What cell type would I be?

Conferences are a key part of research, where scientists of all levels get the chance to present their data either through posters, presentations or just chatting informally. This month I volunteered to help out at “EuroGlia” in Edinburgh. This was the 13th annual European meeting on Glial cells in Health and Disease and it covered of-the-moment research linked to these non-neuronal types of cells.

It was a fairly intense couple of days, during which I sported my natty EuroGlia polo shirt to dash up and down the seminar rows with a microphone to questioners. While it was tempting to go only to the talks that I felt were relevant directly to my project, being a volunteer actually encouraged me to attend sessions that ended up being some of the most interesting. It was because they were so different, rather than in spite of it, that they often stuck in my mind.

Euroglia

Even though the focus was on glia, the range of areas covered was immense. All of these different researchers coming together from distinct but related areas of neuroscience are building a collection of information that will eventually map out how all these different cell types interact. With all this talk about astrocytes, oligodendrocytes, schwaan cells and microglia,) I started to think of the scientists as cells… (perhaps I was going a little stir-crazy being in the conference centre all day, every day but bear with me…). Each one is different, contributing a different pocket of research but together they form an intricate network of knowledge, much like a brain! Okay it’s a bit lame but it amused me.

I wondered what cell type I might be. Perhaps an endothelial cell in small vessel disease, the key focus of my research at the moment… it definitely has a function but we’re not totally sure what it is yet. Sounds about right!

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PhD Day

PhD Day(s) was a pretty useful experience, and surprisingly enjoyable despite the usual pre-presentation nerves. All students do a 20 minute presentation to other students, PIs and anyone else who’s been roped in to attend. It’s all about your project, your results and your future plans. Once again… I was data-light but it was useful to go through things to get a clear plan for where my project is headed.

It was similar to the Tissue Repair away day back in May only for the whole Centre for Regenerative Medicine building this time. So many students were presenting, at different stages, with different backgrounds and topics. Seeing the breadth of research that goes on at the SCRM was really inspiring and gave me lots of ideas I might be able to incorporate into my own work.

One of the things I’m keen to improve on is my ability to handle questions at the end of the presentations. I know this comes with time, experience and confidence in the work you’re doing but as it’s the part I get more flustered on, I always dread it. Others deftly navigate the Q&A and even get a nice discussion out of it… one day I hope that’s what I can do.

As my supervisor has said to me… if we could do it all straight away there would be no point in doing a PhD!

Wifey

Wedding was the best day ever. Would definitely recommend getting married! But overlapping the final stages of wedding planning with the beginning stages of a PhD is something I would discourage as it’s been… somewhat hectic. Thanks to my now-husband for being an awesome support through it all. I would say compartmentalising works but I needed someone around to pick up the slack!

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Back in the lab now and really trying to crack on with the work. We’re trying to get revisions for a paper done so it’s all hands to the pump. Luckily all the techniques will be used in my project so it’s perfect training and has massively accelerated my learning compared to if I’d been finding my feet in my ow project. Plus, if all goes well I could get my name on a paper in the first year of my PhD!

 

Hitched

So one of the things I’m also doing is getting married! We’re having the day in Newcastle where we’re from, at the end of this month and there’s a lot left to organise but it’s very exciting.

My life is currently of two halves. In the day, I try to cram as much experiments and analysis as possible into the hours available, then I head home in the evening and spend all evening on ‘wedmin’! Who knew that napkins could elicit such intense discussions.

I decided to take a couple weeks off that would all me to finish of wedding planning and have a ‘mini-moon’ in Lisbon to chill out. My supervisors were really great about it and have been so supportive. The best and the worst thing about a PhD is that your work is completely your own responsibility. While I can plan things so that I’m able to have these two weeks without needing to swap shifts or anything, it does also mean that while I’m away nothing will progress, it’ll take me a while to get things up and running again afterwards and that I’m always thinking about it! However, wedding-head is real and I’m confident I’ll be distracted enough and enjoying myself enough to focus solely on getting hitched!

Awa’

We had our Tissue Repair Away Day this month, where we all presented our work to the other students of our programme and the PIs. I was perhaps overly nervous, as it felt like announcing myself to the world like some sort of debutante ball. Much like a debutante, I suppose, I’m sponsored by an established member of the society who’s there to support me (my supervisor!) but there was no curtseying, only challenging questions! Think it went okay but I need more practice.

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This was the first of its kind for our programme and I hope it continues. It was really interesting to see everyone’s work, especially the third years who have so much to talk about! They were first up, then the second years, then us, (we were a little, er, data-light in comparison) but it was a good way of practising and thinking carefully about how to talk clearly about our projects. The social activity on how to give a presentation seemed a bit mis-timed AFTER giving presentations but the meal with an included drink was perfectly timed…

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Tissue Repairers walking to the venue, Newbattle Abbey

Stairting

The PhD officially starts! 

We had our proposals approved and started in our labs. Writing the proposal was a good practice in putting together my research and thinking through project ideas, though I’ve been warned it will likely change as time goes on… I’m now a neuroscientist! (Exciting). My project will investigate how endothelial cells in the brain can influence white matter pathology and oligodendrocyte biology in cerebral small vessel disease. This disease is the leading cause of vascular dementia so has huge implications, and is something I’m really excited to be researching. In another post perhaps I’ll talk more about why and what questions I’ll be answering.

I have returned to the labs I did my first rotation in, so it’s a familiar environment but I have forgotten where they keep certain things… the staples, the flasks… I’m also working on a different project so it’s really useful to already know everyone in the lab as I’m much less shy about asking them for help than I was when I started my first rotation. I’ve also had six months of independent work and it’s sort of just dawned on me how much more confident  in my abilities I feel now than when I was starting in this lab last time.

The rotations can be about learning techniques or about trying out a new theme of research, for me it was also about finding an environment that suited my working style and that I felt would motivate me to become a better scientist. They were an important part of why I picked the Tissue Repair PhD programme and they enabled me to make an informed choice for my final project. I’m ready to get going! 

Edinburgh International Science Festival 

During our three week break between finishing the second rotation and starting the full PhD project I decided to work the Edinburgh International Science Festival. The idea was to improve my science communication, meet some new people and make a bit of extra money. I definitely did all of those things but had no idea just how tired i would be at the end!

Our group led small-group workshops for kids about ER, pretending we had a patient to do surgeries on. The kids ALWAYS wanted to call  him Bob… do they all hate Bobs and wish them awful accidents? Or want to save all Bobs and only Bobs?

We were teaching them all about the human body, about preventing infections and had fun handling some real medical equipment. It was maybe a bit too real for lots of them as we had a fair amount of people feeling faint… clearly my theatrics were effective.

I learnt lots about keeping an audience engaged and being able to handle different types of groups. Some of the initially more challenging kids ended up being my most rewarding after I got them into the whole drama of the story and asked them questions to get them involved. 

The other members of Team ER kept me sane and motivated through the hectic festival so thanks to these girls!