circadian
timekeeping with different physiological processes. One such region is the
mediobasal nucleus of the hypothalamus (MBH) which has an established role in
the regulation of metabolism (energy intake and expenditure).
One issue with modern life is
that our daily schedules no longer correlate with sunrise and sunset, but with
our working hours/social hours. Recent evidence suggests that this misalignment
increases the risk of a range of diseases from obesity and diabetes to
depression and dementia. The MBH, being both a clock and a metabolic
controller, may play a role in this relationship between circadian disruption
and metabolic disease.
My project aims to develop an
understanding of how the clockwork in the MBH influences how it controls
metabolism under normal conditions and with different diets. A detailed
understanding of this interaction may help us develop clock-targeted treatments
for metabolic diseases.
4 tips for a healthy
yourself to as much natural light as possible
bedroom dark – seal up the windows and avoid light at all costs!
artificial light before bedtime – that means no phones, laptops, tablets folks.
at regular times – While a lie in at the weekend is good for catching up on
‘sleep-debt’ accumulated during the week, try not to overdo it.
The website for the faculty of life sciences at the
University of Manchester - http://www.ls.manchester.ac.uk/
At the University of Manchester we have the largest group of
chronobiologists in Europe! Information about this research can be found here- http://www.manchester.ac.uk/collaborate/expertise/neuroscience/biological-clocks/
How the circadian clock affects sleep – The sleep foundation
Hi! My name is Abi Robertson and I am a second year PhD
student in the cardiovascular group at the University of Manchester. After
finishing my A Levels I started an Anatomical Science degree at the University
of Manchester. This was where my love for the heart began! Following my
undergraduate degree I completed an MRes in Cardiovascular Health and Disease
here and this enabled me to apply for a PhD funded by the British Heart
Foundation. You can find more information on my PhD and the other
cardiovascular courses available here .
My PhD project is called ‘Targeting the Hippo signalling
pathway to enhance the protective effects of iPSC-derived cardiomyocytes’ (A
bit of a mouthful!). In short this means I am looking at how cells signal
within themselves to divide and to see if we can target this to help stem cells
become heart cells and survive.
During a heart attack the blood supply to the heart is
stopped. Lack of blood and oxygen damages the heart cells. This can result in a
severe loss of cells in sections of your heart. Unlike other tissues in your
body, such as your skin, cells in the heart cannot heal themselves. This leaves
an area in the heart that cannot beat like the surrounding tissue. This is
called an infarct area. If the infarct
area is quite large it can affect how your heart functions, leads to health
problems and even heart failure.
For the heart to be able to function normally again the
heart cells need to be replaced. Attempts are being made to heal the heart by
creating heart cells in the lab from stem cells. Using new technology we can
re-programme skin cells into stem cells. The skin is an excellent source of
cells as they are easily available. These stem cells are called Induced
Pluripotent Stem cells. These cells can then be turned into any cell type in
the body including the beating cells in the heart. The hope for this therapy is
that these cells can be used to make patches and be placed on the heart like a
Before this is possible we need to make sure the heart cells
we are using are able to survive in the challenging environment of the infarct
area. Firstly, the infarct area has low oxygen and nutrients, so the cells need
to be able to cope with this. Secondly, it is estimated over a billion cells
are lost after a heart attack so a lot of heart cells are needed!
This is why my PhD project is looking at the signalling
within cells and seeing if we can create cells which survive but also divide in
tough environments. We hope to create super heart cells!
I really enjoy working in this area of research. It’s a
relatively new area so there are always lots of exciting discoveries! Hopefully
one day using stem cells as a therapy will become the treatment of choice for
people who have suffered a heart attack!
Here are a few links if you would like any more information
on the area:
The Stem Cell Network has created some excellent videos on ‘What are
Explore an interactive comic about stem cells:
An excellent TED talk by Susan Soloman on the use of induced
pluripotent stem cells:
The National Institute of Health has an excellent website that covers
pretty much everything you could want to know about stem cells:
A stem cell story:
YouTube user John Schell has some great videos of beating heart cells
that have been derived from Induced Pluripotent Stem Cells:
This BBC article discusses a clinical trial that is underway to see if
stem cells can heal broken hearts:
My name is Ben Stutchbury and I am a second year cell
biology PhD student, looking at how cells sense and respond to the environment
around them. I did my undergraduate degree in molecular biology, which I also
did at the University of Manchester.
For a long time, the way that cells sense and respond to the
environment around them was thought to be only due to chemical signals. Cells
produce different chemicals and proteins that attach to other cells,
transmitting a message and triggering a response, just like sending and
receiving a text message. However, recently it has been seen that cells are
also able to sense and respond to mechanical signals, rather than just chemical
signals. I am trying to figure out how cells are able to do this, and the
important role that these mechanical signals play in the cell.
The mechanical properties of different tissue types vary all
over the body. Brain is extremely soft, muscle a bit stiffer and bone the most
rigid. Studies have shown that these different mechanical properties can affect
several different aspects of cell behaviour such as how fast they grow, how
quickly they move or even affect what type of cell they become.
Now imagine you are a cell, how do you know where you are? Cells don’t have a
sense of sight, smell or hearing, but… they do have an extremely sensitive
sense of touch.
Hundreds of proteins come together in a defined and
intricate order to form streak-like structures known as focal adhesions (shown in green in the picture). These form at the
edge of the cell, and reach outside, literally grabbing onto the surrounding
environment. Basically acting like a cell’s tiny hands. Using these hands, the
cell then blindly pulls and probes on the external environment, feeling its
mechanical properties and the forces acting on the cell. Now, as I said before,
as well as feeling their environment, cells will also respond it. If the
environment around it changes, for example becomes softer or stiffer, then the
forces acting on the cell will change. The cell, via its focal adhesion hands,
is able to feel and respond to these changes. They are quite literally using
the force! This signalling is extremely important for the cell to function
correctly and can go wrong in a number of diseases such as cancer and heart
So we know that cells are responding to physical changes to
their environment. But, we don’t know exactly how the cell is able to feel
these mechanical signals and convert them into a response. My work is to try to
determine the exact molecular events that are involved in sensing, and
responding to, these mechanical signals. I am trying to work out HOW the cells
use the force. This could lead to a better understanding, and treatment of, a
number of associated diseases.
I particularly enjoy studying this topic because it is a
very ‘new’ area of biology. For years biologists focussed on the chemical side
of cell signalling; however, now we are just beginning to see the importance of
this more physical-based signal interpretation. This means there is still a lot
to be discovered, which makes it a very exciting field to work in. We work a
lot with various biomaterials, in order to manipulate the ‘stiffness’ of the
artificial environment that the cells are growing in. This uses aspects of
physics and engineering and really highlights the importance of
cross-collaboration between these different areas in order to fully understand
the complexity of our bodies.
I also write a blog about science that we come across in our
everyday lives, but is often ignored. Please check it out here: http://thatsinteresting.scienceblog.com/
As I mentioned, this is a relatively young field, so there
aren’t a huge number of websites with further information that aren’t boring
research papers! Here are some that I could find.
Our lab group: http://ballestremlab.com/
For general info about cell signalling: http://www.nature.com/scitable/topicpage/cell-signaling-14047077
The mechanobiology institute in Singapore has some pretty
cool videos on their YouTube channel. https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCDXgKXsx2cK-662Ta6wvtEQ
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
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
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.