Scientist in the Spotlight. Connor R.

I think it’s time for me to introduce you to another #reallifescientist!

I usually showcase PhD students or STEM professionals later on in their careers but I think it is about time I changed that to include scientists who haven’t even started a PhD and earlier for a completely different perspective on science careers. Today I want to introduce you to Connor R who’s passion for his subject is so incredibly infectious. Connor is originally from near Newcastle Upon Tyne and just graduated from the University of Aberdeen where he studied Human Embryology and Developmental Biology. If I had to summarise Connor in one word from talking to him it would without a doubt be passionate. He definitely loves what he does and wears his heart on his sleeve. Well, more specifically his love of science is wrapped around his leg with these beautiful tattoos. So, lets learn a little bit more about Connor and his research.

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So, I’m going to start right at the beginning. What is your earliest memory of science?

Connor: My earliest memory must be the tadpoles or getting a chemistry set from my dad. To which I thought it was a wise idea to heat magnesium sulphide and iron fillings together and I scaled myself. I had to go to the hospital to have the filling magnetically removed from my leg.

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What inspired you to study human embryology and development at university?

Connor: My inspiration to study this field originates from my summers spent as a kid chasing butterflies and collecting frog spawn. My initial passion was instilled by learning that caterpillars develop into butterflies. I thought they were total different creatures. I learned that different colour caterpillars develop into different colour butterflies. I also sadly learned that putting two butterflies in a shoebox doesnโ€™t produce offspring nor does putting five in either! My true passion for the field came about when my dad built a pond in the garden and my mum granted me permission to keep frog spawn. For two years, I had lots of healthy frogs and the process is amazing to watch. But, one year, my mum put plants around the pond that got destroyed by slugs and snails. So, she put slug pellets down. Now, these contain two quite poisonous chemicals called Methiocarb and Metaldehyde. As it rained, some of the pellets and the chemicals washed off into my lovely pond and I had tadpoles and frogs with all kinds of birth defects, mainly lack of limbs and eyes. So, my inner science came out and I retrieve many coffee jars from my grandfather. The next year, I used the frogs spawn in a series of experiments. I put some frog spawn in each jar and added around 8-10 pellets into each jar for 5 days after hatching to replicate the rains we had. From this, I noticed different defects in the tadpoles and baby frogs. As time progressed (in days), the defects were less severe outlining periods of critical development. When pellets were added on day 3, I noticed almost all my tadpoles had no forelimbs. But then on day 4, all my tadpoles had forelimbs but no hindlimbs. A very basic experiments and I had not idea what was going on, but this instilled my love for the field. At one point, I wanted to study medicine but I decided not too and thus, I left that path a long time ago.

Ever since I was 12 years old, Iโ€™ve always been interested in the quest for knowledge and satisfying curiosity. Still to this day, I am even more passionate about science but primarily, my true passion lies within mystery of how human life begins and how this occurs.

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So, what have you been up to recently lab most recently as you’ve finished your degree?

Connor: During May till August of 2017, I was awarded a Genetics Society summer studentship to carry out some research. Working in the Hoppler group in Abedeen, my project looked at elucidating novel downstream targets of Gata4 in mouse heart development using stem cells. For my final year honours thesis, I kept on track with the idea of heart (one could say it makes you skip a beat) but I focussed more on investigating the roles of Gata5 and unique downstream targets involved in the mammalian epicardium. This was a fantastic project and a PhD studentship is being constructed using this data for the near future.

The most recent time I spent in the lab was wrapping up the Gata5 and epicardium research. I was doing some qPCR to generate expression profiles. This research takes advantage of using Embryonic Bodies (small cell aggregates that mimic the developing embryo) to study heart formation. EBs can be collected at different days to measure gene expression. In the Hoppler group, we have mouse embryonic stem cells that carry a Tet-On system that can overexpress Gata5 in the presence of Doxycycline. This offers a great tool to study downstream targets of your gene of interest. In my case, I wanted to see how overexpression of Gata5 would affect the expression of Tcf21, Wt1 and Tbx18. To compliment this, I successfully generated a CRISPR-Cas9 Gata5 knockout cell line for the first time. Using these cells, I repeated the experiments in a similar way to the overexpression experiments and cross-analysed the data against controls. The results were interesting to say the least.

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I think it might be obvious why you are about to start your PhD, but what made you want to pursue a PhD?

Connor: Purely passion, curiosity and love of molecular embryology. I just love the field so much. Also, my ultimate life goal is to have my own research group looking at early human embryogenesis. To get there, I need a PhD and the subsequent research from postdocs and such. So, to get there, a PhD is a given really.

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Connor with his PhD supervisor

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What will your PhD project be about?

Connor: We are trying to understand and derive a small population of stem cells that exist in the embryo to which we know very little about and offers new avenues to understand more about the primate embryo with far reaching implications in stem cell and cancer biology.

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What is it about your research that excites you the most?

Connor: Well, being a passionate molecular embryologist and developmental biologist, this project is like crack for me! I think the most exciting aspects of this research is concept that its like an abyss. We know literally nothing about the hypoblast in primates. We donโ€™t know anything about the transcriptional circuitry, how the cells are specified and how they talk to each other (I call this inaudible cellular conversation). Nothing at all. THIS IS WHAT REALLY EXCITES ME. Science is all about advancing our knowledge in the fields. Because no one has looked at this before, Iโ€™ll be the first person to get my hands dirty but more so, no one can really say my hypotheses are crazy (which is the best part). I am also looking forward to building up this area of research because Iโ€™ll be considered one of the few โ€œexpertsโ€ on it which is super exciting.

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Is there anything that concerns you about doing a PhD?

Connor: Not particularly. The main concern I have is a personal one is I get too overly-enthusiastic and I get ahead of myself. When I get too excited, some smaller details may be missed. Apart from that, I am far more excited to get stuck in really than to be scared. I also have a tendency of putting my fingers into too many pies instead of focusing on one thing at a time. Like I said, Iโ€™m overly enthusiastic sometimes.

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What’s the most valuable thing you have learnt on your science journey so far?

Connor: The biggest thing Iโ€™ve learned so far is that science truly is remarkably complicated. Iโ€™ve also learned that to be a good scientist, you must deal with failure repeatedly. I find it much easier to do experiments and not to expect a certain kind of result. For example, if I do an overexpression assay, I donโ€™t expect specific candidate genes to be expressed because nine times out of ten, they arenโ€™t, and youโ€™re left high and dry! Finally, I like to remain optimistic in any scenario. I can remember I had to do a qPCR experiment four times to detect the expression of a gene my supervisor didnโ€™t expect to be there. However, I proved the opposite side of that statement.

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Might be a bit early to ask but any plans for after your PhD?

Connor: A very good question to ask someone like me who is overly enthusiastic and very ambition as Iโ€™ve had this planned out for a long time. My overall goal is to run my own research group for human-primate molecular embryology, development and stem cell biology. It would be an amazing privilege to lecture and hold a personal chair in human molecular embryology and developmental biology. Human embryos fascinate me beyond belief and I get goose bumps sometimes from them! Thus, after my PhD, I would love to work in the group led by Dr Kathy Niakan at the Crick Institute. She works on human embryos and recently published a fantastic paper regarding the requirement of OCT4 (a very important transcription factor involved in pluripotency) in human embryogenesis. She was also the first group in the world to use CRISPR-Cas9 on human embryos in a regulated lab. I am hoping to collaborate with her next year regarding my hypoblast work in the primate. Here, I would like to do an extended postdoctoral position then apply for a fellowship to start my own group either at Oxford, Cambridge or a university in Canada.

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Is there anything else you are passionate about outside of science?

Connor: In my spare time, I like to read a lot. Mainly surrounding Egyptian archaeology and astronomy. I am also an avid writer. I have written 14 small chapters for a crime and mystery book. Once I reach 20, I said I would get it published. The running title now is; Case and Crime: The tall tales of Detective Oskar J. Worthington and Dr William B Dawson. The stories are a little bit like Sherlock Holmes, however, they are little more intense. I also enjoy being active and sporty. I enjoy the gym around five to six days a week. In 2017, I entered a menโ€™s sports model/physique competition, which involved getting tanned mahogany style. Safe to say, I wonโ€™t be doing that again in a hurry. That aside, I enjoy country hikes after having been award the gold Duke of Edinburgh scheme. ; I play five musical instruments too – guitar, double bass, cello, piano and percussion. Finally, in the summer, I enjoy SCUBA, snorkelling and free-diving whenever and wherever possible!

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And finally where in the world should we be travelling to next?

Connor: I would highly recommend a nice long trip to Canada. I spent a year here to study for university and I am currently back there visiting friends. The food is amazing! I always eat lots of it. The people are generally very friendly and helpful too! So, if you get the chance, head to Ontario or British Colombia, but not so much Quebec!

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Huge thank you to Connor for sharing an insight into his research and I wish you all the luck with your PhD journey. You will smash it though I am sure. If any of you are interested in learning more about Connor’s research or opportunities in the lab he is going or perhaps you want to follow his PhD journey then make sure to follow him on Instagram and ask any questions you may have. He will be more than happy to answer them ๐Ÿ™‚

Science love.

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