Challenges of a PhD - highs and lows

Myfanwy Hill in the lab

Like most PhD students, I have two supervisors who head up different research groups. My primary group is based in the clinical neuroscience division of the Stem Cell Institute in Cambridge, and my secondary group is from Cancer Research UK. This offers the advantage of a wide range of experience and expertise across disciplines, and many more people who I can ask for guidance and advice, although sometimes it can leave me feeling a little out of my depth. It might not seem as though neuroscience and cancer biology are worlds apart; however, it can occasionally be like speaking two completely different languages, neither of which I am proficient in just yet. So I read, and I read, and I read...and I do experiments, and when they don't turn out quite as I was expecting, I read some more...oh, and I ask questions, a lot of questions!

It's so often the small things that I find are the biggest challenge; for example, the idea that a cell type isn't clearly defined, and that people might debate what does and does not count as one kind of cell, hadn't occurred to me before entering the world of research. This conundrum will be familiar to many who work on cellular biology.

"It's so often the small things that I find are the biggest challenge"

All of us have our preferred set of antigens, or markers, by which we identify our favourite cell, and antibodies against these markers that we use to target the cells with dyes for use in histology (immunofluorescent histochemistry). However, before starting my PhD, I had never realised that there might not be a consensus on which markers define each cell type, and it certainly hadn't occurred to me that you could buy an antibody for histology that just didn't work. Much of my initial work for my project has been to learn how to obtain and handle the cells my group studies, and then to stain them and examine them under the microscope. This involves extracting the cells from tissue, keeping them alive long enough to do something with them, and then fixing and staining them.

At each of these stages things can go wrong and the cells can die before you even get to manipulate them for an experiment. Sometimes this is an error on my part; a little too much sugar in their media, not quite enough of a growth factor, or maybe they just don't like my singing, but sometimes it's because the antibodies don't work very well, or you can't find the correct combination of markers to show what you would like to, or the protocol you were using wasn't quite right. Working out the difference between user error and suboptimal protocols or reagents is a big challenge that I had not anticipated.

Prioritising extra reading

Learning to prioritise my extra reading is another challenge. I had rather fancifully thought that I was going to spend hours in lovely cosy coffee shops, or one of the many grand libraries of Cambridge, methodically perusing the scientific literature for knowledge and inspiration. I had expected that I would take in and retain all the information presented to me because I was so interested in it. In reality, reading a paper is hard work, and retaining the useful information even more of a challenge. I get too easily sidetracked by novel or exciting ideas, and find almost everything more interesting than the one thing I really should be reading. Research articles are hugely dense, and understanding the techniques and interrogating the results often leads me to break into a sweat. I am sure there are scientists who can sit in bed with a recent article, the product of many years of another researcher's work – possibly their entire PhD – and devour it like a bag of sweets, but I am not one of them. Not yet anyway.

Lab retreat

Recently my primary lab organised a ‘lab retreat’ – a week of intense science chat, interspersed with team building. During this time we all left our benches, set aside our experiments, and concentrated on the background and theory of our field, discussed contentious issues, and debated future directions. This was essentially CPD for scientists, for we, like vets, have to keep up to date with our subject, and with new techniques and ideas. Our group works in the field of myelin biology (which concerns the insulating layer of cell membrane that wraps around the axons of nerve cells) and, while this might sound like a tiny subject, there is a huge amount of research in this field as it relates to so many neurological diseases, including spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis and white matter stroke.

As a group we number nearly 30, with our lab comprising PhD students, postdoctoral researchers, lab managers and administrators, and a principal investigator.

"So far my PhD is posing an enjoyable challenge... learning to manage my time and my own study has been more of a challenge than I had expected"

During the week, we all had to present a lecture summarising the main advances and significant papers in a particular area of our field, to provide everyone with some background and resources. My task was to summarise the evolution of myelin, and myelination. As a vet who is only vaguely familiar with the physiology of a few non-mammalian animals, let alone anything extinct, this was by no means my area of expertise, nor did it link to my field of research. However, like any good student I tacked my subject methodically – starting with Wikipedia and working my way forward from there. I'm not sure if I was able to teach my colleagues anything, but I certainly learnt a lot from the process; not only about the subject itself, but also how to tackle such a vast topic, and how to synthesise it for presentation and teaching. More and more I appreciate the efforts of those who have taught me in the past, and I hope that learning these things will make me more able to present my science coherently, and perhaps to teach in the future.

So far my PhD is posing an enjoyable challenge; it has its highs and its lows, and learning to manage my time and my own study has been more of a challenge than I had expected. I have always prided myself on being efficient and organised, but science requires a whole new level of self discipline.

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