Introducing a new blog series – just five answers to five quick questions! Thinking about doing a PhD? Find out more about what it’s like as a PhD Student at JIC. Already a PhD? Learn more about what your peers are doing.
Today we have third year student Sebastian Samwald talking about his PhD experience!
1. Who are you?
The nickname that I usually go for is Basti, and I am originally from Austria. Before I started a Bachelor in Botany, I did an Austrian specific degree in environmental engineering and constructional engineering. My university education in Botany was very much in the ‘traditional’ sense of botany, i.e. I did a lot of plant taxonomy, morphology, systematics etc. but in the second year of my master’s I decided to venture further out into more molecular approaches of plant sciences and spent nine months at the University of Manchester via an Erasmus traineeship. This gave me the opportunity to broaden my horizon and figure out that I really like molecular plant sciences. My ever-growing love of advanced microscopy techniques helped along the way as well 😉
2. What is your PhD about?
I have the pleasure of being in the rotation PhD programme. This means that in my first year I was able to try three different labs of my choice on site and could do mini-projects there that I came up with, together with the respective group leaders. In the end I decided to undertake my PhD project in Christine Faulkner’s lab, where I now work on membrane protein dynamics in the context of plant defence. Plants have different mechanisms of defence against pathogens, such as fungi. However, to be able to activate these very ‘costly’ mechanisms, plant cells first must recognise that an intruder is present. They do this via membrane localised receptor proteins. These receptors recognise, for example, the presence of highly conserved molecules, such as chitin (an integral compound of fungal cell walls) and can relay their observation that a fungus is present into the cell. Plasmodesmata are specialised compartments of plant cells – they are membrane lined channels connecting adjacent cells and are very important in such a defence context. I work on the dynamics of these receptor proteins and their interacting partners and how they can successfully relay the ‘alarm’ system into the cell and also cause a change in the plasmodesmata conductivity.
3. What is your favourite PhD moment so far?
I have numerous favourite moments. Especially when an experiment (most of the time after a lot of struggle) finally starts producing the first promising results. The feeling of this is utterly amazing, especially when you designed parts of the experiment yourself after having had the original idea on how you could answer a question.
I find clear results of ‘YES’ and ‘NO’ very pleasing. For example, when you are doing cloning reactions to create new plasmids and the sequencing comes back perfect – this is always an amazing feeling. Sadly, I have to admit that these ‘IT HAS WORKED’ moments are quite rare and usually my results just open up a new truckload of further questions.
4. What do you do to switch off from PhD?
I try to do sports on a regular basis, although at stressful times I struggle to do it regularly. I find that being able to bike as a commute is helping me a lot though, as it gives me 15 min of exercise before I start work in the morning as well as when I get home.
Norwich as a city (and its surrounding area) are all quite nicely green and I appreciate this a lot. Because sometimes I just want to have a walk in a forest(ish area) and the UEA broads are within 5 min of walking distance between UEA and JIC.
I love baking and find that it calms my mind a lot, as I can focus on a non-lab and non-academia related task for a while and then produce lovely cakes to enjoy and share.
5. What advice would you give a new PhD student?
- Be kind to others, and also be kind to yourself!
Others in your program are your peers and each one of you will go through phases where you will need support from friends and colleagues. So please try to not treat them as your enemies or competitors right away, instead try to get to know them, make friends, support each other and maybe one day collaborate together.
I find it comes easy to me to be kind to others, however I have to remind myself to also be kind to myself as well on a constant basis. Over the last years, I have learned that this is utterly important for my mental health as I tend to hold myself accountable for every single little mistake I make or anything I can’t get to work in the time I expect it to. Instead I should try to apply the same kindness I give to others to myself as well.
- Find the representation that matters to you! (and as a next step try being the representation that you would want/needed to see)
Growing up in a very rural area and spending most of my university time in a country where hierarchical structures hinder any exchange of personal life details, I literally was not aware of any successful LGBTQ+ people in plant sciences or sciences in general. Only when I realised that they exist and that there are others out there, I also realised how much I was previously missing this type of representation for my self-confidence and mental health. Please, try to actively seek out representation for yourself! I find it the easiest to do via twitter, as a lot of scientists are quite open about their personal life and experiences on this platform, but you can do it in numerous other ways for any type of representation that actually represents a part of you as well.
You can find Basti on Twitter @samwalds
PhD Profile was concocted by Shannon Woodhouse. If you would like to be featured on PhD Profile, please email or find Shannon on Twitter @shwoodhouse.