Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Want a real life ‘Lessons in Chemistry’? Then this is the book for you!

I’m going to be honest; I completely judged this book by its cover. A Rosalind Franklin biography written in 2002 with a classy sepia photograph on the cover did not seem like an exciting read to me. I began reading expecting a dry but informative account of Franklin’s scientific career that would do me good but would probably feel like a bit of a chore. Well, the famous idiom was right yet again, because from the first chapter of this book I was hooked. What this book actually is, is an incredibly moving and motivating account of an exceptional scientist’s battle to do her ground-breaking research in the face of sexism, antisemitism and the aftermath of WWII.

Read moreRosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox

Aidan Johnson

Aiden spent 3 months at Domainex, a contract research company in the Cambridge area. This is a growing company of around 100 people across both chemistry and biology sites, largely conducting early-stage drug discovery for their clients. 

What did you do?

I was involved in an internal research project, rather than a client funded project. This is something the company has limited resources to do usually, with income largely coming from client projects. As the primary day-to-day synthetic chemist on the project, I synthesised >20 molecules for the library the company was building. This involved synthesis, purification, and characterisation of these products, as well as reporting results, issues, and resolutions to the team fortnightly. 

In addition to this, I both saw and was involved in procedures I had not experienced before, such as direct-to-biology assays and physicochemical assays. These were interesting both to broaden my horizons and see the work (other than just synthesis) that goes into a medicinal chemistry project.

I also made use of industry-standard computational software for property prediction and compared this to experimental data I generated myself.

What made you want to do that particular placement?

I am a chemist at heart, and knowing I wanted to stay in science, I thought it would be valuable experience to spend some time in industry – previously I had only worked in academic labs. I also wanted to see the more applied side of the sometimes quite basic research I am involved in.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I sent out a lot of cold emails to both contract research and small pharma companies, the vast majority of which were ignored. At a conference I approached Phillip, who was manning the Domainex stand, and asked if they they had previously taken a PIPS student, or would be willing to. Although they hadn’t had a PIPS student specifically before, they do regularly host students e.g. undergraduate industrial placement students.

It was then fairly straightforward to arrange a timing that suited us both and for me to find accommodation in Cambridge.

Aidan with the football team he joined in Cambridge.
Aidan with the football team he joined in Cambridge.

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

I have gained insight into how (a part) of the chemistry industry operates – both the similarities and differences to academia. This has helped me focus ideas about my own career path, as well as contextualising my PhD work.

I have made friends, both within and outside of work, started playing football, and expanded my network of contacts.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

An enjoyable 3-month change of scene from the PhD.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

People running stalls at conferences are usually very happy to talk to someone!

If you are considering working in industry, a PIPS is a good way to test the waters and get your foot in the door.

Don’t be afraid to ask about money, as awkward as it feels.

Academy of Medical Sciences Grants and Programmes internship scheme – deadline 5th February 2024

The Academy of Medical Sciences Grants and Programmes internship scheme is now open for applications for internships beginning from March 2024.

More details can be found on the website and the application form can be found here

Applications are welcomed for 3 month internships between March 2024 and January 2025. The scheme is open to BBSRC-funded PhD students through the PIPS scheme.

Read moreAcademy of Medical Sciences Grants and Programmes internship scheme – deadline 5th February 2024

Science Book Spotlight

‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rachel Skloot

If you’ve studied biosciences, chances are you’ve heard of HeLa cells. They were the first human cells to be successfully cultured in vitro and the Hela cell line has been instrumental in countless ground-breaking discoveries from the development of the polio vaccine to genome mapping. The benefits of an immortal human cell line to science are huge, but what are the costs?

Read moreScience Book Spotlight

Kathryn Billane – National Trust

Where did you go and what did you do?

I worked for the National Trust as an Assistant Ranger in the High Peak. The role was very practical, and combined manual labour in a countryside context, practical conservation and relationship management with all the people who live, work and visit the land.

The work was incredibly varied and responsive. Many days were devoted to maintenance of borders either through fencing or drystone walling. Borders must be stock proof to keep farmer’s livestock in for their own safety and the safety of vehicles and trains. They also become damaged frequently by time, weather, falling trees, car accidents and indeed cows deciding to plough through them. There were conflicting interests at times in these cases, for example farmers being unhappy with a change in the gates along bridleways that conflicted with the Trust’s inclusivity policies to install more accessible gates. Another such instance occurred when a fence replacement was needed on a farm, but badgers had created a set along the fence line and badger protection states that the ground cannot be disturbed within 10 meters of a badger set. However, the border needs to be stock proof and cannot be moved further into the field as this would create loss of income for the farmer. Yet we needed to be responsible towards the badgers, so alternative fencing solutions had to be found.

A drystone wall and a fence like the ones Kathryn was maintaining

Much of the work involved conservation and preservation of the land. Kinder Scout has a massive peatland conservation project ongoing. I was able to see the progression of sites from 20 years back that had blocked water gullies and a variety of vegetation planted including sphagnum moss and cotton grass. This created good conditions for water retention, peat conservation and peat growth. Other conservation was aimed at reducing erosion from tourism, particularly important around Mam Tor. Not only is this an incredibly popular site, to the point that ‘desire lines’ that veer off the main paths cause scars on the landscape, but due to the geology the whole hillside is slipping. This is also what is currently happening to snake pass. My third example is caused by a combination of climate change and irresponsible tourism. We had severe drought most of the summer and record temperatures in July and August which meant the fire risk was extreme. Some of my time was spent on fire patrol, watching the land for signs of smoke so that any fire could be responded to quickly, responding to reports of BBQs which were banned during this time, and encouraging people to stay away from the moors in extreme heat. There were 3 fires this summer all caused by disposable BBQs. While none were technically on National Trust land, it is still devastating.

What made you want to do that particular placement?

Prior to this placement I spent a lot of time in the peak district. My main motivations were that I wanted to give back and help maintain the land and I wanted skills and contacts in a more practical field, to contrast the laboratory and analytical skills that I’ll gain from my PhD.

It’s important to keep doors open for alternative career paths, and I wanted to see whether my project management skills could fit into an organisation such as this.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

Charitable organisations such as the National Trust rely heavily on volunteer work. I went through the volunteering channels and asked to be put in contact with a group based in the peak district. From there I organised the placement with the area Ranger for the high peak directly.

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

I’ve gained many practical conservation and countryside skills I would never have otherwise had access to – for instance dry stone walling is a dying trade. I also learned a great deal that could be helpful as a scientist if I ever undertake field work in challenging environments – such as building shelters and storage with second hand or minimal materials and driving a vehicle off road. I learned a lot about managing groups of people who represent different interests and the challenges and conflicts this can produce. Resolving these issues involved problem solving, compromise and presenting information differently, appropriate to the audience that was receiving it.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

During my experience I found myself on the back foot for a while at the beginning as I came up the learning curve, but then grew to be an incredibly enjoyable job as you could see the difference your efforts made in the land. It was a joy to work outdoors for 3 months and I was part of an incredibly lovely team of people.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

Choose something completely different to what you do as a researcher. It’ll open your eyes to how adaptable you can be and give you confidence in your transferable skills.

Carmen Apostol – LabLogic

For her PIPS, Carmen worked at a Sheffield-based international company called LabLogic who specialise in manufacturing and servicing instruments for nuclear radiation detection for medical, pharmaceutical and research applications.

The featured image is of the LabLogic logo.

What did you do?

My tasks were varied and I worked closely with the R&D team to test new prototypes for different nuclear radiation detectors. For instance, I tested several prototypes for detector probes that are used during breast cancer surgery to locate sentinel lymph nodes after the patients have been injected with Technetium-99. I also tested a new type of detector for an instrument used in pharmaceutical and research fields to analyse the purity of compounds labelled with radioactive isotopes. At times, I helped the production team qualify instruments before they were shipped off to customers around the world. For each of the projects that I was involved in, I wrote reports of my analyses and attended meetings where my data were discussed and used to inform the next steps in instrument design.

What made you want to do that particular placement?

Initially when I started searching for PIPS hosts, I was looking for local companies with ties to the medical or research fields. I saw on LabLogic’s website that they specialise in nuclear radiation detectors and that seemed very appealing to me as a large part of my PhD has involved work with radioisotopes. I also noticed on their website a “customer review” video featuring my secondary supervisor, Dr Dan Bose. Dan told me he had a good experience with LabLogic in the past and encouraged me to contact them.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I emailed the contact address on LabLogic’s website and the head of R&D, Tom, who eventually became my supervisor, got back to me and arranged an in-person meeting to visit the headquarters. While there, I was shown around all the instruments they manufacture and introduced to the team and afterward we discussed their ongoing projects and how I could contribute during a 3-month placement.

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

The PIPS experience helped me get a better appreciation of what working in industry could be like and I feel more encouraged to pursue a non-academic career now. I have gained more confidence in my transferable skills, which I successfully applied during the placement when setting up experiments, analysing results or producing figures and reports to share my findings. This experience also provided me with a better understanding of the many steps necessary in taking a product from concept to market, especially in such a highly regulated environment such as nuclear medicine and pharmacology.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

I had a very good time during my PIPS, thanks in particular to the very friendly and welcoming team who made me feel at ease early on. It was interesting and refreshing to learn about a different field to my own and focus on other challenges than the ones I was used to encountering in the lab and I am grateful for the opportunity to do a PIPS.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

Before you contact a company for the PIPS, ask others who have been involved with that company about their experience. Working with a friendly team is in my opinion just as important as the project, because it defines how welcomed you feel at the company and affects your overall experience a lot. 

Don’t be put off by the thought of taking 3 months away from your project, it will be useful to come back to the lab with fresh eyes and see your experiments in a new light.

Luke Fountain – Grobotic Systems

Luke undertook his PIPS placement with Grobotic Systems, a small Sheffield-based start-up that builds bespoke next-generation plant growth cabinets for research, with input from Jacob Torres, the founder of the Space Chile Grow a Pepper Plant Challenge.

The featured image is of the Grobiotic Systems’ logo.

What did you do?

My placement was partly remote, partly run at Grobotic’s workshop and partly at the University of Sheffield. I carried out the placement part-time over the course of 12 months. 

During my placement we created the ‘SpaCEA project’ (Space Controlled Environment Agriculture), and I designed and constructed a series of plant growth cabinets that replicate NASA’s advanced Plant Habitat (APH), for use both in ground-based space plant research and as tools for outreach, illustrating the similarities between plant growth technology used in space and that being developed on Earth to improve food security. 

Images showing cabinet assembly (above) and testing (below)

I had the opportunity to apply for a pump-priming grant from The University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food which I was successfully awarded and was awarded additional funding by the institute to produce a podcast and short animated film highlighting the similarities between crop growth in space and on Earth.

Luke at the Pop-Up University outreach event September 2021

I also had the opportunity to work closely with the University of Sheffield’s public engagement team and have exhibited the cabinets and film at their Pop-Up University event in Sheffield city centre, and most recently at the Institute’s ‘Feeding the world without costing the Earth’ launch event at The Royal Society in London. 

Polyurethane foam testing

The cabinets are now being used to test the performance of a polyurethane foam developed in Sheffield as a growth substrate compared to NASA’s current growth substrate, and I was intimately involved with the design and setup of this experiment, which will also test the potential of the cabinets for this type of research.

We have also created an outreach challenge called the Space Foam Crop Growth Challenge as a spin-off of the PIPS and this experiment, which we hope will run over the next year.

What made you want to do that particular placement?

I have long been interested in plant growth in space and would like to work in the field after completing my PhD. Because it is a relatively small field, I wanted to use my PIPS as an opportunity to gain experience in the area. I am an aspiring astronaut and recently applied for the latest ESA call for astronauts, and I hoped that this placement would enhance my application and any future applications that I make.

Prior to securing this placement, I had originally been in contact with NASA about carrying out a placement at Kennedy Space Center, but unfortunately COVID made this impossible and I was forced to look for alternatives.

Mission patches: SpaCEA (left) and Space Foam Crop Growth Challenge (right)

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

The placement came about after discussions with Jacob online through the Space Chile Challenge and through connecting with Alexis at Grobotic Systems via colleagues in my PhD lab. Between us we came up with a placement that would be spread across remote working and using the facilities available in Sheffield, while also exposing me to a different work environment at Grobotic Systems where possible. We agreed a flexible, part-time placement would be most suitable in case COVID changed plans and to best fit in with my PhD work, where I was about to run a large-scale experiment that was time sensitive.

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

I thoroughly enjoyed my PIPS and it gave me the opportunity to communicate and network with scientists and engineers working in space plant biology, which is key to my career aspirations. I had the opportunity to learn about and actively engage in space plant biology, in addition to learning a host of new and useful skills including how to design hardware, how to program Raspberry Pi-based systems, and how to wire up electronic components. 

I was able to write a small grant application and liaise with the Institute for Sustainable Food and the public engagement team to create the necessary material and organise the setup of our exhibitions for various events, which requires a lot more work than I had expected! 

I was able to experience first-hand the challenges and rewards of working at a small start-up and having numerous opportunities to engage both the public and other researchers in the work that we were doing gave me new ideas to apply to increasing visibility of my PhD work.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

My PIPS was an unforgettable experience. To contribute even in a small way to a field I am very passionate about was a dream come true, and I had the chance to work with many different people and in many different areas that I wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to as part of my PhD.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

Think outside the box. My PIPS was unconventional in almost every sense – adapting a PIPS during COVID was not easy but eventually allowed me to do a fantastic placement. Doing the placement part time not only helped me better accommodate the PIPS around my PhD, but also gave me more opportunities during my placement in the long run.

If there is a particular field/type of placement you would like to do, the best thing to do is find and contact those in the field/organisation – while some placements are advertised, many have not taken on PIPS placements before, but you will be surprised how many are willing to take you on.

Freddy Weaver – Wild Trout Trust

A photograph of Freddy Weaver working on a large tree laid across a river

For his PIPS, Freddy worked for the Wild Trout Trust: a conservation charity working across the UK and Ireland.

The featured image is of Freddy working for WTT.

What did you do?

During my PIPS I worked for the Wild Trout Trust which involved travelling to numerous sites across North Yorkshire and West Yorkshire to becks and rivers in: Aire, Swale, Nidd, Wharfe, Calder and Ribble catchments. The placement involved both fieldwork and office work. The fieldwork element was incredibly varied and was fantastic. Fieldwork comprised of two main elements habitat monitoring or habitat improvement works. 

Habitat monitoring work involved electrofishing on becks, in this work an electric current was passed through the water to temporarily stun the fish. Fish were then collected with species diversity, population and population age makeup measured. This would give an insight into condition of watercourse and potential issues such as relating to fish spawning for example. Other issues such as over grazing and sediment ingress or presence of weirs that are blockers to fish passage were noted during electrofishing or walkovers of new stretches and reported on. 

Habitat improvement works involved a variety of both in and out of stream approaches with an overarching goal of increasing biodiversity, fish population size and spawning habitat. Examples of such work were installation of flow defectors, removal or notching of weirs, selective felling and laying of trees into watercourses and removal of culverts.

Office work involved writing reports detailing habitat on becks, blog posts for interaction with wider community and attending meetings with a wide variety of partners to discuss issues, challenges and funding for future and past projects. 

Check out Freddy’s blog posts here:

What made you want to do that particular placement?

I am a keen fisherman and have a passion for the outdoors particularly relating to the aquatic environments. The Wild Trout Trust’s approach of using native brown trout as a keystone species for evaluating overall habitat health results in large benefit across a wide variety of urban and rural habitats both in the water and out. So, the opportunity to give my help and time to this wonderful goal was a real appeal. Furthermore, it was the opportunity to try something completely different from my day-to-day lab work and learn so much about an environment I cherish and have enjoyed since childhood. Finally a summer outdoors in the wonderful Yorkshire countryside I felt would be a lovely break and recharge from my academic studies.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I decided that working with environmental charities that specialise in the aquatic environment was my choice for PIPS. I then proceeded to email local and national charities that do this work with my CV, an explanation of who I was, what PIPS involved, and why I wanted to apply to them. Unfortunately, a number failed to respond or communication broke down on their end. However, on contacting the WTT I had a response and was put in touch with Yorkshire Research & Conservation officer Professor Jonathan Grey and after a phone call interview he decided to go ahead with me and the PIPs programme.

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

It has given an insight into not only the challenges facing our waterways, but a more holistic understanding of the working environment that is our countryside. Furthermore, it has given me an introduction to the wider world of ecology and habitat improvement. In addition, it has improved my communication skills in both written and oral form. In particular communication of ideas to both a technical and non-technical audience such as outreach at country shows.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

A summer that I will treasure for a long time. That succinctly encapsulates my feelings toward the last three months working with the Trust. A brilliant time that taught me so much about the natural world and how we can work to rectify the damage that we have done to it. Just fantastic.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

It is my belief that PIPS is a fantastic opportunity to broaden horizons to what work is available beyond your own academic speciality. In particular if you have a passion, try to find a PIPS that in some way works in that field and follow your heart rather than doing the expected norm within your area. 

Make it as enjoyable as you can and cherish this opportunity to try something new. A PhD is hard so why not use the 3-months to discover something new and have fun!