Happy Monday guys! Hopefully I can brighten up your day with sharing a new Scientist in the Spotlight! I am going to continue along the theme of celebrating some scientists from back home in Pembs and introduce you to Alex T.
Alex and I have known each other fora long time now and have shared similar science journeys but our paths have surprisingly never really crossed. We went to the same school and sat next to each other in school orchestra – where we both played that typical orchestral instrument the saxophone! – so got to know each other fairly well between class and orchestra tours. We then both went off to study at the University of Bath which I don’t even think we both realised until our second year, both spent a year in industry, graduated in 2014 and then both embarked on our PhD journeys.
Alex is currently in his fourth year as a DPhil student at the University of Oxford where his research is looking to understand the dynamic interactions that occur between normal, diseased and aged cells in your bone marrow. But besides the similarities that Alex and I have in our science journeys, Alex is also an Ironman – something that I am truly in awe of! So, let’s get to know the scientist and the endurance triathlete a little bit more.
I can’t start with any other question than congratulations on becoming an Ironman, and can you tell us more about this amazing achievement?
Alex: Having grown up in Tenby, the home of Ironman Wales, I was always intrigued by the event and would eagerly wait for its return each year. I hoped that one day I could participate in it, and prior to starting my DPhil I signed up on a whim and began training rigorously for one year. My sporting background was in cycling and I would run regularly, which meant that I had to focus much of my attention on improving my swimming technique. It took up most of my spare time, and definitely caused me to feel stressed and pressured. It was definitely worth it though, as completing it made me feel accomplished and allowed me to realise the determination and persistence that goes into achieving a long-term goal. It was one of the most exciting things I have ever done, but due to the time constraints and pressures involved, I do not think I will do it again.
Determination and persistence are definitely two goals you need to complete a PhD. Are there any other valuable lessons you’ve learnt so far in your PhD?
Alex: Never let a failed experiment get you down. In my experience, failed experiments are a part of the doctoral experience. It’s only through trying and failing that you are able to improve.
We know your research is with cells from the bone marrow, but what have you been up to in the lab most recently?
Alex: Most recently I have been using computational modeling techniques to draw insights and trends from large single-cell transcriptomic datasets. This has been a steep learning curve for me, as I do not come from a computer science background. Despite this, I have always been intrigued by how technology can be used to solve biological questions and subsequently spent several months learning R, attending seminars and taking online courses. To date we have now analysed upwards of 10,000 single cells in a variety of physiological and pathological conditions.
What’s the most memorable moment from your PhD so far?
Alex: There have been a number of memorable moments, one of the best being my attendance to a conference in Sweden. This was a great opportunity to network with fellow scientists and also present my work to a large audience. I definitely recommend that if you’re doing a PhD to attend international conferences as much as possible.
What do you like to do in your spare time out of the lab?
Alex: During my spare time I enjoy cycling, visiting art museums and galleries, taking day trips and travelling, and having some relaxing time at home. Although I grew up in a small town, I am definitely a city boy at heart. My fiancée and I often travel to London where we visit art exhibitions as well as friends who have moved there. Being engaged to an art historian has allowed me to appreciate the arts much more than I used to!
I am also involved in a number of extra-curricular activities. Outside of my DPhil, I am the sitting President of the Oxford University Management Society and also work for an Oxford-based healthcare accelerator. These experiences have been a great way for me to get apply the transferable skills I have learnt during my DPhil, whilst meeting some great people along the way.
Do you have any top tips for fellow PhD students who need a better balance between lab life and social life?
Alex: I normally set daily tasks and make sure to complete them in a timely manner so that I never have to stay in the lab past a certain time. This is not always possible due to the nature of the work, but working efficiently normally means I have more time to socialize with my friends and family.
You’ve studied in two beautiful cities, but which do you prefer – Bath or Oxford?
Alex: This is a tough one, and so I have to say that I love them both for different reasons.
I loved my time in Bath, not only because it is a beautiful city, but also because I was there for my undergraduate degree and enjoyed all the fun activities that come with that. It was my first time living in a city and away from Pembrokeshire, so that was very exciting. I made many friends there and have been able to visit a few times since graduation.
The city of Oxford seems to revolve entirely around the university, which makes it a great place to study as a graduate student. It has a much more academic feel than Bath, which is great for studying and staying focused, but also creates a more serious environment. The gothic architecture is inspiring, and given that it was where I met my fiancée, it has special meaning to me.
What’s next for you after your PhD?
Alex: I will be graduating in the summer of 2018 but my science journey has been unconventional. I entered my doctoral studies fairly set on being an academic. I am now looking for a career that seems, from the outside, completely contrasting. I am looking for opportunities in management consulting in the healthcare sector. I love the idea of combining my knowledge of science and pharmaceuticals with my interests in business and finance, so hopefully specialising in an area like that will allow me to use my analytical skills and my knowledge from the pharmaceutical industry. It would also be great to live in London for a few years and I am really looking forward to this next chapter. Despite this being an area that is contrasting to a PhD, there are many skills that you learn during a PhD which can be applied to a large number of careers, so don’t think that if you do a PhD you have to stay in academia.
And finally, where in the world should I be visiting before I die?
Alex: I really enjoyed my visit to Russia and highly recommend it to anyone interested in a cultural holiday filled with history, art and fascinating architecture. We visited St Petersburg and Moscow, spending the first few days in each city scheduled with private tours. We spent the subsequent days on our own exploring local cafés, parks and churches. The experience overall was very unique and definitely not what I expected.
Massive thanks to Alex for sharing his science journey and getting involved in my blog. It has been great to catch up with a school buddy and showcase another Pembrokeshire scientist. Alex has a great eye for photography so if you want to see snippets of his travels and some amazing images from his art gallery and museum visits then make sure to follow him on Instagram.
S P O T L I G H T S E P T E M B E R 2017 continues! Make sure to check back in every Monday and Friday this month for a new scientist’s story. PLUS I will be sprinkling these blog posts with a few #waybackwednesday and #throwbackthursday posts on my social media pages (see links below) to show you what my previous Scientist in the Spotlight scientists are getting up to now! AND at the end of the month I have another announcement to make! So there is LOTS going on across Soph talks science in September. Make sure you don’t miss out and subscribe to my mailing list at the top right of this page or follow me over on social media! Thank you all for your continued support. I am absolutely loving my science communication side hustle at the moment – especially as the last month has been the most successful EVER on my blog and I have so many new exciting collaborations and projects coming up! Not sure I’ve got time for this PhD malarky 😛