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mrcbanner best.jpgFiona Hamey

Samuel Watcham

Given the unique nature of our 'Physical Biology of Stem Cells' PhD studentships, we asked two of the students on this Programme - Fiona Hamey (2014-2018) and Sam Watcham (2016-2020) - about their  journey, to give you an insight into how these studentships work in context.

These Physical Biology studentships (which run in parallel with our Wellcome Four-Year (MRes + PhD) Programme in Stem Cell Biology & Medicine), are integral to the future of biology, as more and more research groups recognise the power of working with physical, mathematical or computer science experts.

Here Fiona and Sam talk about their experience on the programme so far...

1. What was your academic background before you applied for the course and where did you study?

Fiona: I did my undergraduate degree in Mathematics before doing a fourth year master’s degree in Systems Biology, University of Cambridge. 

Sam:  My background is in physics as part of a natural sciences course. For my masters course I undertook a research project in biomedical optics, at the University of Cambridge.


2. What inspired you to apply for the MRC Physical Biology of Stem Cells PhD programme at SCI? 

Fiona: When I applied for the SCI programme I was studying Systems Biology, which introduced me to some of the varied ways quantitative approaches could be used to help us understand and model biological data. I applied to the SCI programme after seeing an advert and thinking it sounded like a really exciting PhD opportunity for someone with a mathematical background wanting to work with biological data. 

Sam: For a variety of reasons, I knew that I wanted to do a PhD in a biophysical/biomedical area of research. The structure of the course here (3 rotations in the first year) provides a great deal of scope for trying new things and discovering what you’re really going to enjoy doing every day for 3 years. In addition, the extraordinary breadth of research being done at SCI (of which I can choose to work in just about any part of) was hugely attractive.


3. The 1st year MRes aspect of the 1+3 PhD programme involves 3 lab rotations in the areas of Physical Science, Mathematical Science or Computational Science.  Which lab rotations have you elected to do so far/did you elect to do, and what skills have you learnt? 

Fiona: I did my first rotation with Ana Cvejic and Sarah Teichmann at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and EBI, where I got experience of analysing single-cell RNA-seq data. It was quite different to the work I had done before as I hadn’t previously done much bioinformatics. I then did a rotation with Bertie Göttgens in the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, and worked on inferring transcriptional regulatory networks from single-cell gene expression data. Here I learnt a lot about various computational methods for network inference. My final rotation was with Alfonso Martinez Arias in the Department of Genetics, doing a very different project where I modelled a gene network using a system of reaction diffusion equations. I think the rotations are a really valuable experience as they helped a lot with choosing my PhD lab and gave me the chance to try a variety of projects. 

Sam: I am currently doing my first rotation in the Chalut Lab. At the moment I plan to rotate in both the Göttgens Lab the Zilbauer Labs, although the beauty of this course is that I can change my mind if I want! 


4. Can you give us a snapshot of the type of work that you have been doing whilst on the programme? 

Fiona: During my rotations and PhD I only did computational, rather than experimental, work where I did a mixture of bioinformatics data analysis projects and mathematical approaches for modelling gene regulatory networks. During the PhD I have been working with single-cell RNA-seq datasets. 

Sam: I’ve only been here a few weeks, but so far I’ve been exposed to a range of biological techniques, all of which are new to me. These include cell culture, immunostaining and in situ hybridisation, as well as different types of imaging. I’m currently looking at the role of nuclear envelope proteins and histone modifiers during differentiation and their relation to mechanotransduction in embryonic stem cells. It’s probably worth saying that I didn’t know what any of that meant two months ago – I hadn’t studied biology properly since I was 16.   


5. Tell me about the Discussion Course programme, which runs during your 1st MRes year, and how will it prepare/did it prepare you for your 3 year PhD studies? 

Fiona: One of the consequences of coming from a mathematical background is there is a lot of biology I didn’t know! Especially at the start of the programme I got lost in a lot of the talks, but it is amazing how much you can learn in a year. The Discussion Course is a great way to interact with other SCI PhD students and meet the PIs whilst learning a huge amount about the biology of stem cells. One of the important skills gained from the sessions is learning how to read papers about topics you are not familiar with, which comes in very useful for the PhD. 

[Sam is only in his first term, which covers Introductions to the SCI sessions with our PIs; the main Discussion Course itself doesn’t begin until January] 


6. How does this very unique programme integrate with the Wellcome Trust Programme? 

Fiona: In my year I was the only one on the MRC programme, with four other students on the Wellcome Trust Programme. But as we all had rotations starting and ending at the same time, had the discussion sessions together each week and had all of the same deadlines I didn’t feel alone! It is much nicer if there is a group of you going through the programme together, and so I think the high level of integration between the programmes is very important. 

Sam: This programme is virtually indistinguishable from the Wellcome Trust programme. I have been given the same opportunities to rotate in labs that they have, and have been treated identically throughout the start of this course. The students on the Wellcome Trust Programme have fast become good friends. The only difference is that of all the PIs in the Institute, only a subset of them (I would say about half) displayed obvious interest from the start in taking on a rotation student from this course. This is (in my opinion) because many of them are unsure how to best take advantage of the skills of a student with a physical/mathematical background (rather than a biological one), often because they don’t have anyone with that background in their lab! Nonetheless when I’ve approached some of these PIs and explained that I’m interested in working with them, but have a physics background, they have all been very welcoming. The truth is that science is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary, and this course in very well placed to take advantage of that. 


7. What other CSCI student-related activities have you taken part in which have involved integration and interaction with students on other CSCI programmes. 

Fiona: Every fortnight we have SCI PhD student pizza talks, where two students present their work to other students and we have free pizza. It’s all very relaxed and there is often a pub trip afterwards. I have also got involved in some public engagement with other students and of course a lot of social activities! 

Sam: I’ve become involved in some outreach for the Institute, which is a great way of meeting other members of the CSCI. The bi-weekly PhD Pizza Club is also a good place to do this. 


8. How do you see your career progressing in 3-4 years’ time? 

Fiona: At the moment I haven’t decided whether I want to stay in research or move into industry after my PhD, so I’m not sure. 

Sam: If you’d asked me whether I wanted to do a PhD when I started my undergraduate degree, I’d have laughed at the thought. So asking where I see myself in four years’ time is probably a bit pointless. Right now I get to wake up and do science every day, and it’s fantastic. If I still feel that way at the end of a PhD, who knows where I’ll end up… 


9. What would you say to any prospective Physical Biology of Stem Cells PhD students who are thinking about applying for this programme? 

Fiona: I think one of the big strengths of this programme is that all of the PhD supervisors are SCI PIs, so whichever lab you go to you will get the chance to work on a project related to real biological questions and data. The field of computational biology is increasingly expanding, and more and more research groups are recognising the power of working with computational people. All of this results in many exciting opportunities for projects to work on. The programme is also well organised and you get a lot of useful experience from the first year. For example, writing reports on and presenting my rotation work really improved my writing and presentation skills. So if you have an interest in stem cells and applying your mathematical/computational/physics/engineering skills to biology then give it a go! 

Sam: This course is pretty much unique in how it presents an opportunity for students from the physical sciences to engage with cutting-edge stem cell research. If you excel at the skills required to do a physical sciences degree (whether that be computational ability, big data analysis, model building, problem solving, etc.) there are huge opportunities to make contributions to research in the life sciences. You do, however, have to have a legitimate interest and willingness to engage in the biology – this is not a course where you will be doing physics (or maths or engineering) most of the time. Rather, you will be approaching biological problems armed with a slightly different skillset to the biologists, and it may be that that is exactly what is required to solve the problem. So far I have found the course very challenging, but very rewarding, and would recommend it wholeheartedly.


If you’d like to find out more about the MRC Physical Biology of Stem Cells studentships, please click here