Second Year PhD Cancer Science student
Meet Charlotte, a second year PhD Cancer Sciences student at the Manchester Cancer Research Centre.
From growing and culturing cancer cells in the lab, to studying how they interact with different cancer drugs, Charlotte shares what her typical day looks like.
What are you responsible for?
I’m responsible for researching the fundamental cell biology that underpins cancer, a disease that affects one in two of us at some point in our lifetime. Specifically, I research the proteins involved in apoptosis – the process of programmed cell death. Cells should be able to die when they become damaged but cancer cells are very good at avoiding death. That’s why many cancer treatments try to force cancer cells to die.
I want to better understand how cell death occurs in human cells to help our understanding of why some patients may develop resistance to certain cancer drugs and to ultimately contribute to the design of better cancer drugs.
I plan my own experiments and what I’ll be doing on a day-to-day basis, but I have regular chats with my supervisor to ensure I’m planning appropriate things and to review any results I’ve gathered. I’m also responsible for helping to keep my research lab running by doing a number of jobs such as disposing of dangerous waste and teaching students.
What does your typical day look like?
My typical day begins in the lab at 7am because I focus better in the morning than later in the day. I might start my day by doing routine tasks, such as looking after the cells I have growing in culture, before carrying out specific experiments that are linked to my research.
With my PhD, there are lots of smaller experiments that I need to carry out over a long period of time to generate data and help inform what experiments I should do in the future. For example, as I’m looking at cancer cells and their proteins, I first need to test out the different concentration of antibodies that can be used to stain cells so specific parts of them can be better seen under a microscope.
Once I’ve done this, I can carry out my main staining experiments to understand how the proteins in cancerous cells interact when specific drugs are introduced. I can then repeat this process of investigation using other techniques, such as western blotting which is used to separate and identify different proteins. The combined results of these various techniques allow me to draw more conclusive data on how different proteins help to cause cell death and the impact certain cancer drugs can have.
Around my experiments, I’ll slot in meetings, lab jobs and teaching commitments. I try to leave the lab by mid-afternoon so I can get home, rest and eat something before I either do some light lab-related work, such as data analysis, or do one of my many hobbies, such as my volunteering role as a leader in a local Guides unit.
What’s the best part of your PhD?
The best part of my PhD is that I’m researching something I’m really passionate about and that no one else in the world is doing quite the same research as me. I love mitochondrial apoptosis and it’s a dream to spend every day thinking about it and investigating it further. I love the applied problem solving that underpins my research and I’m fortunate to have great friends in the lab I’m in. I don’t think there’s any job quite like it!
What’s the most challenging part of your PhD?
The most challenging part of my PhD is the fact that there’s always something to think about, which makes it hard to switch off. Whether it’s planning my next series of experiments, thinking about why something hasn’t worked or making a list of all of the lab jobs that need doing – there’s always something to occupy my mind. It’s definitely not a role where you can just leave everything at your office desk when you finish for the day.
I love my job because I feel like I’m making a small difference to the world. If there’s just one thing I can find out that wasn’t previously known, it’s still a little mark on our understanding of cell biology that could benefit cancer patients in the future. This is what motivates me on days when things aren’t going according to plan.
What advice would you give to others who want to study a PhD?
My advice is to focus your research on something that really interests you. Doing a PhD is hard work and you’re signing up to a fairly hectic lifestyle but if you’re naturally curious about your research area it makes it a lot easier.
Also make sure you’ve got a good support network and have things to do in your downtime, otherwise it’s all too easy to get sucked into your work and never have a break from it.
What do you want to be remembered for?
It would be very flattering if I made a discovery that changed how we view biology and medicine as we know it. But, if I’m honest, it’s amazing enough that in my family I’ll be remembered as someone who not only attended university but who hopefully got a PhD. Just being here is a huge achievement, anything else is a bonus.
If you weren’t doing a PhD what else would I be doing?
I’d possibly be a secondary school science teacher, as that was an option I considered when I was about to graduate from university. I enjoy teaching and I enjoy science, so I think I’d enjoy a job in that field.
Alternatively, I’d probably be doing something that involved problem solving and scientific thinking but in a more structured environment than academic research, like in an NHS lab.
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This article originally appeared in New Scientist Jobs: What does a PhD Cancer Sciences student do?