Dr Caroline Morris is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol. Her area of study is synthetic biology, specifically in designing peptides, small proteins with many exciting potential applications. Here, Caroline answers some questions about how and why she became a scientist, and dispenses some useful advice. You can hear her give her talk “Designing vaccine delivery systems using synthetic biology” at the Bristol Broadmead Podium on the 16th July 2016, 12pm-3pm.
SS: Caroline, how did you get to your current position?
CM: The science subjects were always my favourite at school, and so I chose to study chemistry, biology and physics at A level. I got my undergraduate degree from Cardiff University, on a BSc Biochemistry course that included a year’s work experience. This time was invaluable experience for me and I decided that academic research was definitely something I wanted to pursue. I then spent four years at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, London studying for a PhD on a UCL program. My work focused on peptide synthesis and investigating specific interactions between them, and I am currently developing skills gained during this time in my first postdoctoral position. I’m now a year and a half into a post at the University of Bristol in the lab of Professor Dek Woolfson, as part of the BrisSynBio Synthetic Biology Research Centre.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
CM: I will always remember an inspiring conversation with my secondary school chemistry teacher about the choice of GCSE subjects. He gave me real confidence in my ability, and from that point on anything science-related was my main interest. I also had a wonderful teacher for A level biology and have fond memories of stimulating career-oriented conversations with her after class.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
CM: I am very fortunate to be working in an interdisciplinary collaboration with immunologists and virologists. There is always something new and interesting to read about, and it’s really exciting for your work to be used for something beyond your immediate research area. The fundamental science and design is fascinating, but there’s something really cool about seeing your work as part of the bigger picture.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
CM: Soapbox Science seems like a wonderful platform to help increase visibility of women in science. I hope it will be a fun afternoon engaging with, and hopefully inspiring, young people interested in all things scientific. With any luck we can dispel a few scientist stereotypes and simultaneously get people excited about some awesome science!
SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?
SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
CM: Some PhD and postdoc positions may be less fruitful than others and result in fewer or even no publications, which is not necessarily representative of the talent of the individual. That’s just science, things don’t always go the way you might have planned or expected! Publishing negative results more often would ultimately help the progression of research, by preventing others from having to repeat things that don’t work. Additionally, having a little less pressure on your publication record might not be such a bad thing. This would be beneficial for people taking maternity/paternity leave, for example, where an absence from the lab may naturally result in fewer publications.
SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?
CM: It might sound like a cliché, but find something you enjoy. Academia requires you to be hard-working and self-driven, and the easiest way to achieve this is if you’re happy and enthusiastic about your research. This will come across to others, whether in academia or the general public, and give you the greatest chance of success in your academic career.
Related to this I’d add that a career in academia doesn’t necessarily mean a lack of social life, and that it’s important to maintain a healthy work/life balance. In the right environment your day-to-day science can be productive AND fun. Though academia can bring long hours, you don’t have to work every evening and weekend if you are focused, disciplined and engaged during core hours.