Robert Brench – ADAS

Robert is a 3rd-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield who completed his PIPS placement at ADAS, the UK’s largest independent provider of agricultural and environmental consultancy, policy advice and research and development. He was able to connect to ADAS with the help of LinkedIn, which has proven to be a vital networking tool. The WRDTP has its own LinkedIn group and page for our students to join and follow which we hope will enable more connections such as Robert’s in the future.

The featured image is of the logo for ADAS.

What did you do?

I worked with crop physiology and agronomy consultants at ADAS.

My first task was to review existing methods of analysing data gathered on farms and similar data sets and examine different methods to analyse the data collected over the last 7 years. I delivered the results of this as a presentation to the crop physiology group within ADAS.

The next part of my placement involved working with various consultants with trial carried out with various industrial partners using new products and techniques. This largely involved data preparation and analysis.

What made you want to do that particular placement?

I have long had an interest in the agricultural sector understanding how it works, the improvements that can be made and the changes necessary to move towards a more sustainable future. As a group who work closely with UK growers and the larger companies that support these growers, ADAS was centrally placed to provide insight into these interests.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I reached out to a previous researcher at the university of Sheffield via LinkedIn and they helped me to arrange a placement.

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

I have gained a larger appreciation of agricultural consulting. The skills that are required and the expertise and knowledge necessary. I have a greater appreciation for a range of statistical tools required in this field, some of which are transferable to my PhD work.

Secondly, the requirement to work to strict deadlines with multiple projects running in tandem has allowed the development of my organisation and time keeping skills. As well as a greater appreciation of my own abilities keeping to deadlines and the importance of reasonable expectations, particularly workload.

Finally, I have developed a network of contacts within an industry I am interested in working in after my PhD.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

Overall, my PIPS placement was a very positive experience, allowing me to work in an engaging environment and providing me with first-hand experience in an industry that greatly interests me. Not only will the skills I have been able to develop, but the contacts I have made, will undoubtedly provide new potential opportunities after finishing my PhD.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

I would strongly suggest investing time in researching potential roles and industries that might interest you. Linked in is a very powerful tool for reaching out to companies, with will mostly be more than happy to receive enthusiastic and skilled individuals such as those completing a PhD. Even if a role is not advertised, just contacting potential companies is a great way to potentially craft a more bespoke placement that suits what you are trying to get out of the experience.

Jake Leese – Oxitec

Jake is a PhD student at the University of Leeds who completed his PIPS placement at at Oxitec’s UK facility in Milton Park, Oxfordshire. Oxitec are a company that have been leading the way in the use of genetically modified insects as a tool for targeted pest control in areas of global health and agriculture. The most advanced of their projects is with the mosquito Aedes aegypti that transmits several viral diseases including Dengue, Zika and yellow fever. Oxitec’s FriendlyTM Aedes aegypti have been through field trials in Brazil, Panama, Cayman Islands and Florida, and are even now commercially available direct to consumers in Brazil.

The featured image is of the Molecular Building at Oxitec.

What did you do?

My placement was split into three rotations that gave me a broad overview of the work that is required to develop and maintain Oxitec’s transgenic insects. The first of these rotations was within the molecular lab, where transgene constructs are designed and transgenic individuals are genotyped to assess the viability and safety of candidate strains. The molecular team also support field trials by genotyping trap samples to monitor the spread of the transgene in wild populations. My work primarily involved DNA extractions and a variety of PCR reactions to support these tasks across several projects.

My second month was spent with the mass rearing team whose job it is to scale up insect production for future field release. I was brought into the team during a proof of concept experiment to produce 20,000 soy bean looper adults a week. This is a species of moth whose larval stage represents a serious agricultural pest in the Americas. Much of the day to day work revolved around preparing the diet and plastic housing for the larvae, and harvesting the pupae for adult cages before their eclosion. We also had to contend with consistent drawbacks from mould and viral outbreaks. We ran experiments alongside to try and establish the most efficient conditions for producing the best insect yield.

Mosquito Larva Screening

My final month was with the mosquito strain development team. Here I was performing micro-injections on Anopholes mosquito eggs, attempting to generate transgenic lines. I supported the team in maintaining and penetrance testing new lines, as well as screening the offspring larvae of injected mosquitos for first generation transgenics. The transgene includes a DsRed fluorescent marker so that the transgenic insects can easily be distinguished from their wild type counterparts.

Transgenic Larva

What made you want to do that particular placement?

I wanted to get a taste for R&D work within an industry setting and Oxitec is one of the few companies I came across that could offer this whilst combining two areas of biology that I am particularly interested in, insect biology and genetics.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

For a while I was scanning through the directory of biotech companies listed in biopharmguy.com. I had reached out to several companies with no luck and then I happened upon a BBC article about Oxitec’s Aedes aegypti field trial in Florida and was immediately drawn to the company’s science and objectives.

After I saw this, I found out that an old post-doc from a partner lab at Leeds was now working there. I reached out to her and she helped bring it all together and became my key host contact throughout. This was very fortunate and reinforced the importance of having good connections.

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

My time at Oxitec gave me a great insight into an industry R&D setting. Having worked in three different areas of the company and across several different projects at differing stages of development, I gained a clear overview of how the company operates. I was also lucky enough to attend two presentations by the CEO of the company whilst I was there which gave me a great perspective of how the technology was being field tested and rolled out abroad.

As well as an appreciation for the inner workings of the company, I developed a wide range of new research skills. My experience moving between labs also gave me a deeper appreciation for the subtle differences that team dynamics and communication can make in research.

Mosquito Blood Plates

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

My time working at Oxitec showed me first-hand how my skills can be applied directly to tackling real world problems. The rotations gave me a good variety of experience across several different scientific disciplines and meant I was consistently being challenged over the course of the internship. The PIPS has provided me with a refreshing break from the PhD and I’m now going back to my own project with a new perspective and enthusiasm.

What advice would you give other PGRs about PIPS?

When you are looking, think about where you may have contacts already as this will help you get your foot in the door. That being said, there’s no harm in contacting places regardless of whether you know anyone there. Perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid to keep asking questions throughout your internship… The better understanding you have of what you are doing, the more you will get out of the experience.

Defra: Environment & Public Health Secondment Opportunities

Are you interested in opportunities in the area of Environment and Public Health? If so, Defra are offering three different internship roles that you should consider applying for!

Please note that these each have different experience requirements (some postgrad qualifications, some postdoc, some postdoc preferred but PGRs considered).

The closing date for applications is the 1st of July.

To apply for any of these opportunities please fill in the form that can be found here.

Please direct any queries to: external.advice@defra.gov.uk

Role 1:  Environment- Health Partnerships

Defra’s involvement in the Environmental Monitoring for Health Protection (EMHP) programme has demonstrated benefits from close collaboration with health colleagues across government for the purpose of delivering innovative and large-scale environmental monitoring. We are keen to realise some of the wider benefits to the department from this environment-health partnership. An important step is to ensure there is a central view of existing connections and engagements between Defra Group and DHSC and its agencies. With this in mind, the Environment & Public Health team in the Chief Scientific Advisor’s Office wish to map Defra’s engagement with health to understanding existing activity and relationships and identify opportunities for better coordination and join up across the environment and health interface in government.

This is an exciting opportunity to gain a broad understanding of Defra’s health-related scientific and policy work and to establish a strong network across Defra Group, DHSC, UKHSA and other government organisations.

Specialism: A post doctorate qualification (or equivalent experience) or experienced current PhD student. Understanding of the environment-public health interface would be beneficial, experience with systems thinking and analysis methods would be useful.

Location: Any- some UK travel may be required, especially to Weymouth, Exeter and London.

Time commitment: 3-6 months

Contact for more information: Josh Bunce josh.bunce@defra.gov.uk

Role 2: Future Wastewater Monitoring Capability Development

The CSAO’s Environment & Public Health team lead on the realisation of benefits to Defra from the partnered delivery of wastewater monitoring as part of the national Covid-19 response. A component of this work involves ensuring policy and central teams remain informed of post-Covid-19 developments and that our activity in CSAO aligns with policy and strategic priorities, particularly as the Public Inquiry commences. Practically, this may involve providing rapid briefings and query responses but also supporting on cross-government coordination and communications related to knowledge sharing and future wastewater monitoring capability development.

This is a unique opportunity to contribute to realising a lasting legacy from investment made during the last two years which has yielded substantial scientific development and collaboration across government.  You will gain a firm understanding of central policy work in Defra and a government perspective on the use of science in decision-making, as well as having the opportunity to establish a large network across government.

Specialism: A post doctorate qualification (or equivalent experience). An experienced current PhD student would be considered. Understanding of environmental or public health policy would be useful. 

Location: London (other locations can be considered)

Time commitment: minimum three months, preferred six months

Contact for more information: Josh Bunce josh.bunce@defra.gov.uk

Role 3 New Environmental Monitoring Capability Within Defra

Environment and Public Health is a new area of interest for Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor’s Office (CSAO). Through the experience of delivering wastewater monitoring as part of the national Covid-19 response through the Environmental Monitoring for Health protection (EMHP) programme, we have developed new capabilities across Defra in environmental molecular monitoring, (including large scale qPCR analysis, genomic sequencing, bioinformatics and statistics) and have strengthened our relationship with health colleagues in government. We are now seeking to realise wider benefits from these developments ensuring there is lasting legacy from the investment made during Covid-19.


This placement will be to support the design and, potentially, build phase of a new environmental monitoring capability within Defra Group that builds on the expertise developed through the delivery of the EMHP programme.


The main activities for the placement will be to:
Provide expert advice to ensure that the design of the capability is scientifically robust
Take a lead on elements of the design process
Provide advice and progress updates to Defra’s Chief Scientific Advisor and other senior stakeholders
Engage with stakeholders from across Defra group and other Government departments and agencies, including UKHSA.

This is an exciting role in a newly emerging and fast-paced area that will provide opportunities to engage directly with senior stakeholders, to work on a high-profile government science project and to directly influence the direction of Defra’s work in environmental monitoring for public health purposes.

Specialism: A postgraduate qualification (or equivalent experience) in one of the follows areas: public health, epidemiology, environmental molecular-microbiology, environmental science.

Location: Any – although occasional travel may be required to London, Weymouth and Exeter

Time Commitment: Minimum of 3-4 months, but could extend to March 23

Contact for more information: Robin Cutler robin.cutler@defra.gov.uk

Egle Beigaite – CasZyme

Egle Beigaite is a 4th year PhD student at the University of York who completed her PIPS placement at CasZyme, a biotech company based in Vilnius, Lithuania. CasZyme are an organisation whose research focuses on revolutionising the field of CRISPR-based Molecular Tools.

The featured image is of Egle with her PIPS colleagues.

What did you do?

My project focused on the characterisation of Cas proteins which could be used in genome editing. The techniques that I was exposed to included: colony PCR, protein purification using AKTA system (Ni and Heparin columns for affinity purification), bacterial cell transformation, cloning, RNA, DNA and plasmid purification using minipreps and midi preps. One of the main aims of my project was to determine the optimal growth and expression conditions for bacterial cells, which were then used to purify Cas proteins. I was also introduced to RNA synthesis (in vitro transcription), Cas protein and gRNA complex assembly as well as Cas activity assays.

What made you want to do that particular placement?

While relatively recent, CRISPR genome editing technology is becoming the main workhorse for genome editing in both academia and industry. Dr Gasiunas, who established the company, has previously worked in Prof. Siksnys’s lab and published several key papers in CRISPR research (Gasiunas et al 2012; Karvelis et al 2015; Gasiunas et al 2020). Prof. Siksnys, together with Prof Charpentier and Prof Doudna have received a prestigious Kavli prize for his independent development of CRISPR. I believed that it was the best accessible location for me to deepen my understanding in CRISPR technology and learn new protein characterisation techniques. In addition, this is a start-up company with only 10 employees. I thought that, by starting in such a small company, it would be easier for me to adapt and would also allow me to learn more things.

Egle working at CasZyme

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

Initially, I picked two countries I believed I could easily find an internship: the Netherlands and Lithuania (I am originally Lithuanian and started search way before COVID began), and researched biotech companies in both countries. After the interviews, I received two offers from Centre for Human Drug Research (CHDR, Netherlands) and CasZyme (Lithuania). Eventually, I chose to go to work for CasZyme as I really wanted to broaden my understanding of CRISPR technology.

Regarding CHDR, my project there would have focused on neurological conditions, which is what my PhD project is about, so I found it less interesting (although it seemed like an amazing place to learn new things).

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

I have become more confident with working with large number of samples and have also learnt how to prioritise the experiments and to perform them as efficiently as possible. In addition, I have learnt how to use AKTA protein purification system and performing CRISPR complex assembly and Cas protein activity assays (which are performed in RNAase-free box).

I also gained invaluable experience in working as part of a small biotech company and learnt first-hand the importance of collaboration and teamwork. To ensure that projects were finished according to the deadlines, experiments were efficiently redesigned and redistributed to several staff members. I learned that great communication and flexibility with your team members is extremely important, as these people also teach you new techniques and can also help you to troubleshoot.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

Of course, pandemic has made it a bit more difficult to travel, but I am glad I did my PIPS in CasZyme as it was great experience. I have learnt a lot of new techniques and developed friendly relationship with my colleagues. My primary laboratory manager planned the project in such a way that allowed me to learn as much as possible during my placement and made the internship comfortable during these difficult post-pandemic times. I really enjoyed being part of research team and part of CasZyme community.  Most of the staff were of my age, some also doing industrial PhDs. It was great to share the experience and support each other.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

Don’t be afraid to explore options outside your project (and comfort zone)! PIPS are aimed to help you learn new things, and add extra skills on your CV. I would personally recommend testing yourself in industry to see if you could work in a team with other people. The experience is also beneficial to see how industrial projects are managed and how things are generally organised (it might be quite different from your lab). I would recommend starting in a relatively small industrial company, as usually these biotechs are highly collaborative with academia and thus the working environment is slightly closer to the PhD in academia. Also, it means that you will be able to meet most of the staff during the placement and learn from them as much as possible.

Amy Stonadge (nee Brown) – LAMP Labs

Amy Stonadge (nee Brown) is a PhD student at the University of York who took part in a 3-month placement in the new COVID-19 LAMP Labs at the University of York. The LAMP Labs are a new collaboration between the University, Capita and the NHS and are working to establish a COVID-19 testing laboratory for frontline NHS staff. Read on to find out more about Amy’s PIPS experience!

Read moreAmy Stonadge (nee Brown) – LAMP Labs