Today we chat to SCI member Luca Steel about her life as a plant pathology PhD student in 2020.
Zymoseptoria tritici is a fungal pathogen of wheat which can cause yield losses of up to 50%. We’re investigating an effector protein secreted by Z. tritici which acts as a ‘mask’, hiding the pathogen from host immune receptors and avoiding immune response.
What does a day in the life of a plant pathology PhD Student look like?
My days are very varied – from sowing wheat seeds to swabbing pathogenic spores onto their leaves, imaging symptoms, discussing results with my supervisor and lab team, and of course lots of reading. It doesn’t always go to plan - I recently attempted to make some wheat leaf broth, which involved lots of messy blending and ended up turning into a swampy mess in the autoclave!
Wheat in the incubator!
How did your education prepare you for this experience?
The most valuable preparation was my placement year at GSK and my final year project at university. Being in the lab and having my own project to work on made me confident that I wanted to do a PhD – even if it was a totally different research area (I studied epigenetics/immunoinflammation at GSK!).
What are some of the highlights so far?
My highlight was probably attending the European Conference on Fungal Genetics in Rome earlier this year. It was great to hear about so much exciting work going on – and it was an added bonus that we got to explore Rome. I’ve also loved getting to know my colleagues and being able to do science every day.
What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?
My biggest challenge so far has probably been working from home during lockdown. Although I am very privileged to have a distraction-free space and good internet connection, it was difficult to adjust to working from my kitchen! It was sad abandoning unfinished experiments, and I missed being in the lab – so I’m glad to be back now.
What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?
If you’re sure you want to do one, then absolutely go for it and don’t be afraid to sell yourself! If not, I’d recommend spending some time working in a lab before you apply and chatting to any prospective labs. If you don’t get a reply from the PI, existing students/post-docs in the group are often very happy to talk and give honest opinions.
How have things been different for you because of the global pandemic?
I was lucky that the pandemic came early on in my PhD, so I had a lot of flexibility to change what I was working on. I switched from lab work involving lots of bioimaging, towards a more bioinformatic approach. My poor laptop will be glad when I’m back to using my computer at work!
Recently, our Agri-Food Early Career Committee ran the third #agrifoodbecause Twitter competition. Today we are looking back over the best photos of the 2020 competition, including our winner and runner-up. Entrants were asked to take photos and explain why they loved their work, using the hashtag #agrifoodbecause on Twitter.
Our 2020 winner, Jordan Cuff, Cardiff University, won first prize for his fantastic shot of a ladybird. He received a free SCI student membership and an Amazon voucher.
For the first-time ever we also awarded a runner-up prize to Lauren Hibbert, University of Southampton, for her beautiful root photography. She also received a free SCI student membership and Amazon voucher.
#agrifoodbecause developing more environmentally friendly crops will help ensure the sustainability of future farming.
Photo illustrating the dawn 🌅 of root phenotyping… or some very hairy (phosphate hungry) watercress roots! @SCI_AgriFood pic.twitter.com/29u533Xyow
There were also many other fantastic entries!
#AgrifoodBecause My research looks at the potential biocontrol of parasitic wasps on #CSFB, major pest of #OSR! Combining field and lab work to work towards #IPM strategies 👩🏻🔬👩🏻🌾 pic.twitter.com/YqJnBM4CVf
#agrifoodbecause we need to protect the crops to feed the world while repairing and protecting a highly damaged ecosystem. There is no delete option! #foodsecurity #noplanetb #organic #earth #wildlife #insectpests #beneficialinsects pic.twitter.com/JXfycRc0tx
Once again, it was an incredibly successful online event, with fascinating topics covered.
This year’s wheat harvest is currently underway across the country after a difficult growing season, with harvest itself being delayed due to intermittent stormy weather. The high levels of rainfall at the start of the growing season meant that less winter wheat could be planted and dry weather in April and May caused difficulties for spring wheat as well. This decline in the wheat growing area has caused many news outlets to proclaim the worst wheat harvest in 40 years and potential bread price rises.
Difficult weather during this year’s growing season. Photo: Joe Oddy
This is also the first wheat harvest in which I have a more personal stake, namely the first field trial of my PhD project; looking at how asparagine levels are controlled in wheat. It seemed like a bad omen that my first field trial should coincide with such a poor year for wheat farming, but it is also an opportunity to look at how environmental stress is likely to influence the nutritional quality of wheat, particularly in relation to asparagine.
The levels of asparagine, a nitrogen-rich amino acid, in wheat grain have become an important quality parameter in recent years because it is the major determinant and precursor of acrylamide, a processing contaminant that forms during certain cooking processes. The carcinogenic risk associated with dietary acrylamide intake has sparked attempts to reduce consumption as much as possible, and reducing asparagine levels in wheat is a promising way of achieving part of this goal.
Asparagus, from which asparagine was first discovered and named.
Previous work on this issue has shown that some types of plant stress, such as sulphur deficiency, disease, and drought, increase asparagine levels in wheat, so managing these stresses with sufficient nutrient supply, disease control, and irrigation can help to prevent unwanted asparagine accumulation. Stress can be difficult to prevent even with such crop management strategies though, especially with environmental variables as uncontrollable as the weather, so it is tempting to speculate that the difficulties experienced this growing season will be reflected in higher asparagine levels; but we will have to wait and see.
Since the start of 2020 the world has been a different place. During March the UK Government instigated a lock down, with those who could required to work from home, this included scientists. Completing my PhD studying insect olfaction during a global pandemic was not something I expected, but how did I spend my days?
As a scientist I spend a portion, if not the majority of my time in a lab doing experiments. Pausing this work created several challenges, and as a final year student induced a serious amount of panic! To adapt, I focused more on computational experiments and extensive data analysis. Thankfully, I had some small computational projects already, which could be extended and explored further. This also included attending online courses and webinars to develop new skills – I really enjoyed SCI’s webinar series on computational chemistry and found it useful when completing my protein docking experiments!
Writing, Writing, Writing
As a final year PhD student, there was one task at the beginning of this year that was high on the agenda – writing my thesis. Many past PhD students will tell horror stories about how they were rushing to finish lab work and writing up in a mad dash at the end. Being forced to give up lab work, and having no social activities, meant a lot more focus was put on writing during this time. Personally, I have been privileged to be in a house with other final year PhD students, creating a distraction free zone, and managed to crack down on thesis writing!
Despite in-person events, including many large international conferences, being cancelled, many organisers were quick to move meetings online. This made so many events more accessible. Though I am sad to have missed out on a trip to San Francisco, during lockdown I have attended numerous webinars, online seminars, two international conferences and even given outreach talks to the public and school children.
Getting back to ‘normal’
It is safe to say the world, and the way science works, is never going to be the same. But scientists are slowly migrating back to the lab, adorned with a new item of PPE. On top of our lab coats, goggles and gloves we can add…a mask. Despite the stressful time, I managed to get my thesis finished handing it in with a lot more computational work included than I had initially planned!
This latest instalment of SCI Energy Group’s blog delves deeper into the working life of one of its own members and SCI ambassador – Reace Edwards. She is currently pursuing an industry funded PhD in Chemical Engineering at the University of Chester and, through this blog, answers some questions to shed some light on her experience so far.
Reace Edwards: Head shot
Can you please provide a brief summary of your research?
My research is concerned with the establishment of a hydrogen gas network, in the North West, as a method of large-scale decarbonisation. This cross-disciplinary work will examine different elements of the hydrogen economy from production to end-use and explore the opportunities and barriers possessed by the region. Whilst technical and economic considerations are key components of this, policy, regulatory and social aspects will also be explored.
Reace Edwards: Riding a bike that generates hydrogen from pedalling
What does a day in the life of a Chemical Engineering PhD Student look like?
“It’s hard to define a typical day for a PhD student as no one day is ever the same.
At the beginning of the PhD, I spent a lot of time reading literature to help contextualise my research and appreciate its importance at a local, national and international scale.
Within time, I began to not only read but review and analyse this literature, which ultimately led to the construction of my literature review (this is regularly updated still)! Through this process, I identified research gaps, helping me focus my research questions, and inspired my field research and methodology.
Since then, I have applied for, and gained, ethical approval. At my current stage, I have chosen semi-structured interviews for data collection. So, now, my typical day consists of conducting interviews and transcribing the recordings.
Alongside this, there have always been ample opportunities to attend conferences and networking events, which, provides another form of skills development. So, there’s lots going on. But, what’s for sure, is that though each day is busy, the results are definitely rewarding.”
How did your education prepare you for this experience?
“In 2018, I graduated, from the University of Chester, with a first-class bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. Therefore, I was eligible to apply for the PhD studentship when it was advertised.”
Reace Edwards: Graduation
What are some of the highlights so far?
For me, one of my main highlights had been to travel abroad to deliver a presentation on my work at an international conference.
Another highlight was the opportunity to co-author a conference article with a colleague from my industrial sponsor, and others, which was presented at another major, international conference.
In addition to this, I’ve done a TEDx talk and appeared on the BBC politics show. Where, on both accounts, I have discussed the opportunities for hydrogen.
Without doing this PhD, none of this would have even been possible!
Reace Edwards: After delivering TEDx talk
What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?
Time management is definitely a challenge, from two different perspectives.
Firstly, there are many different things that you can be tasked with at one time. Therefore, it’s important to learn how to prioritise these things and assign your time accordingly.
But, as well as that, because of your passion for the research, it can be very tempting to work exceedingly long hours. Whilst this may be necessary at times, it is important to give yourself some rest to avoid becoming run down.
Reace Edwards: Whilst being interviewed by BBC
What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?
“If you’re passionate about the subject – do it!
You won’t regret it
The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers.
Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.
I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy.
Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.
Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years.
This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations.
Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.
These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.
Jenny Gracie was awarded a Messel Travel Bursary for an internship with the Naked Scientists based at the University of Cambridge. Here she describes how her internship has helped her to develop her skills and confidence in science communication, which she can now use to help shape her future career.
Jenny in The Naked Scientists studio.
I am currently in the final year of a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Strathclyde. My project seeks to better treat cardiovascular disease, which is still the world’s leading cause of death. I am working towards a drug delivery system which utilises hollow gold nanoparticles as a ‘vehicle’ for delivering statins to the fatty plaques that block the arteries. Although I’m still interested in my research project, I’ve developed a real enthusiasm for science communication over the last few years and would like pursue a career in this field.
As a STEM ambassador I have attended fairs, festivals and schools to help spark a curiosity in science among children. During my PhD, the opportunity of an eight-week internship with The Naked Scientists came up, and I simply couldn’t let it pass. Without the funding support from SCI I could not have taken the internship, and so I am extremely grateful for the Messel Travel Bursary, and I know that this contribution helped make this transformative career experience a reality.
The Naked Scientists are an award-winning science production group based at the University of Cambridge. They create one of the world’s most popular science shows, achieving over 50m downloads in the last five years. They broadcast weekly on BBC Cambridgeshire, BBC 5Live, ABC National Radio in Australia and also publish a podcast of the show. Podcasts are free, available on-demand and are a widely accessible source of science information to the general public. The Naked Scientist internship programme develops the skill set of early career communicators and provides first-hand experience in the world of science media communication.
Podcast production has grown exponentially in the last few years, however chemistry still remains underrepresented compared to the other traditional physical sciences, like physics and biology. As a chemist who is interested in a career in science communication, this role has allowed me to gain the necessary skills to make my own podcasts in the future.
As an intern I was part of the production team from the first day! It was a catapult into the world of radio broadcast and podcast production, but perfect for understanding how a show is produced from scratch. Our weekly show consisted of two parts – one half would cover the news and recently published articles, and the second half would cover a specific topic within science.
Media privileges gave me access to all the journals to be published that week, with them sealed under embargo until publication. We tended to pick articles that have a global impact and capture the interest of the listener. Each team member would be assigned an article, and we would then have to contact the authors to scope the story and arrange a recorded interview. The skills I required to organise and execute a good interview improved over the course of the eight weeks. I could see a real development in both my style and confidence.
During the internship I also learned how to use software to edit audio, and stitch together multiple tracks to create build pieces with music and sound effects. To accompany the interview, each week we also wrote a short article on the research. This required converting high-level science into a form that could be understood by the general public… something that is much harder than it sounds!
Cassie Sims is a PhD student and SCI early career member, sitting on the committees of SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Agrifood Early Career Committee. Read more of Cassie’s work at soci.org/news and sciblog.com.
As part of my PhD programme – the BBSRC Doctoral Training Partnership (DTP) with the University of Nottingham – I have had the opportunity to do a 12-week internship in something different to research. Today, I am going to tell you why I think every PhD student should step outside their comfort zone and do an internship.
1. Expand your community
Doing a PhD internship allows you to temporarily leave the academic bubble, and meet some new and different people. During my internship, I had the opportunity to engage with members of SCI’s community, including a range of industrial partners, academics and other early career scientists.
Attending events at SCI HQ has given me the chance to network with people I may never have met otherwise, gaining valuable connections and career advice. I was also able to see the range of work that goes on in chemistry and the chemical industry, including the variety of different career paths that are available.
Taking a step back from the practical side of science can also allow you to gain an appreciation for other areas of science. Learning about science in journalism and digital media will inform my decisions when trying to communicate my research to the general public in the future.
2. Gain transferable skills
Undertaking an internship in an area that you are unfamiliar with will diversify your skills. Digital media has taught me many new skills, such as social media and Photoshop, but also refined skills that are valuable and transferable.
The main skills I have worked on are my writing and editing capabilities. I have found my flow for writing, learnt about proofreading, and refreshed my memory in grammar and spelling. These skills will be incredibly useful when trying to write a PhD thesis, and my experience will shine on my CV when applying for future jobs.
3. A break from the lab
A PhD can be an overwhelming experience; sometimes it can feel like you are drowning in lab work and data analysis. Doing an internship means you can take a few months to escape, allowing you the chance to free your mind from data and reactions.
During my internship, I have had time to think about my research in more depth, considering options and planning, instead of rushing into things. The opportunity to take a step back means I will be re-entering the lab with clear, coherent plans and a new-found energy.
Although I have missed the rush of scientific research, my internship has taught me useful skills and allowed me to meet so many interesting people. I have really enjoyed my time in the SCI Digital Media team, and I would urge anyone considering an internship to take the leap.
I hope to continue working with SCI through the Agri-Food Early Careers Committee and other SCI activities that I am involved with.
Ivalina Minova is an SCI Ambassador, 2018 SCI Scholar, and a third-year PhD student at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK, where her research involves the development of new techniques to help understand and improve industrially important reactions.
In this article, she discusses four aspects that have helped with her success as an early career scientist and the invaluable support resources she has benefited from.
Her last blog ‘How the SCI Early Careers programme helped me’ can be found here.
Mark your milestones
As a student at the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Critical Resource Catalysis (CRITICAT), one of the milestones outlined in my four-year PhD training programme is to complete a three-month industrial placement abroad.
Having a clear goal and timeline is critical in early career development. I started thinking about potential placement visit options early and took the initiative in setting up an arrangement with a chemical company, Johnson Matthey (JM).
Find a mentor
Having a mentor in industry can significantly benefit you in the early stages of your career, especially if you are working in academia. I was determined to find influential people who could help me to achieve my goals.
Part of this mission was being awarded an SCI scholarship in July 2018, which will support my three-month research placement visit at JM, a pioneering chemical company in sustainable technologies. I had built links with JM through my MChem studies at Durham University.
These have developed throughout my PhD, as I have initiated several catch-up meetings with research teams and R&D managers to discuss my research. In one of those meetings last year, I asked about the possibility of completing a placement visit at their US site, to which they agreed!
Look for funding opportunities
Once I had identified my desired placement visit abroad, I focused on applying for various funding opportunities to help fund my trip. Although my PhD programme provides financial support towards such placement visits, the costs of going to the US would exceed my budget.
There are a number of mobility grants and scholarship opportunities that I applied for listed below, that have allowed me to secure sufficient funding for this placement:
I was successful in obtaining the last two of those three.
The power of networking
I attended a lot of conferences early on in my studies and was not shy to give oral talks, where my confidence in giving presentations on my research naturally grew.
Some of my personal highlights include presenting at the 6th International Congress in Operando Spectroscopy in Spain and being awarded an SCI Messel Travel Bursary to present my first manuscript on ‘Unravelling the mechanism of direct alkene formation from methoxy groups in H-ZSM-5, as revealed by synchrotron infrared microspectroscopy’ at the ACS Spring 2019 National Meeting and Exposition in Orlando, US, in March 2019.
Overall, I found these four key things beneficial to me in advancing my early career research and I hope that this blog will inspire others to take initiative as they move towards their next career step.
In the build up to our SCI Agri-Food Early Career Committee’s 2019 #agrifoodbecause Twitter competition, we are looking back over the best photos of the 2018 competition. Entrants were asked to take photos and explain why they loved their work, using the hashtag #agrifoodbecause on Twitter.
Our 2018 winner, Claire Dumenil from Rothamsted Research, won first prize for her visually striking image of a fruit fly on a raspberry. She received a free SCI student membership and an Amazon voucher.
#agrifoodbecause invasive pests threaten food production and food security, worldwide! #SWD #drosophilasuzukii #Rothamsted #cardiffuni – Claire Dumenil (@CnfDumenil)
#agrifoodbecause I work on reducing aphid infestations on wheat. From the lab to the field – Amma Simon (@amma_simon)
With their fluffy body bumblebees are fantastic pollinators! Work with them can improve crop pollination !! #agrifoodbecause – Sandrine Chaillout (@100chillout)
#agrifoodbecause I can develop drought tolerant wheat varieties – Samer Mohamed (@samer313)
#agrifoodbecause My Research looks at wild pollinators and how we can build a sustainable farming future with them and us in mind! – Laura James (@JamJamLaura)
#agrifoodbecause our improving understanding of the devastating pest, whitefly Bemisia tabaci s.l., will help farmers to increase yields and feed their children <3 – Sona Vyskocilova (@VyskocilovaS)
Cassie Sims is a PhD student and SCI early career member, sitting on the committees of SCI’s Agrisciences Group and Agrifood Early Career Committee. Read more of Cassie’s work at soci.org/news and soci.org/blog.
The SCI staff pass makes a change from the conference lanyards I am used to.
I am studying for my PhD as part of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and University of Nottingham Doctoral Training Programme (DTP). I’m currently stationed at Rothamsted Research, a research institute in Hertfordshire, studying insect olfaction, specifically in aphids.
A DTP involves completing rotations in different labs, a variety of training days and an internship, alongside your PhD studies. The internship is expected to be three months working in a role not directly applicable to your PhD studies, and is designed to give you a break from the lab to explore different potential career options.
Working in digital media is a big contrast from my usual lab work.
When choosing where to undertake my internship, I was presented with a world of possibilities. There was working in industry, policy, marketing or for a charity. Prior to even considering an internship, I had done a lot of volunteering with the Society of Chemical Industry, being a member of their Agrisciences Group and Agrifood Early Career Committees.
I had even previously written for the blog about experiences as PhD student. Having really enjoyed my prior work with them, it seemed logical to ask whether they would host me for my internship – and they said yes! I was accepted to do a three-month internship in the digital media team starting in January 2019.
My first month working with SCI has been a whirlwind of activity. There have been lots of opportunities already, from writing for the website and SCI Blog, to running their social media accounts. Recently, I was asked to help cover an SCI conference, which presented an entirely different experience to that which I had had with conferences before.
The conference was on formulation – an area of chemistry I am completely unfamiliar with – and there was a wide-range of talks from academics to industry partners. It was a unique experience to listen to technical talks in something you have never studied, and the variety of real-world applications piqued my interest.
Commuting to London everyday takes some getting used to, but it is a privilege to work in such a beautiful building.
There are huge differences between working at SCI and Rothamsted. Aside from the obvious differences in the work, there’s the London commute, dressing smart, and most importantly, the exposure to the wide variety of science covered across the chemical industry.
Coming from an academic science background, my brain has been filled with new knowledge, particularly in relation to the intersection of industry and policy, such as the Chemistry Council and Industrial Strategy. This new knowledge, along with my training in digital media, will certainly be beneficial to my future scientific career.
Ivalina Minova with SCI’s Early Careers Committee Chair, Alan Heaton. Image: SCI
As an SCI member, she is actively involved with the Scotland Group and has attended a number of early career events, which have helped with her career development and she has detailed in this blog.
Her last blog, about her experience working at Diamond Light Source, can be found here.
College of Scholars’ Day
SCI award three scholarships a year. Image: SCI
Presenting at SCI’s College of Scholar’s Day on 19 November 2018 was a memorable and enjoyable experience, which introduced me to the larger network of SCI Scholars, both current and past. I was able to gain valuable insights from hearing about the progress and achievements of other Scholars.
Some of my personal highlights from the day included speaking with Dr Alex O’Malley, who has successfully launched his independent career at Cardiff University, Wales, UK, supported by a Ramsey Fellowship, which is given to early career scientists looking to build their own programme of original research.
During the event, I also volunteered to help organise a post-graduate event at the SCI AGM meeting on 3 July 2019 initiated by the SCI Early Careers Committee, which will help students like me.
You can read more about the College of Scholar’s Day here.
This day-long event – held in Glasgow on 30 November 2018 – was aimed at PhD students and post-doctoral early career researchers. There was a diverse programme of invited speakers who gave talks on their current roles. This included an industrial research scientist from Johnson Matthey and a patent attorney.
There was an intriguing talk from a CEO and entrepreneur, Dr Paul Colborn, who founded his own university spin-out company. It was interesting to hear about the risks he took in starting his own business and the successful expansion of Liverpool ChiroChem, a chemistry-based CRO that produces chiral small molecules for biotech/pharmaceutical R&D.
I was also impressed by a talk from a senior manager from Syngenta that described how she had progressed up the career ladder after completing her PhD.
The event closed with a Q&A panel, which allowed us to ask more specific questions, followed by a wine reception and more networking opportunities. During the wine reception I approached one of the speakers from industry and was able to set up a mentoring scheme arrangement within the umbrella of the SCI mentoring scheme, which I’m sure will be a valuable experience.
Bright SCIdea: Business innovation and entrepreneurship training
Team of students with an innovate idea will compete for £5,000 in March. Image: SCI
I joined the Bright SCIdea Challenge 2019 with the motivation to learn more about business and entrepreneurial skills. The training day event on 7 December 2018 at SCI HQ provided the necessary training for writing a business plan and included talks on entrepreneurial skills, IP, finances, marketing and pitching.
I particularly enjoyed a talk on marketing given by David Prest, an experienced scientist from Drochaid Research Services, a recently established service-based company that provides research support to industry.
Each year SCI’s Scotland group runs a competition where students are invited to write a short article describing how their PhD research relates to SCI’s strapline: where science meets business.
Jack Washington (right), a Pure and Applied Chemistry PhD student at the University of Strathclyde, was the overall winner of this year’s competition. His article ‘Clavulanic acid - The fight against antibiotic resistance’ is reproduced here:
Clavulanic acid - The fight against antibiotic resistance
The molecular structure of clavulanic acid. Image: Wikimedia Commons
If you were to say that cancer is the biggest threat to public health you would be wrong.
One of the most pre-eminent risks to human existence is antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are medicines used to fight bacterial infections. However, bacteria are fighting back at an alarming rate. Without effective antibiotics, we could live in a world where infections borne from a simple wound could be deadly. Routine surgeries would no longer be possible. Whilst this bacterial apocalypse seems drastic, it’s a very real possibility, and one we could face in the near future.
Alexander Fleming. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Antibiotics are part of a multibillion-pound industry and are essential for life as we know it today. In 1928, the scientist Alexander Fleming, from Ayrshire in Scotland, serendipitously discovered penicillin. This chance discovery revolutionised the treatment of bacterial infections and spurred a wealth of antibiotic research. 88 years later, in the nearby town of Irvine, I started my PhD project in this field.
Penicillin is a β-lactam antibiotic, which made up of molecules containing a chemical entity known as a β-lactam. This β-lactam is a covalent warhead – a harpoon that grips its bacterial victim and doesn’t let go. This harpoon interrupts bacterial cell wall formation, causing the bacteria to rupture and die.
Maryn McKenna: What do we do when antibiotics don’t work any more? Video: TED
However, bacteria can retaliate by producing aggressive enzymes that destroy this warhead. Another member of the β-lactam family, clavulanic acid, can thwart these enzymes. Clavulanic acid has weak antibiotic activity on its own so is used in a double act with another antibiotic, amoxicillin, to fight antibiotic-resistant bacteria as a team.
Cassie Sims is a PhD researcher at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK. Photo: Rothamsted
Rothamsted Research is the oldest agricultural research station in the world – we even have a Guinness World Record for the longest running continuous experiment! Established in 1843, next year we celebrate our 175th anniversary, and as a Chemistry PhD student at the institute today, I can’t wait to celebrate.
Wheat samples from the record-breaking Broadbalk experiment. Photo: Cassie Sims
Rothamsted is known for many amazing scientific accomplishments, and it has a rich history, which I have explored through many of the exhibitions put on by the institute for the staff every month or so.
One of the old labs set up for the exhibitions we hold at Rothamsted. Photo: Cassie Sims
Working in what was the Biological Chemistry department, I am following in the footsteps of Chemists such as Michael Elliott, who developed a group of insecticides known as pyrethroids. These are one of the most prolific insecticides used in the world, still widely used today and researched here at Rothamsted – in particular, the now-prevalent insecticidal resistance to them.
I was privileged to view an exhibit of Michael Elliott’s medals late last year at Rothamsted – one of the opportunities we are given as staff here. Recently, I was also able to view a collection of calculators and computers from the earliest mechanical ones, to Sir Ronald Fisher’s very own ‘Millionaire’ Calculator, which could multiply, add and subtract entirely mechanically.
Sir Ronald Fisher’s ‘Millionaire’ Calculator. Photo: Cassie Sims
In more recent times, Rothamsted has had an update (a little more than a lick of paint) with newer buildings, labs and equipment constantly being added. My office and lab are situated in the architecturally interesting Centenary building, which was built only 10 years ago. Some of the research has had an update too – plant science research is a bit more focused on molecular biology these days, and our chemistry has been significantly advanced over the last century by advances in analytical equipment.
A few years ago, Rothamsted was briefly the centre of media attention due to a ‘controversial’ GM field trial testing wheat made to emit (E)-β-farnesene, the aphid alarm pheromone, and whether the plants could repel aphids.
…they couldn’t, but this was one of the first type of GM trials of its type, and it was an interesting study that combined many disciplines of science, from molecular biology and plant science, to entomology and chemical ecology.
Rothamsted is not just about science, either – we have a few longstanding social traditions such as Hallowe’en parties and Harvest Festival, not forgetting of course my favourite; our summer Sports Day, which provides much entertainment in the form of serious research scientists participating in sack races to win some outstandingly tacky trophies. We also have an onsite bar (if that is what you could call it), which is a little more like a converted cricket club, and serves as a venue for most events, and has been the location of many of my great memories.
If I had to describe being a student at Rothamsted in one word, it would be weird! There is a lot of fun to be had, but we are also surrounded by an incredible history that we cannot forget as we forge a new path in our fields (literally and scientifically!).
I hope one day that I can leave some kind of mark here – but even if not, I will be happy to have been part of such a prestigious institute and to have worked alongside such great scientific minds.
What are the sustainability challenges being tackled by researchers at Rothamsted? Sir John Beddington, Chair of the Rothamsted Research Board gave this talk at SCI in London in September – part of our ongoing programme of free-to-attend public evening lectures.
Delegates at this year’s Young Chemist in Industry conference. Image: SCI
Every year, SCI’s Young Chemist’s Panel organise their Young Chemist in Industry event, where early career industrial chemists meet to showcase their research and network with their academics counterparts and other companies.
This year, the conference was held at AstraZeneca’s Macclesfield base. Exhibitors are also judged, with the winner receiving a £150 Amazon voucher.
Julien Vantourout. Image: SCI
This year’s Young Chemist in Industry award went to Julian Vantourout, a final-year industrial PhD student at GSK and the University of Strathclyde.
His presentation focused on the limitations of the Chan-Lam amination of aryl boronic acid used in medicinal and process chemistry.
Tim O'Riordan and Ellen Gallimore. Image: SCI
Two runners-up received a £50 Amazon voucher each; Tim O’Riordan and Ellen Gallimore.
Tim O’Riordan is a Principal Research Chemist in Syngenta’s crop protection department. he won the runner-up prize this year for his work in the synthesis and evaluation of new herbicides.
Ellen Gallimore is currently finishing her DPhil at Oxford University and works for UCB in their medicinal chemistry department. She received the runner-up prize for her exhibit explaining the biocatalytical potential of enzymes on small molecule drug discovery.
Image: Fluorochem Ltd
Fluorochem Ltd were at the event promoting their business to delegates. They supply intermediates used in R&D to pharmaceutical companies.
Image: Manchester Organics
Manchester Organics work in fluorination and high pressure chemistry.
Radleys were on hand to tell delegates about their sustainable chemistry equipment.
In early September of this year, 34 final year chemists from all over the United Kingdom descended on GSK Stevenage for a week of all things chemistry, at the 14th Residential Chemistry Training Experience.
A few months prior, an e-flyer had circulated around the Chemistry department at UCL. It advertised the week-long, fully-funded initiative created to give soon-to-be grad chemists insight into the inner workings of the pharma industry. We were told we would also receive help with our soft skills – there was mention of interview prep and help with presentation skills. As someone who doesn’t have an industrial placement year structured into their degree, I was excited to see how different chemistry in academia might be to that in industry, or if there were any differences at all.
A fraction of GSK’s consumer healthcare products. Image: GSK
Two days in labs exposed me to new analytical techniques and gave me an appreciation for how smoothly everything can run. I was assigned a PhD student who supervised me one-on-one – something you’re seldom afforded at university until your masters year. We hoped to synthesise a compound he needed as proof of concept, and we did!
The abundance in resources available and state-of-the-art equipment at every turn highlighted how different an academic PhD might be to an industry one if that’s the route I decided to go down. The week bridged the disconnect I had between what I’d learnt at university and how things are done or appear.
The GSK training course gave me unique insight into the life of a working scientist. Image: Pixabay
For example, I know enzymes can be used to speed up the rate of a biological reaction, but I’d never stopped to think about what they even look like. They come in the form of a sand-like material, if you’re wondering. Before that week, I hadn’t seen a Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine – we’d hand in our samples and someone else did the rest. NMR is an analytical technique we employ to characterise samples, double-checking to see we’ve made the right thing. It was great to put all this chemistry into context.
Our evenings were filled with opportunities to meet GSK staff and a networking formal brought in many others from places like SCI and the Royal Society of Chemistry.
A Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) machine, used by scientists to determine the properties of a molecule. Image: GSK
During the week, there was a real emphasis on equipping us with the skills and confidence to succeed in whatever we opted to do. That’s exactly how I felt during our day of interview prep. The morning started off with a presentation on the structure of a typical graduate chemistry interview, followed by a comical mock interview before we were set loose with our own interviewer for an hour. Before this, I’d never had someone peer over my shoulder as I drew out mechanisms, and I’d never anticipated that I’d forget some really basic stuff.
The hour whizzed by and when I was asked how I thought it had gone – terribly – and I was met with feedback that not only left me with more confidence in my own abilities, but an understanding of what a good interview is. It’s definitely OK to forget things – we’re human – but what’s most important is showing how you can get back to the right place using logic when you do forget.
Whether you’re curious about what goes on in companies like GSK, know you definitely want to work in pharma or you’re approaching your final year and just don’t know what you want to do (me), I’d recommend seeking out opportunities like this one. I got to meet people at my own university that I’d never spoken to and had great fun surrounded by others with the same love for organic chemistry.