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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!

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.

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 😀

It all happens when you’re thirty…. 

So turning thirty happened the other day. Happy birthday to me! 

My twenties were a great decade. I achieved quite a lot: finished my degree and got a science job, got married, bought two houses, became a landlord, had two beautiful children, started my PhD and travelled a lot presenting my work! 

That’s quite a lot to live up to for the next decade, despite how ambitious I am! 

However, my thirties have started pretty much how the twenties left off.. I have spent the past few days with my wonderful family (and it was wifes birthday yesterday too!) and had some wonderful gifts. A beautiful watch, money, rc helicopter (thanks Mike!), wine, vouchers and mugs! Amazing if I do say so haha.. Not only that, to celebrate,  we went Bowling, then to see The Overtones, then the next day paintballing and had a party for friends and family.

Now,the paintballing was such a great day in most aspects. Even though it was absolutely torrential rain and miserable, which is where the bad news comes in. My good friend Amr, unfortunately took a tumble during game 2 and managed to hurt his ankle. Two of us carried him back to the main area only so far before he couldn’t go any further, so the marshal (who handles it all very well indeed) went and reached a wheelbarrow. Now this was easier for us, but not so pleasant for Amr. Anyway we managed to get him back and transported to A&E where he found he had dislocated his ankle and broken his fibia and tibia. He had since successfully had surgery to insert pins and is in the mend. Get better soon Amr!

In addition to all this, my you gest had his first settling in day at nursery which went very well, and his second today. He starts this Friday coming and km sure he’s really excited about it.. I am! He’s growing up too quickly though, a proper little man now, walking and babbling..! 

Ruben started school yesterday too! Now that is a scary thought. He had his first afternoon session (settling in week 1), and seemed to be absolutely fine with it all like he’s done it a million times before! I’m so proud of them both 🙂 

So it has been an eventful but very fun birthday celebration and time to head back to work tomorrow. Time to crack on and finish this PhD! 

DM

If you think you can do it

If you don’t think you can do it, you’re probably right, but if you do think you can do it, you’re probably right, you probably can

One of the most memorable phrases that I have ever heard was given to me during secondary school. I was never ‘top of the class’, but I was part of the year group that was selected for this ‘aiming higher’ course. Basically, those that were above average achievers with potential, but not ‘top of the class’ were chosen to attend a series of classes about how to achieve more. These were held in the school or at University of South Wales, Caerleon campus, and the purpose was to motivate us to try harder, achieve more etc, by teaching us how to revise more efficiently, how to use different tools to reach our potential and so on.

Some would think this is really boring and useless, but I found it particularly useful. At the time (2004), there were 15 members of the EU, and I can still tell you who they were in alphabetical order forwards and backwards, and count to ten in Japanese. These were taught to us using techniques like visual association and memory accession. These techniques I still use today, to member lists of things or particularly complex things, and sure it isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. Mind maps, for example, I find of no use to me, but others swear by them .Each to their own, right!?

Anyway, back at school, one Mr Alan Bootle, gave us a lesson on how to revise. I hadn’t really had an awful lot of face to face teaching by him, but knew who he was and what he did, an I assume he didn’t know anything about me either!. In this lesson, Mr Bootle told us that he didn’t do particularly well in secondary school, but then discovered how to learn and retain information, and how he ended up getting a first class degree at university. He went through a range of techniques and gave us hints and tips, which were very useful indeed, and not only that, the motivation and passion he showed us really rubbed off on me, and from that point I held him in really high regard, and with a great deal of respect (more so than I had before).

One of the things he talked to us about was believing in yourself. Having confidence in your own ability and belief that you are better than you think you are. He said to us, if you think you can do it, you’re probably right, and it is this positivity that has really stuck with me since then., and is a motto that I live by for everything. It translates really well in every aspect of life – for me, doing this PhD is a hard slog, and sure, not everything works, but maintaining positivity, no matter how hard it gets sometimes, is really important. There is light at the end of the tunnel, and you will get there, because ‘if you think you can do it, you probably can 🙂

I love what I do

I really do love what I do. I get to do the most fun things, researching microbiology, tissue engineering and then bringing them together to look at microbiological infections of cells.

Doing a PhD is amazing. It is hard work, long hours, and you never really switch off – forever thinking, planning, analysing, dreaming of the project, which yes is exhausting, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

It’s not for everyone, of course, and you get out of it what you want to, so for me, I grabbed it by the horns and have made the most of my (nearly) three years in academia. I’ve networked with hundreds of people, found out things that nobody ever knew before, presented my work all around the world. I’m so proud of what I have achieved so far within this project, and I just wanted to say that I am so lucky to have not only the academic support of my supervisory team (which is the best that exists anywhere as far as I’m concerned), but also day to day support from my family, friends, colleagues, and even people that I have never met before, but interact with frequently through the wonders of the internet. The roller coaster of a ride during the PhD is real, with super high highs, and low lows.. but perseverance, so they say will help you win!

I’m getting all delusional, and beyond tired, writing papers at midnight..so thats all for now! (still wouldn’t change a thing!)

Summertime!

And so the summer is here, kids are off school for summer, people going on summer holidays, the sun is out (or was for a few days at least), and people are generally in a happier mood :). And for those budding microbiologists of you out there, you know the time where you can grow your bugs on the bench instead of the incubator 😉 Come on, you’ve all done it….

Win win, right?

Unfortunately, science doesn’t know what summer is, and doesn’t know what a holiday is. But it’s not all bad! Currently I’m at all systems go! My NGS data first stage analysis has come back from the lovely Ann in BioSci (woo!) and it is pretty good actually. Some great looking data which just needs more analysis, questions being asked of it and answers hopefully coming out of the other end of the pipeline..with plenty of graphs and pretty pictures to explain them! This is the hard bit!! Staring at a spreadsheet of numbers, making slight adjustments to species names based on BLAST info..and making general sense of the just of what is going on. *sigh* PhD..keep thinking, it is for a PhD! There is soon much to learn about this bit of work, and too much to do in the other bits that I haven’t finished yet! And it I want to be out of the lab in October time, I need to move relatively quickly..

So, with that in mind, I have tissue models growing, biofilms growing, RNA ready for extraction, qPCRs ready to run, cells growing, bugs growing, hundreds of PMMA coupons made and soaking..the next few weeks are going to be busy, but all in the good name of science. The light in this tunnel is nearly closing in…! I am looking forward to spending some time with Lauren and the boys for sure!

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