Our postgraduate Science & Tech Editor, Alice, talks about searching for science’s sought after answers, and miserably failing to find them
A science PhD, or most science research in fact, is like searching an infinitely large black hole for something: an answer, or at least some sort of explanation. It’s far from some sexy Brian Cox documentary. I’m not prancing around the lab extracting DNA from my saliva with handy household ingredients. I’m searching, monotonously, day in day out, without knowing if my efforts will be in vain. I could stumble across a game-changing discovery, or all those days slaving away in the lab could amount to a huge pile of negative results. Of course, I’m not just blindly pipetting solutions and probing cells, but there is a perpetual feeling of being lost and alone in this 3-year quest, even with the guiding hand of my supervisor.
My Ph.D. is in the broad area of cardiovascular science, but I particularly research a type of arrhythmia (where the heart doesn’t beat in a steady rhythm or rate). During the placement year in my undergraduate degree I was involved in a drug discovery project for atrial fibrillation, another type of arrhythmia, which really heightened my interest in the overarching area of cardiac disease. The disease I research now is called Long QT Syndrome (LQTS), which can be fatal, and is caused by a child inheriting a faulty gene from a parent.
This is serious stuff. When I sit and think about the theory underpinning my PhD, I’m fascinated and humbled, but in reality, there is no time to dwell on the patients afflicted with LQTS when my role is to research the nitty-gritty mechanisms that occur on a single-cell level. Unfortunately, no-one wants to hear about that, so when asked I tell them the heart-wrenching stories about the people, and their families, affected by this disease, and that increased knowledge about how it occurs can help formulate therapies in the future. It is the truth, but it is also a far cry from my life in the lab.
The lab I work in is not at the main university campus, and because of that I feel less like a student and more like an employee. I work the same (sometimes longer!) hours as most of the post-doctoral researchers, and miss out on the summer holiday that undergraduate students enjoy. The main reminder of my tax-free student status is my quarterly instalment of money. This is a god-send when thousands of pounds land in my account every 3 months, but I’ve almost been left rummaging under the sofa cushions the week before instalment day, which is a pain when you’re 25 and everyone expects you to be all ‘grown up’.
During my time as a PhD student I’ve experienced the highest of highs and squealed with excitement over my latest results, then been left crying in the toilets the very next day when everything suddenly and unexpectedly turns upside down. Thankfully, everyone around me is in, or has been in, the same position as me, and there is a camaraderie in the team that has pulled me through to the end.
Forgive my negativity, but I didn’t find any answers. If anything, even more questions have arisen from my PhD. If I was given the opportunity to go back and swerve my PhD, however, I would politely decline. Contrary to my pre-PhD aim of becoming a successful academic researcher, I’m now looking for jobs outside of the laboratory environment. Nevertheless, the life lessons, knowledge, skills and downright persistence that I have gained over the past three years are something not every job can provide, and I know these will be invaluable to me, wherever this path may lead.
Image: Davey Brett