A Day in the Life: Biomedical PHD

As a second year PhD student I am now fully submerged in my project. I have got to grips with the lab equipment, passed the dreaded first year oral exam, and even have some results which I can discuss at conferences.  

In generalities, the project itself focuses on the mechanisms of action of clinically relevant drugs in heart cells. I use fluorescent dyes to quantify tiny releases of calcium within cells to infer the opening actions of intracellular channel proteins. It is a project which would be considered “basic science”. That is not to mean it is simple, but that the experiments performed attain to the fundamental principles and pathways within single cells. Research such as this is the pivotal first step needed to gain a fuller understanding of individual cellular processes, to model pharmaceuticals in whole systems and to potentially lead to clinically relevant treatments of life threatening cardiac disorders.

These are grand goals, but it is certainly useful to keep the bigger picture in mind when considering the everyday tasks of a second year PhD student.

An average week is split into lab and office days, with office days consisting primarily of data analysis. Be under no illusions, data analysis is repetitive. Image files larger than my head need to be condensed down into tables of numbers and systematically dealt with. I have learnt very quickly that Excel spreadsheets truly can have an infinite number of cells. However desk time is greatly encouraged by the fact that many colleagues of mine are enthusiastic and talented bakers. Most importantly they like to share their creations. What better way to celebrate Wednesday than with slices of freshly baked apple cake and 1.2 GB of data to turn through the mill?

Of course, it isn’t all data analysis. Some mornings are dedicated to reading papers and trying to stay on top of the academic game. I have also heeded the advice of colleagues and started writing parts of my thesis now. Hopefully ‘Future Me’ will be thankful for this when the true write up begins.

Office days are busy, but lab days are more so. These normally begin early, as making fresh solutions, preparing the cells and washing up often takes longer than anticipated. Before I know it, it is 11.00 am and I have 30 minutes to microwave and eat last night’s leftovers before my timer beeps and I am called back to the lab. Like the mother of an incredibly needy child, I have learnt to work my lab life around the demands of my cells. This means weird lunch times and timed toilet breaks. Yet it is a sacrifice I am willing to make, as the cells have a short shelf life and it is important to squeeze as much data out of them as possible.

After a morning of setting up experiments, the afternoons are dedicated to actually performing them. All of the reagents I use are to some degree light sensitive, so for my project it is necessary to sit behind thick black curtains to peer down the microscope. This does have its upsides, if only to fully appreciate the beauty of natural light when I resurface, blinking, back into the real world.

Despite long and busy days I have never quite emptied my “To-Do” list. Considering also that I have a three year funding deadline, it can be tempting to keep working into the night. However, the reality is everybody needs a break. For some this means pints at the Fav, for others a high powered spin class. Whilst I enjoy both of these activities (yes, even spinning!) my current past-time of choice is my Thursday evening pottery class.

Yes, I am middle aged before my time, and my love of pottery only proves this further. Unfortunately however, I am no artist. My creations usually resemble something on the spectrum between useless sweetie bowl and abstract sea creature, with varying degrees of beauty and functionality. Yet it is not the wobbly finished product that gives these classes their worth.  

Pottery is a hobby so far removed from my everyday work that I can draw no associations with my PhD whatsoever. It is a place to be messy, unorganised and completely absorbed in creativity. Some would argue that to complete your PhD you must immerse yourself completely in your project and think of nothing else: I disagree. Whether or not you enjoy pottery, time to switch off and focus on something detached from academia is extremely important. Especially considering some of the frustrations associated with a PhD.

At times, lab work can be solitary and repetitive; experiments can bust up right at the last minute rendering hours, days or weeks worth of work worthless. However taking time for yourself and finding others in a similar situation will keep you sane. Other PhD students are your greatest allies. They will listen to you rant; give you advice on how best to calibrate that dodgy pH meter; and most importantly, pull silly faces back at you as you pass at the centrifuge. I don’t know if I have got my work life balance right, ultimately only my external examiner can tell me that, but for now, I will just keep ploughing on.

Emma Steer

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