Tom’s PhD at The Pirbright Institute

My name is Tom, I graduated from the University of Gloucestershire in 2014, with a degree in Biology. I have since been lucky enough to gain a PhD Studentship with The Pirbright Institute and DSTL on a project studying the role of genomic structure on the ability of viruses to adapt.

The Pirbright Institute is a world leading centre of diagnostics, surveillance and research of virus disease which infect livestock and which can be passed from animals to humans. The bulk of my PhD will be in the making of a number of RNA viruses in which the genomic sequences are changed while still encoding the same protein. These synonymous mutations will allow the role of translational kinetics on the co-translational folding and modification of the proteins to be assessed. As there may be an adaptive mechanism to control the rate of translation at specific points along the RNA virus genome, facilitating co-translational modification, and this may represent a constraint on the variability which a RNA virus can acquire.I would not have this exciting opportunity to work at Pirbright and DSTL if I had not studied an undergraduate degree at the University of Gloucestershire. From the outset I really enjoyed the breadth of the course offered by UoG. Although the course may seem heavy on the big stuff, and I really enjoyed the content on ecology, animal behaviour, natural history and phylogeny, my interest developed in the small stuff, molecular and microbiology. The flexibility in the course allowed me to choose from a number of modules which were much more heavily microbiology based. I was fortunate enough to work on projects which Anne Goodenough, Bethan Stallwood and Sally Rogers had undertaken, another advantage when I was looking for a position after my degree. These included studying the microbial load of pied flycatchers and the methylation of cytosine residues in a possible CpG island in the promoter region of a gene analogous to B-NK, again in pied flycatchers. Both projects nicely linked the large scale ecology, which I found to be very interesting, with molecular biology which I found to be more and more fascinating. All of these modules and projects gave me plenty of core skills which are required if you want to go on to a more lab based, micro career, and have proven to be invaluable. During my time at UoG I was also lucky enough to gain a period of work experience with an alumnus at Public Health England, again this gave me the opportunity to develop skills as well as to see the day to day running of a lab and the diagnostic assays and the experiments which are carried within them. This has proven to be one of the most beneficial opportunities from my time at UoG. To those that wish to pursue a career in microbiology, or any career, my advice would be…

Take every opportunity that is presented to you and be proactive in finding opportunities. Ask about the possibility of placements anywhere that is relevant to the career that you want to pursue. Get involved in any projects that you would enjoy or provides you with the relevant skills. Although, if it is a career in microbiology you want to follow, not being proficient at these skills should not put you off applying for PhDs as training is provided to develop all of the required skills. It is the awareness of what the skills entail and a keen work ethic that is most required. As well as the academic work and the development of relevant practical skills, it is important to enjoy yourself and to develop a broad set of interests, this will help you greatly in interviews and once you have the PhD (or job) it will be invaluable in searching for a postdoc (gaining promotion or looking for another challenge).

If there is a job, PhD or Masters that you are interested in, apply for it, apply for everything that interests you. Use interviews as an opportunity to see if you would enjoy working with those that are interviewing you just as much as they are looking for the correct person for the job. It is a two way thing, it isn’t just you who has to impress. Also, do not think that you have to take the first position that is offered to you, make sure you take the position that you will enjoy the most.

Most of all, push yourself to get the best degree possible, all the staff at UoG are incredibly accessible and approachable, more so than at any other university, use this. Not only will you gain a good degree, you will also have a much more enjoyable time and it is the good degree and your proactive time at uni that will stand out most when talking to possible employers.

Tom Nicholson, BSc (Hons) Biology

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