Studentship Application, Experimental Delays, and Demonstrating

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Hey all 🙂

It has been a slow but important two months.

Studentship Applications

With my supervisor I have recently applied for two studentships: a fully funded PhD and a package for a lab technique.

Firstly, the fully PhD studentship. The Society for Experimental Biology offer one 4 year package per year which rotates through their themes (Cells, Plants, and Animals; www.sebiology.org/membership/studentship.html). This studentship was particularly appealing for numerous reasons. Firstly it is for 4 years where most studentships are for 3; this would allow me to do over 3 years of experiments AND take anywhere up to a whole year to write up with funding (a luxury most students do not get). Secondly the stipend (a tax free ‘maintenance’ grant paid monthly or quarterly) is at £3k above the minimum required by the British research councils which is always a nice perk! Lastly, unlike most studentships, this comes with money to spend specifically on research (known as consumables). I wrote a draft application which my supervisor polished off before sending it through the processes in the department and then submitting it. I’m still awaiting response for this but since the interviews are held on the 26th March I’m assuming I will hear soon!

Secondly, the ‘Primer Design’ package. Primer Design (www.primerdesign.co.uk/home) are a company specialising in real-time PCR. PCR stands for Polymerase Chain Reaction (www.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymerase_chain_reaction). It is a technique used to create numerous copies of a piece of DNA as to allow the sample to be analysed (this is particularly useful when samples contain very small amounts of DNA for example from small tissues samples from crime scenes or biological research). This process is known as “DNA amplification”. Real-time PCR, or qPCR for “quantitative”, improves upon this technique by visualising the process and allowing the number of copies to be counted. That was a bit of a technical tangent so I will return to the main narrative. Primer Design offer award packages involving specialised hands-on training for students with projects utilising qPCR as well as discounts on their products. My supervisor applied and we won a package! So now, once I get to that point in my first experiment, I will receive the training and with my supervisor be able to get some discounted kits! I can also put the specialised training on my CV so it’s a win-win (-win?) situation!

Overall I recommend that you apply for everything potentially useful to your post-graduate studies. Even if it seems unlikely it’s worth going for and you never know how useful it could be!

Experimental Delays

My topic is trying to understand the learning abilities of animals and if there is one thing I’ve learned so far it’s that animals are unpredictable and at times very stubborn! I am currently training them on a task involving food placed in a tray with 12 wells (think of an egg-carton) with lids covering the food. The idea is that they will learn that lids mean food so if they remove the lids they get the food! Most have been progressing slowly but with great inconsistencies including randomly not understanding what they should do! A few are brilliant and one is utterly useless so overall working with animals is less than straight-forward! I’m acquiring some great skills and insight though and the big picture is very interesting so I will continue J. I also have a great lab group who are always happy to discuss options and are help out so I’m in a great position; I will get there eventually!

Just a side note at this point: if you feel that as a student you’re not supported or that you’re basically a data-churner or that you have no control of your project then you need to deal with that problem as soon as it arises. It’s far too easy to get dug into a hole and lose yourself, your motivation, and ultimately not learn how to do what your studies are training you to. Speak to the people who can help. Chances are your supervisor doesn’t realise how you’re feeling but if they are the type to not train their students well/see them as extra pairs of hands then you must sort that out by speaking to others about it. There will always be someone who can help. Remember: it’s your project so your ideas and your learning are what are important.

Demonstrating

PhD students are (usually?) given the opportunity to get involved with teaching. This rarely involves giving lectures but instead involves assisting in practical sessions, giving tutorials, and marking. This is a very good opportunity to both increase your experience of teaching and get paid for doing so. I signed up a tad late this year and first years are often not encouraged to get involved but nevertheless I am a demonstrator on a second year course in the School of Psychology & Neuroscience. I have worked on two sessions so far. The first was a poster session from the cognitive part of the module which involved students reading a published paper and designed a poster to present it. This is a great exercise for second years as pposters are a lot harder to design than you’d expected: you have to balance text overload with getting the information across, making the flow easy to following, and make it catchy and informative. The session went well and I learned a lot about designing posters myself from giving guidance to the students.

The other session type was from statistics. The students had a computer session were they worked through example questions of how to run the statistics they have learned in that week’s lectures. This was a bit of an eye opener for me as someone who is computationally novice, utterly naïve with SPSS (a statistical program), and with very little knowledge of statistics! The session went smoothly and the lecturer’s notes were very good so overall the students (and I!) managed to do well.

Overall, it has been a really good experience and I’m hoping to pick up more next year across both Psychology & Neuroscience AND Biology. I highly recommend getting involved with undergraduate teaching when you have the chance to 🙂

Overall things are going well albeit slowly. Next steps are to continue training my animals, start writing a literature review of my topic (which I will then post a slightly less dry version on here!), and generally do some chilling out when possible.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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