The (kinda) PhD Playlist – Freddie M.

Each week we put the spotlight on a PhD student at the Norwich Research Park and get them to share three songs in a desert island disc-style game: one song that captures their project (expect some very tenuous links), one song that captures their life as a PhD student and a final motivational song because – let’s face it – we all need it.

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Freddie is an undergraduate from Manchester Metropolitan University (a metropolitan?! In THIS lab?!), he came to the JIC to work as an intern for a year to gain some experience and level up. He has tried to do as much as physically possible, joining in with almost every event and documenting it all in his pile of notebooks. He enjoys research, mass spectroscopy and pretending he knows what he’s doing.

The Project Song – Yield by Formidable vegetable sound system 

“Before I started I was just doing the normal, boring, run of the mill biology – but then I was introduced to the wonderful world of plants… and the frustrating world of science. Some things worked, and some things most things made no sense, but I had a great time doing it all. The aptly named group ‘Formidable vegetable sound system’ has a very funky song all about not getting too stressed but getting on with life, specifically with vegetables – I hope that it will resonate with a few of you reading this now. My project was a fantastic chance to try out anything and everything I could but sometimes I just couldn’t obtain a yield.”

The PhD Life Song – Strong Coffee by The Cat Empire

“Even though I’m not a PhD student I think I can say I definitely saw behind the scenes, and if there is something I think a fair number of you have in common, is that you run on a passion to find answers, fear of not hitting your targets, but really… lots and lots of strong coffee.”

The Motivational Song – Down the Road by C2C

“Motivation… well usually I need only a poster of a cat hanging off a tree, or maybe an inspirational boxing quote to get me through the day. Sometimes though, this isn’t enough! I think something that shocked me is that you can end up listening to entire albums multiple times when you’re sitting there in a flow cupboard, stacks of plates looming next to you whispering in your ear “you can’t leave until I’m finished”. When its days like those, just suck it up, pull a fresh pair of gloves over my sticky, sweaty fingers and then down the road I go.

I owe a fair bit to those I admit who helped me through, appreciate it, I do – 10/10 would intern again*.

Ps. As a side note, my project was on soil, so a different project song choice would have to be ‘I like dirt’ by the Red Hot Chili Peppers!

*Did you notice the rhyme? I have too much time.”

The PhD playlist is the brainchild of Millie, whose obsession with making playlists is almost as great as her obsession with science. Follow her on twitter: @milliestanton and drop her an email if you’re interested in being featured!


The PhD Playlist – John

Each week we put the spotlight on a PhD student at JIC and get them to share three songs in a desert island disc-style game: one song that captures their project (expect some very tenuous links), one song that captures their life as a PhD student and a final motivational song because – let’s face it – we all need it. 

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John in a 1st Year PhD student working in Paul Nicholson’s lab. He’s looking at a number of approaches to control Fusarium Head Blight in wheat. More specifically, he’s working on identifying important plant hormone signalling pathways including hormone manipulation strategies by Fusarium, and combining these with fungicide application. John is half Greek and Spanish but lived in Oxford for most of his life. He loves a good game of squash every now and then.

The Project Song – Invaders Must Die by The Prodigy

“Despite the different nature of this song to my other choices, I felt its title best describes the theme of my project. In order to stop the ever-growing horde of invading pathogens, a combination of control strategies need to be used. With my project, limiting infection and development of Fusarium when wheat is at is most susceptible is one key way to control the invasion.”

The PhD Life Song – Precious Time by The Maccabees

“Unfortunately, time is a constraint to all PhD projects. Time is always on my mind from designing experiments to seeing if its lunch yet. Despite having four years to complete my PhD, I feel like its relatively short and every second of it is precious. It is also amazing that for every deadline, we somehow manage to get things done on time!”

The Motivational Song – Learn to Fly by Foo Fighters

“Who doesn’t like a bit of Foo Fighters in their life! This song can be played at loads of occasions and always manages to improve the mood (especially if you watch the Rockin1000 video!).”

The PhD playlist is the brainchild of Millie, whose obsession with making playlists is almost as great as her obsession with science. Follow her on twitter: @milliestanton and drop her an email if you’re interested in being featured!

Freddie’s plantastic experience

I’ve been working from September 2016 – June 2017 year in the lab of one of the top plant research institutes in the world, the John Innes Centre. There are only two interns given a place each year at the institute and although I was not one of them, I was still taken on as an ‘intern’ with a voluntary role which allowed unique flexibility for what I did day to day.

For the last nine months I’ve been helping a 2nd year PhD student, Nicola, with part of her project. Nicola is working on Nitrogen use in forage crops, and a previous student had found that a humic substance called ‘Fulvic acid’ is possibly a biostimulant that could improve the growth of plants without the use of fertiliser.

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A. thaliana root and shoot assay

I normally work 9 – 6 everyday on finding out if there is a replicable phenotype when plants are given this chemical, and finding what the chemical is exactly. There was no pressure on me succeeding but I knew I both wanted to impress the scientists around me, and find an answer for myself.

I started out taking part in the PhD training which covered biological, chemical and general safety. Nicola then started teaching me through actual practice, the various lab techniques I’d need to complete different assays; I took notes on absolutely everything (see picture below) and was lucky that I did, as it wasn’t long before she let me loose to start collecting data on my own. From this point on, I was effectively a full PhD student able to use anything I liked, whenever I liked. I could book any room or equipment, access all facilities and use any chemicals available.

I began by growing plants and supplying them with various amounts of Fulvic acid and Nitrogen to test a few hypotheses, but there was no regular phenotype appearing. I read papers on previous work and adapted my methods to pin down what effect this substance was having, all the while having various meetings and seminars.

I was given a space in the regulated glass houses where I grew other crops too. These I tested for their protein and chlorophyll contents, as well as photosynthetic rates. By the end of the internship I had identified a few phenotypes in a few species but unfortunately have not had enough time to find any genetic markers or a mechanism for the effect.

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The glasshouse with my babies

This was only one part of my project though. The other was finding out what this Fulvic acid was. Everyone at the JIC is top of their field so are always happy to help if you have any questions and are genuinely interested. The lab above mine was filled with hundreds of thousands of pounds’ worth of the latest in mass spectroscopy equipment, and experts who are always available to help, even more so when given a challenge by an eager intern who has no idea what he’s doing. I was in a great position here, where other people with the same problem would have to book months in advance and pay upwards of £90/hr. I could just walk in and have a go whenever the machines were free!

Lionel Hill, a wizard of LC-MS (liquid chromatography gas spectroscopy) was the first port of call. We put in varying concentrations of my Fulvic acids but the results that came out made no sense, there was something very polar in the solution as well as high concentrations of plastic. We tried a few more times with different mobile phases but with no luck, so I decided to try somewhere else. Throughout the placement I ended up being trained on almost every piece of equipment in the room and innumerable more in other labs. The final verdict came after weeks of tweaking, coupled with the wisdom and patience of Paul Brett. We finally managed to isolate the components of Fulvic acid (pictured above), although this only accounts for 70% of the solutions and we don’t know what the other parts were – science is fascinating and infuriating!

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Fulvic acid GC-MS retention spectra

The long journey and finding an answer(ish) at the end was a priceless experience, worth every second. Throughout the time here I wasn’t just a lab volunteer, but like I said, taken on and accepted as a fellow PhD student. I gave seminars, organised events, held a position on the student voice committee, worked on the institute bar, talked to visitors, presented at meetings, attended awards, took part in days out – even teaching others how to use the equipment I had been trained on!

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My filled out notebooks

This year opened my eyes to the possibilities of research, the raw freedom of exploring something new in any way you can. I was given a unique opportunity because I was not limited in what I was permitted to do, nor was I pressured to get results (because I was not actually a PhD student with deadlines to meet, even though some students thought I was). The other students welcomed me with open arms and invited me to all their social events. My housemates were UEA students which gave me access to the university lifestyle as well, where I joined various societies and sports clubs. Words cannot express the years of experience I feel I have gained in 9 short months, this will truly stay with me forever (and of course make my CV look great!)


Five free personal training courses you should sign up for.

Personal Development training is one of the requirements that we as PhD students need to fulfil before we can fully complete our PhD programme. But beyond that, these training courses also help us to develop and grow as a professional by giving us various transferable skills, which will come in handy when applying for jobs. I would like to share with you five free training courses I found very useful, either provided by John Innes Centre or UEA:

  1. Career Service Mentoring Programme by UEA career central

I joined the programme in August 2015 and initially it was set up as a 6-month, one-to-one mentoring programme, with Career Central finding you a match based on your interests and what you would like to get out of a mentor/mentee relationship. However, after the official period of the programme finished, my mentor and I decided to keep in contact and continue to do so. I have a mentor who is an expert in industry and has been giving me advice on the career path into industry, how to form a valuable network for your career advancement, some insights into the industry settings and also some tips on constructing an action plan to achieve your dream job. I have learnt so much through this process and it only takes an hour meeting each month with the mentor to discuss my plan and progress. I highly recommend this course, especially if you are thinking of going for a career outside academia or simply want to keep your job options open.

  1.  Turbo Charge your Writing by Hugh Kearns, Think Well

This is the training course that got me started assimilating my experimental data (even the negative ones) into thesis format and made me feel more positive about writing. It changed my perspective from “I will write when I’m ready” to “I’m writing now even if I don’t feel like doing it” and also trying not to make the first draft perfect but instead going through multiple drafts and trying to get feedback from supervisor as much as I can. It is a short course which only lasts one morning, so definitely worth signing up!

  1. Scientific Writing Academic Papers Workshop by Sophien Kamoun

This 1-day workshop goes through some examples of the dos and don’ts when writing a scientific paper, with the aim of helping you better understand the structure of scientific papers and identifying writing techniques that are required. I found this very useful when it comes to writing not only manuscripts, but also thesis chapters.

  1. The Biotechnology Young Entrepreneurs Scheme (Biotechnology YES) by John Innes Centre or UEA

Technically it’s not training, but a competition that allows you to go wild with your crazy scientific idea and try to to convince venture capitals to invest in your management team. I learned a lot about commercialisation, intellectual property, marketing and finance through the preparation for this competition. The competition itself only requires 2 days, during which your team get help and advice from the experts on commercialising your idea. My team didn’t win the competition, but I can happily say that it was a worthwhile experience.

  1. Developing Teaching Skills by the Centre for Staff and Educational Development (CSED) and the School of Education and Lifelong Learning (EDU), UEA

This is a Masters equivalent module that explores various aspects of teaching, such as giving effective lectures, demonstrating in the lab, leading seminars and assessment and evaluation of student learning while considering the student needs and their learning styles. It is designed for postgraduate students and postdocs with little or no prior teaching experience (like me) who would like to go into teaching and academia later in their career path. I really enjoyed how this course was delivered through practical and discussion-based approaches rather than a lecture-based seminar, which we get mostly in other training courses. It is quite a time consuming course though (3 hr/module + 1 portfolio assignment on the teaching experience that you participate in) so you might need to ask for your supervisor’s permission for this one, but in my opinion it is a valuable course that you should not miss if you have some spare time.

Sue is a 3rd Year Rotation PhD student in Biological Chemistry department at John Innes Centre.  She is on LinkedIn as