By Dr Jessica Davies
Jessica is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on understanding the genetic risk of multiple sclerosis. Come hear Jessica’s talk – “From DNA to disease: how single letter changes in our genetic code can change our risk of disease”- June the 18th, in Oxford!
Igniting my passion in biology: from school to university
I was truly inspired by my biology teacher at secondary school; I always loved to learn, and A level biology confirmed that I absolutely loved science. I still remember the lesson where I learnt about the inner machinery of a mammalian cell; I was so amazed by how intricate it was I literally couldn’t believe it. I felt so naïve having learnt in GCSE that cells looked pretty much like fried eggs: a blob with a rounder blob (the nucleus) in the middle of it. Oh how wrong I was…
I subsequently studied Biological Sciences (Bsc) at Warwick. I really enjoyed the practical work, and I was awarded a BBSRC grant to conduct a 6 week summer research project. This gave me first-hand experience in planning and executing my own experiments, and the opportunity confirmed that I wanted to do a PhD. I had difficulty deciding exactly what area to go into as I loved so many aspects of my degree! I was most passionate about molecular biology and neurosciences, so I started investigating different laboratories, and seeing what was available.
Focusing on DNA and disease: from PhD to postdoc
I obtained a PhD position in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Cambridge, investigating the genetics of multiple sclerosis. I absolutely loved it; I found my whole time in Cambridge incredibly enriching.
Towards the end of my PhD I became increasingly interested in gene regulation – how different genes are “turned on” or “turned off”, i.e. read. Our DNA is a book of 3 billion letters which contains sequences (like sentences in a book) that code for genes; but the majority of the letters (around 98 %) are actually in between the genes. Initially people thought that these letters had no use, but accumulating research is showing us that they are fundamental and work in intricate ways to control when and where our genes are “read”. These incredibly complex control networks can be disrupted in disease, but they also naturally vary between each and every one of us and contribute to what makes us unique.
I took the opportunity prior to commencing a postdoctoral position to gain some experience in a different laboratory and do something that I wouldn’t be able to do as a postdoctoral researcher. I worked for 9 months as a research assistant in the Genomics Core facility at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. During this time I learnt what it was like to work in a service environment as opposed to a research environment – I worked on samples (miniscule quantities of DNA in tiny little tubes!) from other researchers. I used technology called next generation sequencing, which has become fundamental in nearly all research laboratories. This technology reads and reports the DNA present in these samples and so could be used to identify, for example, differences in DNA sequences from cancer patients and healthy individuals.
During this time I applied for postdoctoral positions and investigated many potential laboratories whose research I was interested in. I obtained a position in at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford, in Professor Fugger’s group, to work on gene regulation in multiple sclerosis – the perfect position for me! This commenced at the start of 2016, and here I am!
Spreading the wonders of science
I became increasingly aware of the “non-scientists’” attitude towards science as I progressed through my PhD: how some people thought that they do not and could never understand it; the presence of a so-called “divide” between the public and scientists. I was (and still am!) passionate about showing people how amazing science is and how it is accessible to everyone. I think that one of the problems is that, just like anyone who becomes immersed in a very specific field of work, there is a lot of jargon which we become overfamiliar with and sometimes forget that not everyone understands it! It is not about making science simple, just understandable, which can be done with a bit of thought and practice!
I am also acutely aware of the significant drop off in women scientists the further up the career ladder, so I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity with soapbox science, not just to engage with the public, but also to inspire women to follow their passions.
I am also passionate about the idea of “good science”. I think that a problem with the current scientific culture is that scientists are too often judged as “good” by how many articles they have published, how quick they publish, and in which journals. Academic rigour and research reproducibility should be more important.
Advice to women considering a career in academic research
I have developed significantly, both in what I have learnt and as a female scientist, since I began my career in science. A career in academia is difficult – expect a lot of rejection; be strong and accept criticism as a means to help you progress; you have to be passionate and determined. As a woman I find that it can be harder to be taken seriously and be listened to – make sure you stand your ground and try not to be intimidated, you have as much right as anyone else to your own ideas and opinions.