Diabetes Week : Being a PHD research student by Hugh Thomas


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I spent my last post attempting to flesh out the back-story that drives my particular research: the idea that the risk of a child developing Type 2 diabetes can be dramatically increased by a mother’s obesity during pregnancy. Since the theme of this year’s Diabetes Week is research (hence my opportunity to write this blog!), I’ll try to describe my experiences and general work-load at the University of Southampton, where I’ve been a PhD student for about 9 months.

The first few months were hectic and breathless; there just isn’t the time to dawdle when working with experiments that take a year to run from start to finish. I needed to get up to speed quickly, both with the theory underpinning my project (which, I’ll happily acknowledge, I didn’t know a huge amount about at the start!) and the practical techniques to gather data (which I’d had relatively limited experience of at undergrad level). This meant a lot of reading, and a bit of writing, and lots more reading. Not just the latest highly technical studies, but also the well understood but often equally complex scientific ideas that underpin diabetes research. Without a solid, broad, ongoing understanding of your research area’s foundations, it’s easy to lose the relevance of your own particular research objectives. In a specialism such as Type 2 diabetes, where almost every organ can play a role in the development and progression of the condition, this is critical. On a daily basis, keeping up with new research around the world can highlight original genes or proteins linked to diabetes development, or innovative techniques, or refinements or rebuttals of core ideas, all of which could have profound implications for what we want to look at next in our model of developmentally-influenced diabetes.

Of course, research wouldn’t be research without good old- fashioned hours in the lab. My time in the lab is broadly split between caring for, monitoring and measuring the mice that we use as a model of diabetes development, and performing tests on the samples we collect. This allows us to directly link what is happening to an individual animal’s physiology (or even their mother’s physiology during pregnancy), like changes to weight, blood pressure, blood glucose or fat mass, and the underlying biochemical or genetic changes that influence how, for example, blood glucose is impaired in offspring of obese pregnancies.
I’m fortunate to be in a relatively small and incredibly supportive research group in Southampton. This means I often have an opportunity to work on several avenues of research at once, assisting or running different experiments one day after another. Although sometimes a bit manic, it’s a lot more interesting than churning out the same procedure day after day! I also get the opportunity to see meaningful results from all manner of different methods correlate and confirm each other, each contributing to a clearer picture of what’s happening in our model.

PhD students are largely the hands-on labourers in academic research, getting our (gloved) hands dirty and developing complex and emotional attachments to the most banal of experiments. This suits me fine, as it means largely avoiding the non-stop grant and paper writing that encumbers higher positions (like my supervisor, who, to his immense credit, is also very heavily involved in much of our group’s practical work!). Lab work is an interesting mistress, often boring and repetitive, dotted with tortuous wait-times while so-and-so chemical reacts with sample X, or perfectly timed to necessitate a 10pm finish or a Sunday at the microscope. Luckily, there is also an uncertainty that lingers around even the most basic of experiments. It could work as expected, it could not work at all, or it could work in an entirely new and fascinating way. Or it could appear to have worked in a new and fascinating way, but actually be the result of sneezing a little too close to the workbench, or taking your eye off the pipette while mixing your hundredth reaction tube.
Research can be incredibly frustrating, when weeks or months of work, time and money lead to what appear to be useless data. But, perseverance is a key research skill (as evidenced by the tongue-in-cheek motivational posters that adorn our lab), and it can only take one small result to vindicate the work put in and ease weeks of stress.

I hope that gives a very brief overview of the work I do as a PhD research student, and I also trust I haven’t put off any aspiring scientists! I’ve largely avoided going into specifics about the experiments we perform as they can be pretty dry, but I’m more than happy to answer any questions about them.

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