Sophie, Biochemist



I’m a student at the University of Manchester, and my lab is working on a new protein therapy for osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, so that’s the focus of my PhD - to find a formulation for this potential drug where it is stable and safe to use over a long period of time. We have purified this protein and we are hoping it can be used as an injectable to help treat these conditions. My role has been to try and find conditions of the protein, using different buffers and salts where it’s going to be stable over a long period of time. I’ve also been using a technique called, nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, NMR, to see how the protein is sticking together, so there’s a bit of biophysics in it as well. It’s nice to think that it can be used to help because diseases like osteoporosis and osteoarthritis can affect more and more elderly people, so it’s nice to think that you’re going to do good, even if it’s not until sometime in the future. It gives you a bit of purpose because sometimes when you’re just in the lab it can be a bit like, ‘why am I here? What am I even doing?’, but its nice think of the effect it’s going to have in the future.


I realised quite early on in my PhD that it wasn’t for me, and that I didn’t want to work in a lab for the rest of my life. I had heard of the medical communications industry, and I really liked the sound of it because I’m perhaps more creative and I love writing. I figured if I got to the end of my PhD and all I had written was my thesis, then I’d be no different to anyone else. We had a really great talk as part of our PhD training by a science blogger called Ed Yong, who came to speak to us about his blog and his journey, after which I thought yeah I want to go away and write a blog, what’s the worst that could happen and it might boost my CV? So that’s how my blog started and it’s just getting bigger and bigger. I’ve started getting invited to public speaking and science communication events that way. But yeah, I just really enjoy it now, I started it as I said, because I wanted my CV to look good, but even when I’ve got a job I’ll probably still carry on with it because I genuinely really enjoy it. I love writing, like when you write about the science it doesn’t have to be written in an academic journal style and if there is complicated science I like trying to break it down in a way that anyone could understand. Another bonus is being able to try and help change the perspective, the public opinion of scientists, show that we are real, we do have normal lives, we don’t all just hide away in a little lab with frizzy hair and elbow patches. Blogging has kind of taken a bigger part of my life than I ever thought it would, but I wouldn’t change it.


I’ve struggled since the start of my PhD. It was very early on that I realised that academia was so different to work that I’d done previously - suddenly you’re in a lab on your own, and you don’t know where anything is, and it’s all messy, and you have a tiny little bench, and you’ve got do this project, and you have no idea where to start. It just made me made me realise how different it was to industry where you’re more supported. I really struggled with that, and I have struggled with anxiety as it’s gone along due to the stress. I’ve had to be on quite a few different medications for my stomach and various things all related to stress. I have written on my blog about mental health, there was one post where I was feeling really down, so I just literally wrote how I was feeling and that post has actually had the most engagement. I had lots of comments, but a lot of them were from people that literally sit next to me in the office, who were saying ‘I feel exactly the same’, but, we’ve never spoken about it and never kind of talk, so since then I’ve made a point of writing a few things about mental health and about how it is hard and how doing a PhD is difficult, so I always try and be truthful. I guess thinking about motivation, because there has been times where I’ve thought about, ‘why am I even doing this’ and I’ve wanted to leave but I just, I really, really want a job in medical communications because I know that I’d be good at it. So that’s kind of the motivation, when times are tough I think, ‘I’m going be leaving this soon and going to be applying for jobs’. I can still be in science but use this knowledge and experience to take me onto better things at the end. I think second year is the toughest, and I think that is when the blogging had really started to take off. I feel more like myself when I’m doing my blog, so I was kind of out there being a scientist giving talks and it was a real confidence boost really. It’s just whenever I have to show what I’ve done to someone else and there’s basically this fear of it being ripped apart and them saying, ‘you’re rubbish, you’re terrible, what are you even doing here?’. But I think that the more I’ve gone on through my PhD, it has been getting better. You do pick up the knowledge that you need to kind of carry you on and from that your confidence does grow.


I am really passionate about showing the human side of scientists. Obviously there is a shortage of women in science, so it would be really nice to encourage girls to take an interest in science. I think that in the age of social media, where we are constantly being bombarded with what’s trendy and what’s not, I think science can often be seen as quite academic and it’s all just science and the people behind the science get lost a little bit. Also, people think that to do science they have to be really clever, but it’s not the case, I mean, you probably are clever but you don’t necessarily feel that way, so I think it’s really important to show the humans behind the science - that we are just normal people, we have lives and do things outside of science, but in our day job we are, you know, changing the world as it were, doing new research and finding things that people have never seen. I think with women in STEM being underrepresented, it’s important to increase the exposure of young people to role models to break the stereotype. Like you know when children have been asked to draw a scientist, they always drew a white man in a lab coat didn’t they? That’s terrible. It’s just so important that we break down those stereotypes, and show that science is for everyone, and change it so that everyone can have a fair chance, and science will benefit from that I’m sure.


I think sometimes when you’re at school age, you might think ‘I just want to help people’, so you go and do a medicine degree because it’s what you think is the only option because you don’t want to work in a lab for the rest of your lives, but it’s important to see that there are more jobs in science than just white coat research. And another thing is, definitely don’t be put off by what other girls in your year or your class are doing, if you want to do it you go for it, even if you’re the only girl in your chemistry class, because you are clever enough, you can do it and you can make it all the way if you want to, so don’t be put off by what you think you should be doing, just do what you find interesting.

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