My year in review: 2017

The year 2017 was always going to be a pretty stressful year. It symbolised the culmination of four years hard work; long days, nights, weekends; continous mental angst with the whole imposter syndrome, and “why me to do a PhD”, hours and hours of data anslysis, interpretation, and much more. It was the year that this all came to an end. So let’s have a look at the highlights of what actually happened this year.

IADR, San Francisco. In March, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to travel again to the west coast of the USA to attend the biggest oral and dental research conference in California. The trip was incredible; the conference was great, and Josh and I both had posters to present in the same session, with quite a bit of interest and great discussion of my work with the many that made the effort to come and have a look and a read! We spent extra time out in California, and visited many of the tourist attractions; Golden Gate Bridge, had an opn-top bus tour of SF, and visited Yosemite National Park for a few days with incredible scenery like nothing you can imagine.

Visit to my PhD sponsor; GSK. I have been very well supported by my sponsors throughout the PhD. My industrial supervisor Dr David Bradshaw has always been such a brilliant figure with a wealth of knowledge in microbiology, but also years of experience in the oral care industry. I too have a number of years of industrial experience behind me, prior to the PhD, and although in a microbiology field, it is very different to where I am now. The skills I developed during my time in industry set me up really well for this project. It gave me a great base of project management, data management, design and completion of work within a timely manner. Importantly, I feel coming from industry provides a work ethic that many students coming from an undergraduate or master degree simply don’t have. I very much ‘hit the ground running’ and was very lucky to have continued that through with a slight adjustment to adacemic working life (which is actually very different). I visisted GSK in May, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I spent time with many different people in different departments, learning how the company works, and a bit about the many different roles on offer in this industry. It certainly rekindled my passion for industry, so watch this space in the future!

September. The true culmination of all the work leading to this very month. The final month of my PhD, my final conference as a PhD student at BSODR, and my entry for the Senior Colgate Prize – the most prestigious prize in oral and dental research.
My presentation was an overview of the findings of my PhD project, in a single presentation, with a nice rounded story. I was competing against an array of excellent students, many of which were at a similar stage to me, one of which was a good friend and colleague at Cardiff; Elen Everett. Elen is an amazing person, super intelligent, friendly and generally a great friend. It was unfortuante that we were in the same session for the Senior Colgate Prize, and I truly felt she presented better than I did in that session. However, I was selected to go forward to the final and presented a second time the next morning. Later that day we attended a gala dinner held at the marine barracks – a very special occasion; great food ,entertainment and the announcement of the prize winners. The entry from Plymouth Uni who presented after me in the final, and who I genuinely thought was a prize winner, was runner up, and then the winner was announced where my name was called! I can’t describe the feeling, but I was very proud indeed, excited, grateful and to know that I had followed in my primary supervisor’s footsteps (Prof. David Williams, who won it 20 years previous) was a fantastic end to not only the conference, but my PhD too.

The summer was manic with finishing bits in the lab and getting my thesis chapters drafted. This was an incredibly hard task – and at the time I felt it was the most difficult thing I’d ever undertaken. Long story short, I did finally get it to the point I could print, bind, and submit, merely days before the final deadline. The final submission was a bit of an anti-climax if I’m honest, but once again, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of achievement. Then, after quite some organisation by Suzy, our PGR support superwoman, the viva date was set for the 18th December at 10.30.

The limbo period between thesis submission and viva voce is a very strange period indeed. I didn’t really know whether I was coming or going! I was exhausted after the thesis writing and submission, but very pleased to be able to get back into the lab and do some real science again! This time, developing a more robust biofilm model for future projects and grant applications. As I had a bit more time on my hands, I decided it would be a good opportunity to resubmit my previously rejected manuscript. I made the changes recommended by the previous reviewers, and resubmitted to the Journal of Medical Microbiology. After a first round of peer review, it came back with a request for minor revisions! This was a great feeling, as the changes were minimal, with the reivewers’ comments being very positive indeed, ultimately recommending for publication. This will be my fist publication as first author, and an incredible time in any scientists career.

In addition to this, and the lab work, my viva date was looming. The day quickly approached, and again, long story short, I passed with minor corrections. It was by far the most difficult thing I have ever done, and I can say I well and truly earned it! The actual viva was 4 hours long, and exhasuting in itself. I’ll follow up with another blog post about this sometime soon to elaborate a bit anyway :).

I feel so fortunate to have completed the PhD journey. To have had the supervision, guidance and advice I have received over these four years, and the opportunity to meet, network and present to the very names that are at the top of the game in my field of microbiology. I’m looking forward to what the next years bring!

 

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

It seems as though my last blog post was way back in April of this year, about 7 months ago!

A lot can, and has happened in those 7 months, so I’ll do a recap over the next few posts coming in the next few days. I’ll try and do them in chronological order, so we can appreciate the happenings as they occurred.

I’ll be writing a few motivational posts to promote positivity and wellbeing for those also going through academia, pre- or post-PhD (and everyone else studing for that matter!), and it’d be great to try and give a realistic overview of the journey, but try and highlight the positives where I can so as not to scare others consideing doing the same thing!

Nice to be back!

Stepping up the game

Despite having started writing my thesis some time ago, it is steadily becoming the sole priority.

There’s still practical/lab work to complete, but the process of populating the content foe the final thesis, the ratio of time spent on each of these at least is beginning to skew toward the thesis. Sure, you can’t get a PhD without the thesis.. So it has to be done in good time for edits, reviews, changed etc.. But you can’t write a thesis without having the data to go in there. This has been the dilemma. When is enough, enough? How much of a story does it have to tell, and how complete should it be? 

Difficult decisions to make, for sure, and particularly for someone like me who really genuinely likes being in the lab and doing the practical things. I do also really enjoy writing, but hands on is just better. But having had a number of discussions about my future direction, it is ever clear that the thesis and the PhD is the most basic requirement for everything. You can have all the teaching experience in the world, all the ‘knowledge’,  but if you don’t have those three little letters, it’s a dead end right there for my preferred path. 

It’s hard enough doing a PhD, but self management is one of the most important aspects of doing the PhD, and one of the biggest challenges of participating in this journey. I’m lucky enough to have an amazing network of support, and outlets. And am grateful for that. I won’t let you down! 

Post conference ramblings in San Francisco

So with the conference done and dusted, good sessions, good poster presentation, good discussions and great to catch up with people (and some future potential there for sure!), it would be silly to travel half way across the world, to spend it working and then go home, right?

We didn’t. Josh, Elen and I decided (ahead of our travels of course) to stay out for some more. Time to see the sights and do some things! And what a great decision that was. First up while the others were still around was Alcatraz (and Angel Island for this of us who didn’t manage to book in time, but ended up with a better day anyway!). The boat trip to Angel Island was pretty smooth, and the island tour was pretty cool. The views from the top of the bridge and the wildlife were very impressive to say the least. And of course, what’s a view like without some group pictures eh? 

To see the Golden Gate Bridge from here was awesome, but a shame that the others didn’t come with us too. Alcatraz itself was a great experience too! The audio tour really immersed you into what happened all those years ago. 

After we waved goodbye to our colleagues on the Saturday evening, we prepared and set off for the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park early Sunday morning. The train and bus journey felt like a lifetime, but we eventually arrived in an area of such natural beauty, I had never seen anything comparable.

The tent was funny. Small, very basic, ridiculously cold (hovering around zero degrees every night), but luckily we’d upgraded to a heated tent, which turned out to be a lifesaver! We did a few walks, saw some rocks, scenery and wildlife which actually was pretty good fun. Very tiring, but good fun still. 

A great experience of course, but for a city person, I was itching to get back to the bustle of the city (despite the infamously evident socioeconomic crisis that exists in SF with the extent of homelessness). It had been great in Yosemite, but there’s only so long I can spend walking and enjoy it before it becomes a bit boring (personally!). 

We returned to the city and checked into the hotel, before heading out for some Mexican food. After walking for miles (again) we settled on the next closest restaurant we stumbled across, which happened to be a brilliant Mexican one! The food was amazing the desserts not so, but we were very pleased :D. 

We had planned for our last full day to go to the Science museum in the golden gate park area, that we had seen on out previous bus tour. Not too pricy an entry fee, but worth every penny. The rainforest zone with the plant life, butterflies, birds and other insects/reptiles/fish, the aquarium and the diving demonstration (!), then the planetarium with virtual fly-throughs of. Earth and space. All very entertaining and worthwhile. 

We then spent an hour at the Japanese tea garden before heading for some proper American pizza for dinner. Josh had a deep pan (more like a pie than a pizza!) , I had a thin and Elen had a pita bread filled pizza. They were delicious, but we were very full and tired, so headed back for our final night at the hotel. Morning came and we had a nice sleep in, then packed our stuff, checked out and went foe a bit if last minute shopping. The shops are plentiful, but somewhat expensive. Then an uber ride to the airport where we no await our boarding doe the flight home.

A great trip, lots of memories and experiences,  and hundreds of photos, but now time to go home. There’s no place like it. 

Hard at work, or hardly working? 

That has always made me chuckle. And for those who are concerned, hard at work, all the time ;). But the past two weeks have been particularly super busy! Mainly in the lab. That’s a good thing I guess, in some ways at least. It means you can’t get distracted, but by working in the lab you are by definition distracted from writing.

This week, Josh and I had some tissue models come in for infections, so we grew biofilms as we do for a few days, and then infected the tissue models. All 72 of them!!

Luckily we can do the analysis in stages, so we did LDH, and then the RNA extraction, and Josh has since done his RT, which I’m yet to do. We also had some. Time in pathology, embedding the models in wax, with some help and training from the lovely lovely path guys!

So, that doesn’t sound like much but it’s taken a week to do that! And ne t up we have the sectioning and staining, microscopy, qPCR and analysis of the data then from the stained sections, more sections and use of fluorescent probes and more microscopy! Much fun to be had.

And in the background, I’ve been writing the thesis. It’s been difficult, and I wasn’t able to get as much done foe my first section (which was the lot review, and was incredibly difficult to do!) but i did get to hand in a draft of another section of a chapter, and I’m ahead of schedule (a day early of my weekly targets!) for this next one! These may only be materials and methods, but are still important and a necessary part of each chapter.

I’ve made some changes to my IADR poster and sent that for printing (paying £50 for the privilege! £30 of which was the rushed delivery haha!). Looking forward to receiving it and taking a look, fingers crossed for no typos haha. Onwards!

Science for all! 

I’m a keen public engagement (PE) enthusiast. I’ve volunteered for CITER on a number of occasions through the PhD, and attended events at Techniquest where we received training, advice and support to develop our own public engagement activity. I see the importance of public engagement for science, and as its now one of the key factors in securing funding, now is a good a time as any to get involved. 

I’ve known about the various PE groups for some time, and one of the biggest is STEMnet. Science Technology Engineering and Maths network is a fantastic network of volunteers to inspire the youth of today, and encourage STEM learning through school and post school life. There is a huge drop in interest from the start of secondary school to GCSE to A level choices, with as much as a 60% reduction in interest of stem subjects. Is this because they don’t think they’re good enough to do it? Is it because there is a stigma around studying certain subjects, particularly for girls? Is it because careers advice is still not up the standard it should be? All of the above I think. 

Well, I’m now part of STEM ambassadors, and will hopefully help inspire those that think they’re not good enough, because they are, encourage STEM learning, because it’s fun and useful in the real world! I love science and think that others can too! 

Top tips for attending a conference for the first time

As a PhD student, it is inevitable that you’ll have opportunities to attend academic conferences. I’m in science (biomedical research specifically), and while the content may differ, all conferences are the same thing really – a chance for people to present current, novel work to people in their field, to network with peers/experts/friends, to make new contacts and discuss potential collaborations, and of course to drink and be merry. It’s a bit like Christmas really…you get to see people you haven’t seen all year and have a good time, and learn about science at the same time!

For some, the prospect of being thrown in front of many people (Daniel in the lions den so to speak (rich coming from an atheist)), whether it be to present a poster, short talk, or longer talk, or just to attend the conference, can be quite a daunting thought. I’m fortunate enough to have been to many conferences in my time as a PhD student, and I thoroughly enjoy going to them!

I’ve put together a list of what I consider top tips for attending your first conference (or any subsequent conference if you aren’t a big fan of them or people!).

    1. Enjoy it. Enjoying the experience is by far one of the most important factors of attending a conference. You are there, of course, primarily to gain knowledge from presentations by experts and peers in your field of research, but having a good time while you’re there is a must. There is no easier way to learn so much, in such a short space of time, than attending a conference, but with that said, it is not necessarily the be all and end all of the event. There are endless opportunities to network, to engage, and to really get to know the people that you may very well hold in high regard (and they will probably turn out to be (quite) human after all!). Of course, conferences can feel very formal, particularly, for example, gala dinner events where the heading ‘black tie’ can be very off putting, but most are friendly, relatively low key and really supportive environments. If you are presenting, I know it can be a nerve-wracking experience, but once the presentation is over you will feel so much more relaxed…so just go and enjoy yourself!
    2. Talk to people. Ok, for some people, this is easier said than done, but for me it is one of the most important things (apart from enjoying the whole thing of course, hence why it’s number 2). Conferences are a prime opportunity to get yourself known by face. It is all well and good knowing people by name, but there is nothing like being able to stand face to face and have even a small chat with them. I can’t emphasise enough the importance of making yourself known to people, as this will come back on you positively for sure. If you’re a bit nervous, and you’re attending the conference with your supervisor, or colleague, then taking them with you is not a bad move, but don’t just let the opportunity slip to introduce yourself. Make sure to shake hands (even if they don’t offer to first!), and get some contact details if you think they could be useful for the future. Business cards are a great opportunity to make another mark for yourself here – why not design your own, and give them to people while you’re there. It isn’t something commonly done by PhD students, but makes you stand out and gives them a reason to remember you.
    3. Go to the talks/posters and engage. The main advantage of going to a conference is to broaden your academic knowledge base of current work in your field, without having to trawl through hundreds of papers. You can just visit the poster/talk and see whats going on. If it is of interest, follow it up with them directly, or in the literature. If it isn’t, then nothing lost! Talking to the poster presenters is a great way to quickly get some inside info on the project/area, and you’d be surprised at how open people and projects really are (unless there are IP issues of course). The main thing here is not to come across as the arrogant, over confident, uninterested person, there only to be super critical of their work. Don’t forget that most poster presenters are students, and/or early career researchers, and could probably do without being excessively grilled (they’re there to try and enjoy the conference too!). The good thing with poster sessions is that you can read the title/abstract and then get a gist of whats going on, and if it isn’t of much interest, move on to the next (but be polite and compliment (where appropriate) the presenter on their efforts!). If attending an oral session, engagement is somewhat more formal, and takes the form of a q&a section after the talk. It can be daunting enough asking a question, but if you’re brave enough (and don’t forget, theres no such thing as a stupid question!), ask away and other people may benefit form their answer too! Otherwise, find them after the session and have a chat (see no. 2 above).
    4. Dress for the occasion. It might seem quite a trivial thing, and it is something that I struggle with if I’m honest…even now; more than 3 years into my PhD. I never know whether to wear jeans and a t-shirt, shirt and trousers, suit….and it can be easy to over- or under-dress depending on the conference. For a small meeting, I would suggest smart casual. For a larger conference, or on the day you are presenting irrespective of conference size, I would say dress up a bit. Maybe not necessarily suit and tie, but certainly consider suit without tie, or shirt and tie with no jacket etc. For females, I think it’s somewhat easier – a smart-ish dress, trousers and smart-ish top.. you can’t really go wrong for smart casual! Just be wary not to over or under do it.

Goodbye and hello

Today sees the end of a roller-coaster year, namely 2016. It also sees the introduction and welcoming of 2017, an important year in academic terms – my final stretch of the PhD studentship.

2016 wasn’t all bad though. So what happened?
– I went to Gregynog and presented my early tissue model work, with great feedback and comments. Met some new faces and sparked a few potential future collaborations.
– I went to another conference in Porto, Portugal and presented an updated version of the tissue model work, winning the poster prize! I again met new faces, and some friends for life.
– I submitted a paper to a journal to which I was invited to publish, this was reviewed and required a bit more work, but sparked an application for additional funding which was secured in December 2016.
– I am co-authoring a paper independent of my PhD project, which hopefully will be published in the near future
– I have analysed and interpreted all of the metataxonomic data (except for a few additional bits for my thesis) which forms the basis of another paper – to be submitted to a journal early 2017.
– Upon successful receipt of the grant for tissue model work, much more analysis can be done to further understand extra areas that I would have like to have done, but didn’t have time/funding to do earlier on (…watch this space!)
– I’ve had an amazing amount of support from my sponsors; GSK, and hope that there are many things that we can do together in the future. This relationship is too good not to continue with!
– I had an abstract accepted for IADR in San Francisco in March 2017 – looking forward to an exciting trip with Josh and Elen!

All in all, not a bad year. Some mixed news form the world of OBS too, but more on that another time!

2017 is going to be just as amazing, stressful, but positive for sure. Cheers and happy new year!

I can see clearly now

The leading statement ‘I can see clearly now’ has dual purpose. Firstly, I have new glasses 😀 20161019_165146

I haven’t had glasses since I was really young – probably 20 years ago now (man that makes me feel old..). I should have continued wearing them through my childhood and maybe I wouldn’t have needed them now!! Oh well. Ruben has glasses, and if he can pull them off as well as he does, I’ll give them a go. So I went to have my eyes tested, and sure enough I still need them (believe it or not). Heres the technical part – my eyesight is 20/20 apparently…but my prescription is longsighted; a 1.75 in both eyes but they gave me a 1.25 (to make it easier on my eyes first time round), theres also a 2 point astigmatism, and very slight turn in for my right eye. No, I have no idea what it means either, but I need glasses for concentration work. So I chose these – nice eh?

Anyway, I digress.

I have had a ton of NGS data back form the sequencing company, and the lovely Ann has done a load of analysis for me on it. The data is really good quality apparently (which is always nice to hear of course!), and the analysis has started. Trying to make head or tail of the hundreds of thousands of cells of numbers, OTUs, proportional data, phylogenetic stuff and diversity/abundance…its all very new, very daunting but very very interesting.

Ann has done such a great job of answering the questions I have for my project so far, with a few more to come, and the data was presented at the recent GSK symposium, and after a supervisory meeting this afternoon, is beginning to make much more sense. It turns out, its actually a pretty good result overall! #LetsGetThisPublished

More to follow when I can! But lots more to do for now, so bye!

Next generation scientists

What a great visit. The past two days have been some of the most fun moments you can possibly have in science I’m sure.

It’s that time of year when GSK very kindly host their annual student science symposium. Once again the evening poster session and dinner was held in the beautiful Oatlands Park hotel in Weybridge, then the next day on to the GSK Oral Healthcare base. 

The evening poster session was once again full of great science from early stage PhD students (and Jonathan who despite being a third year, did a poster as well as his oral presentation!) 

The dinner was delicious, and the company was even better. Kelly, William, Chris, Jing, Jonny, Sharon and Ezra. Lovely students who are such great fun. Dinner was broken into sections with entertainment by the now infamous Jon and Dave, with their QI inspired quiz. Hilarious to say the least. 

Then came the socialising and drinks flowed freely. Such a great opportunity to really engage with people on a personal level, and make new friends. 

The oral  sessions were so inspiring. So much great research, and great presentations, from all sorts of disciplines: proteins, materials, Dentistry microbiology, tissue engineering. All of really great quality and solid science. 

I was fortunate enough to have given a talk on my next generation sequencing data (hot off the press this week!), which went down a storm. Great feedback and ideas bouncing off the results. And great contacts made which which be really useful in the future I’ve no doubt! Additionally, I had a few ideas of my own for possible collaborations and group work, so that is something I’m keen to pursue in the near future… Fingers crossed! 

Today also saw the (initial as I’m sure it will be extended,  as ever) deadline for the abstract submissions for IADR 2017 in San Francisco, California. Yep, I did get an abstract submitted so fingers crossed and watch this space for updates in the coming months of the outcome 😀