Interviews · The PhD voice

Interview with Sophie from Soph Talks Science

Hi all! This month has been hectic, with lots of cool things at work that take time and the preparation of the move to the US. I am honest, I did not manage to write as I intended because of this, but I am glad that I managed to release the two interviews with other bloggers as I initially intended. Here is the interview with another PhD student who also is a blogger, and what better way to start than with a student who also works in the stem cell field? Get to know Sophie Arthur, the girl behind Soph Talks Science!

Sophie answered to my post about new year resolutions on Twitter saying she would like to get involved. I really liked her blog and my favorite features are the “Cellfie of the month“, where she shows one or more pictures about her work with embryonic stem cells, and the “A day in the life of a PhD student“, with snapshots of her daily routines. I might do some similar post someday! She also documents her travels on Soph Talks Travel with some nice tips and where I found we both love buying postcards when traveling for our collections. Let’s get the interview started, shall we?

soph_talks_science_berlin.jpg

Tell us about your PhD topic and academic background! What and where did you study?

So, I did my undergrad degree at the University of Bath in Molecular and Cellular Biology. I spent four years doing my undergrad where the third year was an industrial placement – so I got paid for a year! Yay! I spent that year designing an assay to detect the different serotypes of Group B Streptococcus in human blood samples at Public Health England – a year where I learnt so much about a career in research.

After graduating, I moved to Southampton to start my PhD which is looking at embryonic stem cell metabolism. In simple terms, I have been looking at how the amount of glucose, or sugar, my stem cells takes up influences what pluripotency genes it expresses to remain pluripotent and remain a stem cell. Ideally, we then want to use that information to improve stem cell culture conditions so we have ‘better’ stem cells to make heart cells or liver cells or skin cells out of to use in regenerative medicine applications or even test new drugs.

Embryonic stem cells Oct 4
Some embryonic stem cells cultured by Sophie, where the green color comes from a marker for pluripotency

In which stage of your PhD are you? What were the most defining moments up until now?

The programme I’m on is not your ‘traditional’ PhD path. It is a four year programme where the first year is an MRes and then the second, third and fourth years are the time you have to carry out your PhD research. But we are on a clock for submission! Exactly 4 years after we started, we have to have submitted our thesis. So for example, mine has to be done by 30th September 2018, which means I really only have just over a year left in the lab to give myself time to write my thesis as well – which is quite a scary thought now I’m thinking about it!

Weirdly, for me, my most defining moments were when experiments go wrong or not quite to plan – which happens far too often! I genuinely believe you learn so much more from the failures or the accidents you make during your time in the lab rather than the actual data you produce. Don’t get me wrong, the data you get is fascinating and a defining moment in itself but knowing the ins and outs of troubleshooting all the techniques you use and using that knowledge to make it more successful is so incredibly valuable! But if I had to choose one moment it would be one of those meetings you have with your supervisor discussing your results and what the next step is. I’ll be honest, I think I’ve been quite lucky in that most avenues I’ve explored with my research has produced some positive and interesting data. So, to me able to sit down with my supervisor in the middle of the second year of my four year PhD and have a three hour discussion on what my results could mean and what we could do next was a huge confidence boost. After I really felt like I could do this! I could be a proper scientist!

For how long do you have Soph Talks Science? What inspired you to create the blog?

I set up my blog in May 2014 just after finishing all my undergrad exams and when I was wondering whether to go ahead with a PhD or go into something different like science journalism. I thought it would be a good way to practice my writing skills and give me something scientific to focus on over the summer of 2014 while I decided what I wanted to do as I had always liked the idea of being a writer of some description. But in all honesty, I wasn’t that committed to it in the beginning, so I usually say that I started my blog in February 2016. I was in the second year of my iPhD programme and one day each year all the students that are on this program meet for what is like a mini conference between ourselves. Usually every student gives a talk, but this was the second year where the second years, meaning me, had to do the 3 Minute Thesis challenge instead of a standard presentation. Now, for anyone that doesn’t know what 3MT is – you basically have 3 minutes to tell your lay audience about your research and why it is exciting and important using only one PowerPoint slide with no animations! Now this probably doesn’t sound too difficult for most people but for someone like me this had made me anxious for months thinking about it. But it all slotted into place when I finally came up with my analogy and from then I could design a slide and a script around it fairly easily – you can check out what I said from my February 2016 blog post if you’re interested. But I managed to win the competition and actually get a couple of laughs from the audience and coupled with the positive comments I got from various audience members afterwards it gave me a huge confidence boost that I could actually describe scientific research to the lay audience, so I went home that night and wrote a blog post and haven’t really looked back.

How do you organize your PhD work schedule and get to put some blogging time on top of it?

Honestly – up until recently I haven’t been that organised with it. Obviously the lab work and writing is a priority so I would work long days sometimes to get that new set of results and then didn’t have the energy or brainpower to write a blog post when I got home. I would only write on the days where I finished earlier – so I would maybe write two posts one week and then not again for another two weeks. One of the best pieces of advice I have had about writing a blog was make sure you post regularly and the content should be something that your readers expect. So, this is why I have made one of my science New Year’s resolutions to have a better blog schedule. I’m sitting down at the start of the month and planning what posts are going to be posted on what days. At least now I can write whenever I can fit it in and the posts are ready to post on their correct days then – and still do all my lab work! It is a lot of work especially as I want to keep doing 2 posts a week, but I feel I have the organisation to keep on top of it now.

 

Work/life balance is super important for us in grad school and is often overlooked. How do you manage to relax from lab work?

I like to keep it varied when not in the lab. Some evenings I will sit and write all my replies to my penpals. Writing letters is definitely something everyone should try – you can be creative with the stationary, get to know about new places in the world without the expense of travel (although if I had the chance I would obviously much rather visit!) but it is really quite exciting getting home and seeing a letter from your distant friend on your doormat! I’ve always been a bit of a sports enthusiast. I used to play pretty much every sport under the sun but stopped when I went to university. I keep looking at options around to join sports teams but for now I just head to the gym. Most people hate it – but once I’m there, it’s great! Different classes, different equipment! It always makes me feel a lot happier after I’m done. But most evenings are spent cooking as I love to try new recipes and baking followed by a movie or a TV series. Even though I spend most of my evenings chilling that way, I still have so many TV series to catch up on.

How much did you manage to travel during your PhD so far? Any conferences included in these travels?

Nowhere near as much as I have wanted to! ☹

For me, it’s more the lack of money rather than the lack of time – so if anyone has any tips for me to increase my travel days I would greatly appreciate it. I haven’t had the opportunity to go to any conferences yet ☹ but there was a month I had off between the first and second year of my PhD so I went on a little Italian roadtrip with my boyfriend travelling to Rome, Florence and Pisa. And I have also been to Prague and Toulouse to watch Euro2016 whilst studying too as well as visiting cities around the UK whenever I can. This year I have a couple of trips penned in my diary – Barbados and Magaluf for a hen do, but hopefully I can fit one in towards the end of the year with my uni friends. Check out Soph Talks Travel!

Soph Talks Science Firenze
Sophie in Firenze

What can you recommend us to visit in Southampton?

I’ll be honest. Although I have lived in Southampton for just over two years now, I have been really poor at getting to know the city and what it has to offer but I will share what I do know.

Southampton is famous for where the Titanic set sail from so there is the SeaCity Museum to explore and learn about Southampton’s connection with the sea. It is also where a lot of cruises set sail from so you can wander down to Mayflower Park and watch the cruise ships if that’s your sort of thing. If you’re like me and a bit of a sports fan you can try and get tickets to watch the Saints or Southampton FC play some football in the English Premier League and visit their stadium St. Mary’s. There is also the Mayflower Theatre which I love to go to and watch different shows or there are often music acts on in the O2 Guildhall nearby. But a lot of the city centre can be seen on foot so I advise just wandering around for part of your visit.

As for dining out, there is a restaurant called Ceno that I really love. It is a bit pricey but is definitely worth it if you’re willing to splash the cash. Otherwise I love to go to Turtle Bay in the centre of town for food and/or cocktails – it’s a Caribbean style restaurant that serves so many different rum cocktails! But for a bit of a quieter drink, there is a beautiful pub near Southampton Common called The Bellemoor and it is where we as a lab usually go for an after work drink!

And if you are visiting for longer there are frequent train links to some more beautiful places such as Portsmouth, Brighton, Bournemouth, Winchester or even as far as Salisbury, Bath or even London! But not too far away is the New Forest National Park. I’m disappointed in myself that I have not visited here yet, but I will soon. I have heard many good things about how beautiful it is and there are loads of different walks and cycle paths you can follow.

What opportunities did the blog open to you?

I guess as I haven’t been writing my blog for too long, there haven’t been too many opportunities so far as I have been trying to boost followers and views etc. But I have met some amazing people who are interested in scicomm and introduced me to all their blogs and there have been a few people who have actually asked me for some advice as they wanted to start their own blog which is again a huge confidence boost. But others have got in contact with me about other scicomm related opportunities recently too, so hopefully I will be involved with the Pint of Science festival here in Southampton in May and I will be doing a Snapchat takeover soon – so keep an eye out for my posts about that if you want to see a behind the scenes look of lab life for me! Hopefully I will be able to write some guest blogs and articles for various other websites and magazines too.

We are both researchers in the stem cell field, so we both know about all the promise that they bring for new therapies and how many hurdles still have to be surpassed for widespread clinical adoption. What do you think will change the game and make stem cell therapies accessible?

I do find that most papers that are differentiating stem cells into heart cells, or liver cells, or retinal cells are relatively successful, but efficiency is a general problem. I may be a bit biased but I genuinely believe that maybe the lack of efficiency in converting each stem cell into a heart cell for example is because the starting material isn’t as good as it could be. Once we work out the best culture conditions for stem cells so we can produce these stem cell-derived heart cells efficiently and on a huge scale – that will be the turning point for me!

Obviously there are so many other things that need to be sorted out and improved on the technical side. But another huge game changer will be public acceptance. I’m not sure what the general public opinion of stem cell treatments is but the thought of having cells transplanted into you might not be appealing to some – so obviously proper and truthful media coverage is crucial too so the public can actually learn the truth about stem cell therapies.

Enrolling into a PhD is a very important decision that should not be taken lightly. What is your main advice to anyone who is looking to pursue a PhD, or is still deciding about it?

I would definitely say do the PhD! You learn so many other skills and get some many more opportunities than just scientific experiments for example. Yes it’s hard work and you need to be prepared for that physically, emotionally and mentally – but I think in the long term you will look back on it and be grateful you did it! I wasn’t fully aware of what a PhD really involved when I signed up – so I would always say ask as many PhD students as you can about their experiences and any advice they have for you. This was another reason I wanted to set up my blog. I wanted to be something that prospective students could find online and see what PhD life is really like, and I feel there are lots of people doing the same thing now, so no matter what field you want to do a PhD in there will probably be a PhD student like me writing a blog about their experience. But don’t just read the posts – get in contact and ask some questions!

Once you’re in the lab doing experiments, my advice to other students is a bit depressing really, but I always tell the students I’ve trained to ‘Be patient and accept the failures’. Every student I’ve trained so far, admittedly that’s only 3, wants to come into the lab and within the first 8 weeks of their project expects that these experiments we use every day will work like clockwork and they can roll out result after result after result. Obviously, as it’s science, they don’t and they get really disheartened by it. Yes, it is incredibly annoying and I do still get annoyed when things don’t go to plan – but I understand now that ‘that is just science’ and I get straight onto repeating it and waiting for the results again.

Thanks for the interview, it was a pleasure! Where can we follow your journey on social media?

Thank you very much for letting me a part of your blog.  You can follow me and my blog ‘Soph talks science’ on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Don’t forget to follow my blog too so you don’t miss a post!

Thank you so much Sophie! I wish you lots of success for your PhD and blog and that you can keep going with your new blogging schedule (something I’ve struggled to do this month haha). Me and Sophie have more upcoming collaborations, stay tuned! Now it’s your turn to follow her blog and learn more about science and stem cells in particular, and also check out her travel tips. Show your support! 😉

Cátia

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *