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!
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.
On Friday 11 May 2018, 20 delegates, ranging from Master’s students to post-docs, gathered at the SCI headquarters in London for a careers day in Agri-Food.
This was the first event organised by the newly formed SCI Agri-Food Early Careers Forum, and had six speakers presenting the perspectives of varying careers – Prof Lin Field (Rothamsted Research), Rhianna Jones (Institute of Food Technologists), Prof Tim Benton (University of Leeds), Dr Rebecca Nesbit (Nobel Media), Dr Bertrand Emond (Campden BRI), and Dr Craig Duckam (CD R&D Consultancy Service).
Delegates were treated to a variety of talks, ranging from advice on working within research to stepping outside of the research box into science communication or private consultancy. Over the course of the day, three common skills were covered by all leaders when discussing how they achieved success in their careers.
The first of these was networking. Every talk covered aspects of this, from going to conferences and events to being a good communicator. Building connections can be the key to getting job offers, learning about new opportunities, and even knowing where best to take your career.
Professor Tim Benton Image: Cassie Sims
Prof Tim Benton spoke about the importance of working in teams, and of showing respect to other professionals, especially if they work in a different area. Dr Rebecca Nesbitt spoke about careers communicating science, specifically the broad range of media that can be used, and how to get involved. Rhianna Jones spoke about taking opportunities to be mentored, particularly from societies and professional organisations, such as SCI and the Institute of Food Technologists.
Lin Field, Rothamsted Research
The second skill that was covered in depth was adaptability. Initially, Prof Lin Field spoke about this in a practical context – building a set of laboratory and general scientific skills that can be carried across disciplines.
However, each speaker had a different perspective. For example, Dr Craig Duckham spoke of learning new skills when setting up a private consultancy, such as accounting, business, and even web design and marketing. Prof Tim Benton summarised it well, stating we need to ‘look at the big picture’, and think strategically about where our skills can be used to better the world. He stated that we “need to be willing to re-invent ourselves”. Everyone agreed that we can achieve this by diversifying our portfolio of skills and taking as many opportunities as possible.
Lead, don’t follow
Each speaker spoke about being a leader, not a follower. This is a phrase that is used often in reference to achieving success, but is so important in every aspect of career development. Whether it is applying for a fellowship, or stepping out to start your own business, leadership skills will carry you through your career. A leader was described as someone who makes decisions, carves out a niche rather than following trends, and who sets an example that others follow naturally.
Overall, the speakers challenged delegates to consider what their idea of success is, and what skills they need to get there. The day was enjoyed by all delegates, and the advice given will help guide them throughout their future careers. The event could be summarised by this quote from Einstein, given by Prof. Benton on the day:
Try not to become a [person] of success, but rather try to become a [person] of value.
The event is planned to run for a second year in Spring 2019.
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.