Katie Gelder – Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC)

Katie Gelder, a 4th-year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, completed her PIPS at the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC), based at Alderley Park in Cheshire.

Where did you go and what did you go?

I did my PIPS at the Medicines Discovery Catapult (MDC). A non-profit organisation of ~ 140 people, which aims to bridge the gap between academia and industry, generating a wealth of knowledge and contacts to further drug discovery. MDC is mainly funded by Innovate UK but also has an assortment of assays that are available at a fee for service. This enables smaller companies and groups, that don’t have the equipment or expertise, to progress in the drug discovery pipeline, reducing the time it takes to get medicines to patients. 

My project was to develop an ex vivo assay to study mouse brains and tumours to determine the effects of drugs on specific cell types, such as neuronal networks in the brain or vasculature in tumours following an in vivo project. This will allow us to determine more specifically the mechanism of action of the drug of interest. This project was a collaboration between the pre-clinical imaging team and the microscopy team, providing me with the opportunity to perform tissue fixation, immunofluorescence and several different microscopy techniques while learning how to analyse 3D datasets.

Katie Gelder (left) spent three months at the MDC performing tissue fixation, immunofluorescence and other microscopy techniques (pictured).

What made you want to do that particular placement?

This placement stood out to me for several reasons. Firstly, I was extremely interested in experiencing this middle ground between industry and academia. I know that I want to stay in science and so I wanted to gain experience in an industry that I had not yet considered. The cross-functional nature of this project between the pre-clinical imaging team and the microscopy team was also appealing, by having the chance to work with different people I had more of an opportunity to learn. I have also never done in vivo work before or worked with tissues – this project was the perfect crash course into another area of science that I have not yet had the opportunity to experience. Overall, this placement ticked a lot of boxes for me.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I learned about this placement through a job advert circulated through the Science Graduate School at the University of Sheffield. These placements were competitive and not specifically directed at White Rose BBSRC PhD Students. The project which I applied for was well defined, and after sending through my application and interviewing I was delighted to have got the offer to undertake a 4-month placement at MDC. 

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

I have learned a lot during my PIPS placement, not necessarily all scientific based. It is true that I have gained experience working with tissues including fixing and tissue clearing along with the challenges that are posed when looking at whole mouse organs and analysing large datasets. I have also gained a greater knowledge of Scientific drug discovery outside of larger pharmaceutical companies, and how rewarding it can be to work with smaller enterprises. This experience has also increased my appreciation for collaboration – working within MDC has taught me that so much can be achieved just by sending an email. At MDC I have not only gained industry experience but skills that I will continue to use throughout my career.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

Overall, I have really enjoyed working for the MDC, the environment which is cultivated there is one of innovation and collaboration, a group of lovely individuals working towards the same goal. I have gained so much experience that was outside the scope of my PhD and managed to make a lot of progress in such a short amount of time. This placement has opened my eyes to the different options available post-PhD either in an organisation like the MDC or in drug discovery in smaller companies.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

Choose a PIPS placement that allows you to gain the newest experience in a field/industry that you are interested in. It’s the perfect opportunity to try something new and learn something that you otherwise would not have the opportunity to do.

Ruth Thomas – The Oxford Trust

Ruth, undertaking her PhD at the University of Sheffield, has completed her PIPS placement at The Oxford Trust, which is a charitable organisation encouraging the pursuit of science. She worked within their Education and Outreach branch known as Science Oxford.

The featured image is of the Oxford Trust logo

What did you do?

A large part of Science Oxford is their Science Oxford Centre, a hands on indoor-outdoor outreach centre full of activities and woodland to explore. They encourage the children (and adults!) that visit to try out experiments with very little instruction, aiming to make them think ‘like a scientist’.

I had several projects during my time here including the development of a ‘Live Lab’. This additional activity ran as a pop-up event alongside the centre’s Family Days and School visits. My PhD is in genetics, and so I based my Live Lab on the instructions for life (DNA) and how we can extract DNA from strawberries using things you can find in your kitchen! Although unsure at first, the look of amazement on the faces of the children when they realised what they had managed to do was fantastic!

Ruth leading a Live Lab activity where they extracted DNA from strawberries

What made you want to do that particular placement?

During my PhD I had been involved in outreach events with primary schools (Bateson Centre Aquarium), secondary schools (STEM for girls, The Brilliant Club) and also teaching undergraduate students in the lab. In all cases, the students were enthusiastic about experiencing science outside their normal learning environment. I enjoyed running the outreach activities but had little idea of the organisation and planning that went into such events. Thinking that this was potentially an area I would like to work in post-PhD, I searched for an opportunity that would allow me to continue delivering science outside a classroom but also experience the ‘behind-the-scenes’ running of such a company.

How did you go about finding and planning your PIPS?

I asked for advice from friends, family and my supervisor, to see if they had worked with or had any memorable experiences with science outreach events/companies. I wanted to take the opportunity to work in a different part of the country and, as I grew up near Oxford it seemed a logical place to start. It also had the added bonus of making accommodation easy. A little research into outreach companies in Oxfordshire led me to Science Oxford. They had never taken a PIPS student before so I sent my CV along with an accompanying cover letter to a contact address I found on their website. We met online so I could explain further about the benefits of PIPS to themselves as a host company and they agreed to take me on!

What have you gained from doing your PIPS?

Although I had some experience of outreach during my PhD, they tended to be events that were organised ahead of time, and I was just a volunteer. Working with Science Oxford has given me an understanding of the work that goes into the design and delivery of successful outreach events, workshops and family days. They have enhanced my communication skills, teaching me that encouraging people to think and talk about questions is far more effective than trying to get them to the ‘right’ answer. I have taken my analysis of experiments and turned it towards evaluating workshops, measuring the impact and critically assessing the successes and failures.

How would you sum up your PIPS experience?

Inspiring, rewarding and confidence building!

The opportunity to pursue an interest and gain insight into a job role that I am potentially interested in holding in the future was invaluable. It also highlighted the fact that I had developed skills during my PhD that didn’t require a lab coat, and that these are sought after by employers.

What advice would you give to other PGRs about PIPS?

Find an area you are currently interested in and go with it, this does not have to define your career path for the rest of your life! Don’t be afraid to send out your CV to several companies at once, it is likely that some won’t reply and others will say no but you will get there in the end! Be sure to include a detailed description of what a PIPS placement is, particularly if they have never hosted a student before, it can be a confusing concept!

Due to Covid, I ended up doing my PIPS placement 10 months before I was due to finish. Although I enjoyed every second, I would definitely recommend aiming to do it in your second or third year!

Useful links to find out more

Science Oxford wrote a blog about having Ruth as a placement student: Catapulting careers in STEM – meet our placement student (scienceoxford.com)

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