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Being a BBSRC DTP Student in Cambridge

Michal Wlodarski
Michal Wlodarski
Michal Wlodarski

BBSRC DTP Student

Cambridge has plenty to offer both in terms of work and social engagements. Being part of a College brings a unique and highly diverse experience through a variety of collegiate events and initiatives. It is a chance to meet students from across disciplines and cultural backgrounds as well as meet professors – world-class experts in their disciplines – in an informal environment. The department life offers another dimension by bringing people with related interests together and by reaching out to other labs forming an effective network of collaborations and opportunities to meet like-minded individuals. In addition to the college and department communities there is plenty going on in the city itself where both social and academic events are open to both students and the public.

The Collegiate system as well as the diverse city landscape offer opportunities to actively engage in the organisation of the student life. Participation in social, scientific, and entrepreneurial societies and organisations is encouraged and helps develop a great deal of strong soft skills and a good understanding of leadership in a variety of contexts. Given the challenging nature of research work and busy extracurricular schedules, Cambridge requires plenty of organisation skills and self-discipline in order to make best of it. Equally, the amount and quality of support – both academic and welfare-wise is impressive, and one can feel free and yet firmly supported in their pursuits.

My Master of Research projects were in molecular cytomics and single cell level imaging with the latter forming the basis of my current doctoral project within the interdisciplinary area of single-cell level microbiology. My research is focused on the bacterial systemic responses to antimicrobial treatment and thus brings together areas of microbiology, systems biology, physics, and computer science. The format of the Master’s year is highly structured and high-paced, and points to the interdisciplinary aspect of modern bioscience research. The PhD project offers more freedom but is more challenging in that it requires the ability to lead your own research work independently.

Overall, the BBSRC DTP Programme is a great formative experience and I can recommend it to anyone who believes they have a passion for interdisciplinary bioscience as well as can make most of what the Cambridge University has to offer.

Carolina Feijao
Carolina Feijao
Carolina Feijao

BBSRC DTP Student

The BBSRC DTP has been a unique experience on several levels.

Firstly, through the rotation project scheme, I have been able to work on my favourite research topic with two outstanding teams. This experience has been highly rewarding as it has given me two different perspectives on the same topic, both of which I am now able to integrate into my PhD project. In parallel, the taught modules in Statistics and Systems Biology offered by this Programme provide crucial research tools such as experimental design, data analysis and programming.

Secondly, the University of Cambridge is home to a staggering number of experts in a wide range of subjects, which opens the door for fruitful collaborations. This was particularly clear to me during the several departmental visits organized by the BBSRC DTP. These visits allowed me to get in touch with different research areas and were also extremely enriching in terms of networking.

Finally, I have found that the strong student community present in Cambridge makes it a vibrant city to live in. I have made friends with people from all over the world and have been able to share great moments over social gatherings, ranging from dinners in College to trips around the UK.  In particular, the BBSRC DTP cohort has become a nice group to be around and some of us have joined forces to participate in the Biotechnology YES competition.

Overall, being a BBSRC DTP student enriches the PhD experience, and I highly recommend it to anyone keen to take on a challenge.

Naomi Moris

BBSRC DTP Student

Naomi Moris
Naomi Moris

Coming from London, I was initially nervous about moving to ‘little’ Cambridge, and even more daunted about the prospect of doing a PhD here, but I couldn’t have made a better decision! There is so much support from all angles: the BBSRC administrators and organisers, the department, the college and all the other graduate students, so that PhD life here quickly becomes a really close community.

I’m doing my PhD somewhat across disciplines, encompassing the fields of Epigenetics, Development and Stem Cells in the lab of Professor Martinez-Arias. This broad project design was largely informed by the time I spent in rotations in the component fields, and I really can’t recommend rotations highly enough! They allowed me to try out different approaches, different laboratory environments, different departments, and perhaps most importantly, they give an opportunity to network across your field of interest and meet others trying to tackle similar research questions.

The format of the first year on the BBSRC DTP is fast-paced and challenging, but it really is a great opportunity to apply yourself to biological problems in a new way. The initial training in Statistics and the SysMIC course are really invaluable tools which I probably wouldn’t have heard about on another programme, and which have already come in useful. Plus there is a great community between the DTP students, encouraged by the weekly departmental visits, and we’ve certainly enjoyed many pub-trips and coffee get-togethers over the past year!

Best of luck with your applications and hopefully we’ll be seeing you soon!

Naomi's perspective upon completing the Programme:

I joined the BBSRC DTP at the University of Cambridge in 2012, in the first cohort of students on the Programme here. The opportunity to do rotation projects really appealed to me, as although I had experience working as a Research Assistant, I wasn’t completely sure which field or project I particularly wanted to work on. I did my first rotation at the Babraham Institute, on human embryonic stem (ES) cells, and my second rotation at the Department of PDN, on fruit fly development, where I enjoyed the in vivo application of developmental biology. Despite thoroughly enjoying my rotations, I decided to do my actual PhD project elsewhere and joined Professor Alfonso Martinez-Arias’ lab in the summer of 2013. My rotations were an invaluable experience that allowed me to explore different areas of science, but critically, they let me discover which parts of biology I most enjoyed (and which I didn’t) and, as a result, I was able to join Alfonso’s lab with a clearer idea of the questions I most wanted to pursue.

My PhD project was co-supervised by Dr Cristina Pina from the Department of Haematology, and involved examining mechanisms involved in early cell fate decisions in mouse ES cells. I’d certainly recommend the co-supervisory system to anyone starting out a PhD project which is at all cross-disciplinary. For me, it really helped to have supervisors that were experienced in different aspects of the project, and having that close mentorship definitely encouraged me to develop a more well-rounded project.

I did my PIPS in a start-up company based in Cambridge, working on developing a bioinformatic platform for NGS data analysis. I found it a big change from working in academia, especially since I was working on app development, which meant a lot of programming! The atmosphere of a busy start-up was great, I learnt lots of new skills, and pitching during client meetings made me more confident about communicating my work to others. But although I was glad to have had the challenge, it became clear to me that I wanted to stay in academia and I came back to the lab with a renewed sense of purpose.

I submitted my doctoral thesis in September 2016 and successfully defended it in a viva voce in November. I then continued in Alfonso’s lab as a Postdoctoral Research Associate for a year, allowing me time to finalise and submit a paper with my results. It also gave me some time to explore other avenues of research within the lab; applying questions like those in my thesis to a new project using a 3-dimensional ‘organoid’ culturing system, examining the mechanisms of pattern generation in a context which is more similar to a developing embryo. This new project allowed me to make fellowship applications, and I was fortunate enough to be elected a Junior Research Fellow at Newnham College in February 2017, officially starting in September.

Although people can often be quite negative about the opportunities for progression within the academic route, I would encourage anyone starting out that is possible to stay in academia after a PhD, if that’s something you really want to pursue. Funding applications can be very competitive, so the more you can take opportunities to equip yourself with skills and experience, the better your chances. I definitely think the BBSRC DTP provided me with such an opportunity, and, ultimately, the possibility of continuing a career as an academic researcher.