Diane Lees-Murdock (@StemCelPostgrad) is a lecturer in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Ulster. Her research aims to help facilitate the use of stem cells to treat diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s among others. Here, she tells us about how she felt in love with Biology, how she enjoys teaching and mentoring, and how she hopes Soapbox will help her meet other like-minded women in science. Diane will be speaking at our Soapbox Science Belfast event on the 20th of June.
SS: Diane, how did you get to your current position?
DLM: After applying to study law at university, I was horrified when I was accepted! I had been wrestling with a choice between a career in the legal profession and Biology throughout my sixth form days at school where I had a fabulous Biology teacher who taught us with enthusiasm and her passion for the subject was infectious. I felt that a law degree would lead to a defined and well-paid job whereas if I chose Biology, the path was more uncertain and I could not envisage what my future career would be. Thankfully, I decided to do Biology instead and I haven’t looked back.
I studied at Ulster and undertook a placement year in a research lab giving me my first taste of research. The thrill of making new discoveries really had me hooked and I couldn’t wait to get signed up for more! I was therefore delighted to be awarded a Distinction Award from Dept. of Education NI to carry out my PhD studies in a joint project between the Cancer & Ageing and Diabetes Research Groups at Ulster too. It was during this time that the newly emerging field of epigenetics started to catch my eye and I was offered a position as a Post-doc in the newly-established lab of Prof. Colum Walsh again at Ulster. This was the start of my career in Epigenetics. I stayed on here for a second Post-doc postion, both of which were funded by the BBSRC in special initiatives with an epigenetic slant. The BBSRC held a conference every year where postdocs funded in the same area presented and I think that these events have been key in the success of my career. I gained experience in disseminating my research to the top scientists in my field and established many contacts, and indeed friendships, as a result. My career path is slightly unusual in that I did not move to different institutions or countries, but I did make sure to take every opportunity I could to travel to other labs to learn new techniques and attend conferences.
I was offered a position as a Lecturer at Ulster in 2007 which I took up with much enthusiasm. I have really enjoyed the variety of opportunities this job offers me. I love being involved in research and still get a thrill when we uncover something new in the lab. It is also very satisfying to help students progress through their degree and PhD studies. I lecture to students taking Biomedical Sciences, Optometry and Biology undergraduate degrees.
I have developed, along with my colleagues at Ulster, and am currently leader of a fully online PgCert/Diploma course in Stem Cell Biology. I love the interaction with students from around the world. I am able to communicate with people from many different backgrounds, some are working in stem-cell related fields hoping to progress in their career, while others are trying to break into this arena, but we all share a common interest in this subject giving us a bond even though we are dispersed around the world.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
DLM: My Mum has always been a keen baker and when I was young she taught me with endless patience, as clouds of flour would waft around the kitchen, how to perfect many recipes from sponge cakes to pavlova. In many ways my brand of science is like baking but with different, more scientific ingredients, so I think that this is where my love of science began, in the kitchen with my Mum. I now bake with my own children, two boys aged 7 and 2, in the hope that they will make the connection with science someday too! My Dad fanned the flames of my scientific interest with his enjoyment of nature and medical documentaries which I was also subjected to!
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?
DLM: It is really amazing how all the cells in our bodies can be genetic copies of each other, twins if you like, but they all carry out such different functions and even look so unlike each other. Even the stem cells in our bodies have exactly the same genes as other cells which are not able to differentiate and replenish tissues. The differences between cells are due to an extra layer of information on top of the DNA code, a series of tags which signal to cell which genes should be switched off or kept active. It is my job to figure out how these tags are added and how they regulate our genes. We hope that this will help in efforts to use stem cells to treat diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s among others. My area of research is called epigenetics, and it is still a relatively young field with discoveries coming to light at a great pace. I still feel the buzz of excitement when we get new results in the lab, it is exhilarating to realise that we are the first people to make a discovery and make a small step towards helping people with these diseases.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
DLM: I had been following the growth of the Soapbox events as they spread around the UK and even reaching Dublin previously, so when it was announced that it would be coming to Belfast for the first time this year, about 1 hour away from me, I jumped at the chance to take part. I hope that I will be able to let the public, who fund our work, know about the science we do and I hope to meet other like-minded women in science.
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? fear? thrill? anticipation?
DLM: Can’t I choose all four?? OK, I’ll go for excitement!
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
DLM: Go for it! I can’t say that there won’t be challenges on your journey throughout your PhD and beyond in academia, but the marvellous benefits of being a woman in science far outweigh these. You will have an exhilarating career that many women in previous generations could only dream of. A career in science offers flexibility in terms of what you choose to research and how you spend your time. You will have opportunities to travel the world and meet scientists, both men and women, who are changing the world along with you.